The Dying Earth

by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth

Rating: ★★★★

A series of related but distinct tales from an unusual, unpredictable future world. Vance has some rich descriptive language that meshes well with the story structures of the dark ages and the unique combination of seemingly textbook fantasy and post-apocalyptic science-fiction. Feels a lot more like reading myths and legends than reading typical fantasy or science-fiction.

There seems to be some progression within the stories, and I wonder if they were written in order. As the collection continues, it seems to find its feet a little, or perhaps lose them -- Chapters 1,2 and 3 cohere together as if Vance was considering a novel, but 4 breaks continuity (Liane dies twice) and departs from familiar characters. Chapter 5 was the real sit-up moment for me, a parable on expecting people to change with a lot of potential for reinterpretation. The final story is great, but does seem to leave the reader on a cliff -- thankfully I have the other volumes already.

The Eyes of the Overworld

Rating: ★★★★

A great roving fantasy adventure, with an amusingly amoral protagonist, a vast and unpredictable setting, and a hilarious tragic ending. Demons, time-travel, pilgrimage, virtual reality goggles and so, so much betrayal. Cugel is opportunistic, cunning, heartless, overconfident and silver-tongued, and he's great to read about.

Aside from the content, what struck me about this novel even more than Vance's previous was the richness of the vocabulary. To be sure, Vance uses some invented terms for creatures and constructs of the fantastical future, but these are mixed in alongside living archaisms and rare constructions so that you really feel like this is an old saga rather than intentional fiction.

I note that the next volume in the series also continues with Cugel, which in some ways is great, but I admit I don't know what direction it will take. Is Vance going to retrace Cugel's steps, showing us what was left in his wake the first time around? Or is Cugel going to strike out in another direction?

Cugel's Saga

Rating: ★★★★

Vamce seems to develop as a writer through this series. The Dying Earth was loosely-plotted snippets from his world, The Eyes of the Overworld was a fantasy adventure as you might relate to a familiar audience, a story with a series of short episodes from an almost improvisational world, with of course an amusing main character. Cugel's Saga shows even further refinement of this latter form, with distinct chapters that each have their own well-marked narrative arcs within the overall plot of Cugel returning to his tormentor.

A significant trait of these stories, beyond their better delineation, is the extent to which Cugel is pitted against more cunning adversaries. This was not entirely absent from Overworld, but in this saga every episode is at root a battle of wits, with Cugel constantly facing-off against unequal bargains, fraudsters, liars and cheats. He, more than ever, has to think fast, scheme, talk smoothly and often simply run away. This sort of conflict is shockingly rare in fantasy, so seeing it so well-presented, in Vance's delightful language, is quite a treat.

Cugel now seems ripe to retire, so I am intrigued as to how the last volume of this series will proceed.

Rhialto the Marvellous

Rating: ★★★

Still textually pyrotechnical, but something of a strange and underwhelming end to the Dying Earth series. Vance presents us with a new protagonist, a magician of some uncertain character, and embroils him in some odd adventures in many ways reminiscent of those from the first in the series. Worth the read as a closer to this part of Vance's writing.

The first of the stories covers conflict between an unremarkable posse of magicians and a witch returned from the stars to gender-bend herself a coterie out of what talent remains. She is however thwarted by the intercession of an ancient magician of some power, who it seems conquers her more through force of character than anything else. It's a bit odd, even by Vance's standards -- the tone is moralistic rather than puckish, but I can't fathom the point.

The second story covers an interesting legalistic debate about slander and due process. Our protagonist is heavily wronged by a supposed friend who seeks to frame him for various misdeeds, and the greed and groupthink of those assembled in outrage is leveraged in a terrifyingly plausible manner. The story then works its way through an arc toward justice, which diverts rather heavily through a time-travel plot complicated by extremely vexatious demonic servants intentionally throwing up roadblocks. I think Vance must've been dealing with a solicitor when he wrote this.

Finally, Vance chooses to rather sardonically undercut the entire premise of the Dying Earth series by having the magicians step casually into a flying palace capable of zooming to the edge of the universe in no great time, where they retrieve an acquaintance they have forgotten about for an aeon.