OR: Tales of the Dying Earth

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #25:-


Jack Vance

Millennium pb, 743pp, £7.99

The fourth volume in Millennium’s Fantasy Masterworks series parcels together four books with a unique common setting, tales from the very end of time itself. The Sun is but a shadow of its former self and the Earth is close to death, its cities in ruins, its population reduced to a few thousand strange beings, while what little remains of science is mistaken for magic. This exotic vision of the far future has permeated much of genre fiction, and its influence can most obviously be seen in works such as Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time trilogy and Wolfe’s epic Book of The New Sun (also being reissued by Millennium).

The Dying Earth from 1950 and Vance’s first published book, presents this remarkable creation by means of six interconnected short stories, shot through with magic and wonder. 1960’s The Eyes of the Overworld introduces the trickster Cugel, despatched from a distant realm in search of the eye of an Overworld demon at the whim of Iucounu the Laughing Magician, the body of the text consisting of Cugel’s misadventures in his attempt to return home with his prize. Structurally Cugel’s Saga from 1983 is virtually a reprise of the previous book, but with our hero travelling in a different direction and undergoing different trials and tribulations. Cugel’s character softens somewhat also, the far from likeable rogue of the first novel losing some of his rough edges and becoming altogether more appealing. Finally there’s 1984’s Rhialto the Marvellous, consisting of three gloriously labyrinthine novellas detailing the affairs of an association of magicians, in which the deliciously foppish Rhialto plays a major role.

Vance’s reputation rests chiefly on his skill at world building and in that regard The Dying Earth is perhaps his finest achievement. Each of the individual stories is an intricately plotted gem, and if the novels have a flaw it is that they too have an episodic quality to them, so that they seem like linked stories rather than an organic whole, but such is the beauty of Vance’s prose and the breadth of his invention, these considerations can easily be overlooked. Elegant and mannered fantasies, infused with irony and wry humour, these are stories that surprise and delight the reader at every turn of the page.

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