Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

(8.0/10) A significant work in the history of the fantasy genre.

Being asked to review Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth is akin to a music journalist been given a Beatles album and asked what do they think? Vance’s seminal work is regarded with reverence in many esteemed quarters. Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (one of the genre’s standards) draws heavily on it. The Godfather of modern gritty fantasy and HBO darling, George RR Martin, is a massive fan and put together an anthology in honour of the work.

So a wrong word and I’ll be checking under the car with mirrors on poles for the foreseeable future.

I came to this book circuitously via my quest to read the books that the original DnD game was based on. Gary Gygax adored Vance’s work and the magic system of the RPG draws heavily on the magicians within the Tales. At the time DnD was designed in the Seventies only two of the tetralogy were published, however, and this isn’t really a book of traditional fantasy in any sense.

The Tales were written over a thirty-year period, stemming from Vance’s early pulp days to his established career as a speculative fiction author. The setting of the books is the distant future of earth wherein the sun is finally giving up the ghost and setting forever. The far future world is fragmented and dystopian, with ruins and traces of the millennia of prior civilisations abound. There is a fascinating mix of magic and science, with the boundaries often blurring between the two.

The world is populated by bizarrity and this is one of the richest aspects of the book. Worm-pulled ships, floating boats, tiny orbiting magic stones, demons made of hooks inserted into livers, artificial beings, mystic seeing crystals, sub-humans, I could go on and on. Vance weaves this atypical fantasy together beautifully.

The four books are complimentary but only books two and three relate to the same character. The first book is essentially a collection of short stories, with some linkage and is probably the trickiest for a modern fantasy reader to gel with. The language is intricate and evocative, but at times distracting and the characterisation not as strong as in other areas of the series.

It is books two and three (Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga) where the book positively fizzes. Cugel is a superb character. Ironically self-dubbed ‘Cugel the Clever’ he is a rake, a cad, a thief, a coward and absolutely hilarious. Vance’s stylish dialogue suits the character perfectly and very soon the reader comes to love Cugel’s mis-adventures as his endless journeys act as tour guide to this fascinating world.

The final book, Rhialto the Marvellous, held my interest less than Cugel’s adventures. It comprises of three stories about Rhialto, all involving his fellow mages, and all involving some degree of time travelling. The style of prose is similar to Cugel’s Saga and, indeed, the two books were published closely together compared with the prior two.

I can see why the book is held with such respect. It is engaging, original, fascinating and superbly written. The first book may drag for some modern fantasy fans but all would enjoy the tribulations of Cugel. Its satirical edge would translate perfectly to the screen and who knows what the current surge in fantasy films may lead to.

In short, I’d recommend it to all fantasy fans - it’s a significant work in the history of our genre and should sit there with the greats like Tolkien, Poul Anderson, Le Guin, Moorcock, Leiber and McCaffrey.

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