1) Tales of the Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
This is an omnibus edition of four of Jack Vance’s books, The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous, all put together as a volume in the Fantasy Masterworks series. Grand, original, rich fantasy material, all set at the end of time, on an earth where it is anticipated that the sun may go out any day. The first book is a set of linked short stories; the second tells the story of Cugel’s long return from exile; the third (which I’d already read) tells the story of his repeating the journey; and the fourth is about a community of magicians feuding with each other.
I found the fourth book a bit tiresome; the characters had little to recommend them and seemed possessed of immense powers but with quite arbitrary limitations. But the other three were great. The descriptions are detailed and baroque, and the humour steeped in irony. Cugel in particular is just annoying enough that we cheer when he meets a setback but we also want him to succeed. One great exchange (at least, I laughed)is when he is bidding farewell to three sisters:
With an effort Cugel maintained his aplomb. “At night I was entertained by games and antics, and here at least I have no complaint.”
Salasser said, “The reverse is not true. Your fumbling and groping with cold hands has bored us all.”
Tabazinth said, “I am not naturally unkind but the truth must be told. Your natural characteristics are really inadequate and, also, your habit of whistling between your teeth should be corrected.”
Meadhre began to giggle. “Cugel is innocently proud of his innovations, but I have heard small children exchanging theories of more compelling interest.”
It’s also interesting at long long last to read a book that was one of the sources for Dungeons and Dragons. The Prismatic Spray spell is a direct lift from Vance, and Numa’s Undetectable Aura (in D&D) is obviously a close relative of Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth (in The Dying Earth).
(I notice it’s been two weeks since I last posted a book review – normally I get to read a lot while I am travelling, but my last two trips, to the royal wedding and to Strasbourg, were both by car with me doing most of the driving. Also this is a very long book, 740 pages!)