I am not by nature a fantasy reader. I am not intrigued by magic or wowed fantastic creatures; I find pseudo-medieval settings or language off putting; and, the sexism in anything written before about 1985 is awkward. So I picked up Jack Vance with low expectations, knowing that he had earned his Grand Master status with the SFWA in 1997 at the age of 81, but that much of his writing, and in particular the group of writings I had chosen, were firmly placed in the realm of fantasy rather than SF. (Full disclosure: I have read only the first two of the four books in this collection.)
That said, I realized just a few pages into the first story of The Dying Earth that here was a real storyteller. On an earth where its few inhabitants realize that their sun is dying and where magic has replaced science as the highest pursuit of mankind, Vance zips his characters from continent to continent, delights in their peccadilloes and blunders, and gleefully concocts for them personalities riddled with the baser range of human qualities. Most of them I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw them, but with the right bit of runic magic I could throw them into another universe or a million years back in time.
Magic, as a narrative device, is usually an exercise in adolescent wish-fulfillment. Why else do ten-year-old boys ask for magic kits for their birthdays? There is plenty of that here, along with that other adolescent standby -- beautiful women in diaphanous gowns; but, Vance has a sardonic approach to the dark arts. Unlike science, magic is a closed system. Its mysteries are available only to the few and must be jealously guarded. The desire to attain greater magic makes fools of most of his characters and can cost them their lives.
The Eyes of the Overworld is a series of stories that link together and form an entertaining picaresque novel. Our hero, Cugel, is one of Vance's finest creations. He is known as Cugel the Clever, although that epithet is certainly self-assigned. Cugel is wily and gets away with most everything he tries, but it is rare that cleverness is the quality that saves his days. Dumb luck is often on his side and his casual disregard for the lives of others comes in handy. Vance's stories are among the most lightheartedly bloodthirsty I have ever read. Individuals or entire villages can be struck down thanks to Cugel's machinations, and the mass deaths are all part of a day's work. His outrageous actions serve an egotism crystalline in its purity. In one scene, Cugel trades a princess, whose kingdom he has just ruined, to bandits. In exchange he receives directions, probably not trustworthy, to his next destination.
One piece of magic in Vance's own possession must be a spell that spontaneously generates an endless supply of silly names for people, places, food items, and just about everything else in his far future world. I quickly tire of unpronounceable names, but Vance has a real flair for it. He reels them off in lists that it would take me days to dream up, and mine would never be as fun as Vance's. Monty Python may have learned a thing or two from this particular Grand Master.
On Worlds Without End I review Trullion by Jack Vance.