Fantasy fans owe a huge debt to the late, great Jack Vance. The celebrated author and adventurer, who died in 2013, influenced generations of writers, from Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe to George R.R. Martin and pioneered the fantasy genre with his “Dying Earth” stories.
Those stories were originally published in four fix-up novels over nearly 35 years — 1950’s The Dying Earth, 1965’s The Eyes of the Overworld, 1983’s Cugel’s Saga and 1984’s Rhialto the Marvellous —chronicled the adventures of a rogue’s gallery of thieves and wizards in the distant future, when the sun is dimming nearly to the point of darkness. This bleak setting, facing the inevitable and impending end of Earth, informs a fatality on society, as well as the antiheroes Vance chronicles.
The Dying Earth is the most scattershot of the collection. Comprising a handful of short stories with only tenuous connections, it feels the least like a self-contained narrative. But there are glorious moments within, like the stories of T’Sain and T’Sais, cloned “sisters” who are equally beautiful yet with radically different personalities. While T’Sain can see beauty and love in all things, T’Sais only knows hate.
The picaresque Eyes of the Overworld introduces the raconteur Cugel. A self-styled genius who is little more than a conniving thief, Cugel is an infectiously entertaining character and an archetype for fantasy rogues to follow. Caught while attempting to steal from the home of Iucounu, a powerful magician, Cugel is sent to the end of the Earth to retrieve the Eyes of the Overworld, lenses that allow the wearer to see a beautiful alternate dimension.
He easily recovers the Eyes, but then struggles to return, getting caught in scheme after scheme, finding fortune and quickly losing it, causing havoc wherever he journeys. Upon returning to the mage, he seeks his revenge, only to misspeak a spell and find himself transported back to the end of the Earth again.
Cugel’s Saga follows his second attempt at revenge on Iucounu. This time Cugel stumbles upon a rare magical scale which Iucounu covets and attempts to return it. Again and again he is brought low by his own cleverness, tricked into becoming indentured to a cruel magician or serving as a ‘wormager’ on a ship. Each time he somehow survives, however, and eventually succeeds in his revenge.
Rhialto the Marvellous is another fix-up, focusing on a council of magicians and their petty backstabbing and greed. In the story “The Murthe”, Rhialto battles a time-travelling witch who seeks to turn all of the magicians into women. Rhialto himself ends up travelling back in time to find a copy of the magician’s laws that have been hidden in the past in “Fader’s Waft”. And in the finale, he leads the magicians on an interstellar journey to the end of the universe, seeking the mystical IOUN stones.
These books are justifiable classics and Vance is a master of language, weaving obscure synonyms with his own invented words, but the Tales of the Dying Earth are also a product of their time. While the stories are entertaining, there are strong sexist overtones throughout, especially in the aforementioned “The Murthe”. And the fix-up nature of the novels makes the flow a little awkward sometimes. Action doesn’t always follow a linear movement, rather it jumps from scene to scene.
But students of the genre and lovers of fun, quirky anti-heroes will find plenty of joy in the adventures of Cugel and Rhialto. And Dungeons and Dragons players will be familiar with many tropes from this collection — D&D creator Gary Gygax freely borrowed from these books when creating spells, magic items and even characters for the game.
Fans may also want to seek out George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’ Songs of the Dying Earth, an anthology released last year as a tribute to Vance. It includes Dying Earth stories from some of the finest authors in sci-fi and fantasy including Tad Williams, Robert Silverberg and Dan Simmons.