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Review of Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Tales of the Dying EarthIt’s quite surprising to realise that the first book included in this omnibus, The Dying Earth was originally published in 1950, and so predates the publication of The Lord of the Rings by four or five years. On the other, the stories in this volume also somewhat resemble Robert E Howard’s Conan tales – although Vance’s work is much more whimsical. The other books in this collection are, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).

The Dying Earth is a collection of short stories, the first few of which comprise chapters in the life of Mazirian the Magician (which was Vance’s original title for the book), although, frustratingly, his tale is left seemingly unfinished and the stories move on to other characters. The actual title of the volume refers to the setting of all the stories contained herein: the dying Earth is a place of fantasy – magic and monsters – although it’s set many aeons in the future. And, in fact, it’s not the Earth that is dying but the sun. The sun is an aged red and flickers and falters, while on Earth the people are only a fraction of what they used to be, both in terms of numbers and knowledge.

The Eyes of the Overworld is a novel focusing on the trials and truibulations of its protagonist, Cugel the Clever (which was Vance’s original title for the book). Cugel is a charming thief who is initially outwitted by Iucounu, the Laughing Magician. As a punishment for trying to rob his manse, this wizard sends Cugel to a distant land to retrieve a pair of lenses which give the wearer a view into the Overland, a realm where everything mundane is represented as a kind of plutocratic utopia. To make matters worse, Cugel must find his own way back.

Cugel uses his eponymous cleverness to hoodwink those he meets, those who stand in his way. Unfortunately for him, most of the people he meets are out to get one over on him and usually do so before he understands what’s going on. In the next book in the omnibus, Cugel’s Saga, Cugel is outsmarted once again by Iucounu and has to make his long, arduous journey once again. This time, Cugel seems even more anti-heroic, more willing to steal and take advantage of people, but still his journey is one long series of three steps forward and two step back.

The final book of Tales of the Dying Earth is Rhialto the Marvellous, a collection of three novellas about a vain magician. Although Rhialto is less dishonest than Cugel, he’s also quite similar to the earlier hero. He’s a member of a council of magicians, each of whom, while maintaining a veneer of civility towards his fellows, is full of his own self-importance. The stories in this book are grander in nature, telling of life and death conflicts and missions to distant worlds.

Tales of the Dying Earth is a wonderful compendium of fantasy stories, glittering with invention and humour – no wonder it’s number 4 in the Fantasy Masterworks series. And I’ve just learned from Wikipedia that Vance’s Dying Earth stories were the inspiration behind many aspects of Dungeons’ and Dragons.

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