IT ELUCIDATES Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull..Show More » as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet. The whole book reads like this. The first chapter I was wow, this is cool. It is almost like reading Shakespeare and understanding it. Makes you feel smart. The language is beautiful. Each chapter is a short story. Well, not so much a story as a fable. After you get done congratulating yourself on how smart you are, you will also realize that you know how the story is going to end, long before it does. Chapter after chapter you figure the plot out or lack of plot early on. The only surprises are the strange creatures and vegetation.
If all you care about is pretty language, you will love this. If you want to be surprised or have a wow factor involving the plot or story line, you will be disappointed.
I've heard mention of Jack Vance and his Dying Earth books more than a few times in fantasy circles, but this is the first work of his that I've read...Show More » Now, I can see why writers like George R.R. Martin and Dan Simmons consider him such an influence. Vance was quite imaginative and his droll, literate style of writing set him apart from many of his contemporaries.
This novel offers plenty that dedicated fantasy readers will find appealing. Its hero, Cugel, is a thorough scoundrel who manipulates others in a variety of clever, sometimes heartless ways, then puts on a shameless show of innocence that would do an embezzling politician proud, but he's constantly finding his gains reversed, so you end up feeling some sympathy for him. The world of the Dying Earth is a colorful, baroque place populated by decadent societies, strange religions, weird, dangerous creatures, magicians, and interesting magical devices. Such is Vance's inventiveness, that I lost count of the number of times I recognized an idea or an object I'd seen in some later book, by another author. There's even a virtual reality of sorts. Not everyone will like Vance's deliberately ornate style of writing, but for me, it was part of the charm. The excessively formal way the characters speak to each other while indulging in all sorts of low-minded acts can be quite funny.
That said, some of the book's initial charms wear a little thin after a while. There's little structure to the overall plot -- Cugel just roams from one misadventure to the next, repeating his scheming and self-aggrandizing claims in each new place. Only a few characters persist through the whole novel. And the stilted language does get a bit tiresome -- after a while, you just want a bartender to talk like a bartender, or a brutish monster to talk like a brutish monster.
But, never mind, there's plenty of wit and creativity here, and its not hard to see Vance's influence on the fantasy genre. Which is to say, on those authors who aspired to better writing than Ron E. Howard, but took their worlds a little less seriously than Tolkien did. Picture the sort of book that Terry Gilliam might have made into a movie, and you have Eyes of the Overworld.
Like its companion novel, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga is an odd duck of a book, nominally fantasy, but different from most popular fantasy in ..Show More »setting and style. It takes place on a far future Earth, where magic exists, the Sun is about to go out (or so the inhabitants of the world believe), and all manner of odd people, weird creatures, and bizarre societies occupy their own corners of the world. The writing is very tongue-in-cheek, mixing high-minded language and ideas with low humor, and the hero of the story, Cugel, is about as much of a vain, swindling, self-serving rogue as can be imagined. Exiled to a distant beach by a magician that he failed to rob in the previous book, Cugel wanders through a wholly different series of misadventures than before, each time coming up with some clever scheme to enrich himself, and almost (but not quite) pulling it off.
Despite the overt silliness of affairs, Vance is a smart, literate writer, and the clever exchanges between characters can be a hoot. Everyone on the Dying Earth, it seems, from cart boys to sorcerers, is an amateur philosopher, theologian, legal scholar, or student of etiquette, though many are as amusingly corrupt as Cugel himself. A number of the situations he gets implicated in have a parable-like meaning, if one reads between the lines. And the background world seems full of half-forgotten myth and history, which, while never explored in much depth, gives the story's details a tapestry-like richness. (Speaking of which, if you're interested in a more serious-minded cycle of books set on a similar end-of-Earth world, I highly recommend Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, which was directly inspired by Vance's Dying Earth, and takes it to a whole new level.)
As with Eyes of the Overworld, the episodic nature of the story and lack of recurring characters limits its depth, but if you're in the mood for something imaginatively *different*, either or both novels are worth a read. I thought this one had a bit more continuity than its predecessor and made Cugel a little more sympathetic, so I liked it more. I also enjoyed the audiobook narrator's inspired choice of making Cugel sound like Richard Nixon.