Jack Vance book reviews – series

The Dying Earth Series

The Dying Earth 1950
The one that started it all for Vance. Veritably ignored during its initial release, it has grown to be a popularly admired work. Not a novel as such, but six connected novellas. Each portrays some momentous event in the lives of folk in many years hence, all in a beautifully pictured world of dying fall. The air is redolent with magic, mourning for things lost and a fretful hope for the unsure future. Elusive in places (as well as illusive) this book has managed to capture a feel. Not too many have done that. 9 out of 10.
The Eyes of the Overworld 1966
This is the second of the four interrelated but not sequential books set in the Earth’s far distant future. This one was serialised to a degree in the American magazine The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or F&SF to its friends. Vance expanded on the separate chapters, added new ones and created a whimsical masterpiece. Magic, chicanery, roguishness and some Machiavellian elements all add up to a brilliant absorbing read. The protagonist, Cugel, would leave Leiber’s Gray Mouser in his wake for sheer cunning, rambunctiousness and utter amorality. A bravura piece of comical and magical inventiveness. 9½ out of 10.
Cugel’s Saga 1983
If we ignore Michael Shea’s A Quest for Simbilis then this book is a direct sequel to the above one. For a disappointing alternative sequel, read the Shea effort. In actuality they both make an interesting juxtaposition. I greatly prefer Vance’s own work which keeps Cugel as the protagonist. Logical? Shea obviously forgot who featured in Eyes of the Overworld and made Cugel an attendant character. In Cugel’s Saga we pick up at the end of its prequel. Cugel ventures the other direction this time and has an equivalent set of picaresque and spicy adventures…​with a quick and slapdash conclusion. It’s twice the size of its predecessor but not quite at the same level of manic inventiveness. 9 out of 10.
Rhialto the Marvellous 1985
Sadly, the least of these four. A book composed of three interrelated novellas featuring the eponymous character. Set in the same milieu, this book suffers a negative “Vancism”; niggardliness. Every character in this book wouldn’t save a cat from drowning unless there was some financial gain involved and then only after protracted haggling. It is an annoying tone which pervades a lot of his work unfortunately. Anyone who’s read this would know what I mean if they didn’t want Um Foad as a neighbour. 6 out of 10.

The Demon Princes Series

Star King 1963
Serialised in Galaxy magazine in 1963, this book made its novel début the year later with minor textual differences. The eponymous bad guy was renamed from Grendel the Monster to Attel Malagate (the Woe). Each of these five books is set in the “Oikumene” a part of the Gaean Reach of worlds in an indeterminate time hence. Kirth Gersen is the protagonist whose family had been obliterated by the five Demon Princes in his childhood. Each book is a personal account of his revenge against one of them. This one is him versus Malagate…​reasonably standard space opera fare with the usual Vance dash and colour included. 7 out of 10.
The Killing Machine 1967
Gersen versus Kokor Hekkus, a being of rage and megalomania. Gersen travels to a lost world of fairy princesses and robust tribesmen (the Tadusko-Oi!), frees a beautiful woman and kills Hekkus. Vance shows his passion for atavism and anachronism amid technology here…​swords among spaceships. Better than the first one. 7½ out of 10.
The Palace of Love 1968
Gersen versus Viole Falushe. Falushe is a taunted schoolboy who grows up to be a megalomaniac sybarite building a personality cult about himself. Features a mad poet, several replicas of an old school flame and modern day druids. Notable for some of Navarth’s (the poet) poetry. 8 out of 10.
The Face 1980
Gersen versus Lens Larque. The best of the five by some way. Features some nifty concepts, one of which I feel should be a worldwide sport; hadaul! At least a Usenet group…​rec.sport.hadaul maybe? Gersen spends most of his time on the planet Dar Sai, a world Vance obviously spent some time creating. It is well thought out and the people within are equally well portrayed. It is a touch Arrakis-ish, yet it is truly Vance’s. This book is more philosophical and moral-questioning than the others and as such is a stronger effort for it. Read it just to see why the title is as such. 9 out of 10
The Book of Dreams 1983
Gersen versus Howard Alan Treesong. Traveloguish like the others, this final effort is somewhat subdued in feel. The enemy is a twisted schoolboy grown up to be the usual space-faring bigwig. Notable for the illustrative wordplay on the scenes on planet Boniface; lightning, thunder and doom…​the enemy has a bizarre personality disorder and Gersen obtains Treesong’s eponymous journal from his youth, which goes to explain this trait. An unsatisfactory climax ruins this closing effort. 7½ out of 10.

The Planet of Adventure Series

City of the Chasch 1968
The original book version has an extra opening chapter which doesn’t exist in the Grafton omnibus version of all four. It is a minor point however. Adam Reith is a spaceman whose ship is shot down on the world Tschai. His task for this entire series sees him trying to rebuild a ship so he can leave. A brilliant effort all round, with wonderful world-building and culture-creation. A tour-de-force as far as these are concerned. Reading this will make you ask twice next time you enquire somebody’s name! 9 out of 10.
Servants of the Wankh 1968
An unfortunate name for a race of aliens and Vance has since renamed them the Wannek. The plot is definitely more sinister and entwined in this instalment. Some real intrigue occurs here and some bitter disappointment. A touch of melancholia is included and it pervades most of the first half of the book. Suffers the disease I alluded to on my essay page; that of his women all looking demurely over their shoulders. More brilliance nonetheless. 9 out of 10
The Dirdir 1969
Possibly the best of the four. The eponymous alien race is the best depicted with Vance not sparing too many aspects of their society, aided by Reith’s boon companion Anacho whose people lived in a weird symbiosis with them. Hair-raising at times as well as containing some extraordinary adventuring. Also contains one of Vance’s best defined villains, Aila Woudiver. Hampered by the “Vancism” of niggardliness to a certain degree. 9½ out of 10.
The Pnume 1970
Vance takes a left-hand turn with the closing book of this series. He takes out Reith’s companions, Traz and Anacho, for this one as he descends underground to learn the wiles of Tschai’s indigenes, the Pnume. Explores the culture of this race quite well, although most of the story is cat-and-mouse. Makes a friend by name of Zap 210 and he finally takes all of his friends and departs Tschai in a hurriedly written conclusion. 8½ out of 10.

The Durdane Series

The Anome 1971
Also known as The Faceless Man in some editions. Gastel Etzwane is a young man growing up in a bizarre commune in a land equally odd. It is ruled by the Faceless Man, a man whose identity is unknown but has the power of life and death over all citizens. Etzwane, via one adventure to the other, eventually becomes this fellow. Competently written, but lacks a certain something. 7 out of 10
The Brave Free Men 1972
Etzwane, the Anome, forms a band to liberate his nation on the planet Durdane, of the rogushkoi. They are genetically engineered abominations of men created by the asutra, and Etzwane realises there are greater powers at hand. Like its predecessor, well written, but ultimately short of real reading pleasure.  Seriously, it is a good book by anyone’s standards, but by Vance’s it is par for the course. 7 out of 10.
The Asutra 1973
The conclusion of the Durdane trilogy has Etzwane taken by the asutra, enslaving aliens and forced to work and behave in their manner. Naturally, he wins freedom and saves the day for Durdane…​where now for the future? Adequate final book for the series, but like the others, it doesn’t possess all the traits which makes Vance such a wondrous author. 7 out of 10
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