Jack Vance individual novel reviews


Blog What I'm writing The status quo

Contains spoilers

The Slaves of the Klau 1958
Roy Barch and his elitist female companion, Komeitk Lelianr, are captured by the eponyms and transported to the far world of Magarak. They escape from slavery and plan their ultimate emancipation back to Earth. Routinely plotted, but full of Vance's trademark imagery and culture. 6 out of 10.
Emphyrio 1969
Ghyl Tarvoke lives in another of Vance's bizarre welfare states ruled by the cloistered and weak Lords of Halma. Jaded and annoyed with his life in this ostensible utopia he seeks out the truth behind the legends of Emphyrio, a hero of many centuries past. Picaresque and travelogueish like others. In the same broad "Gaean Reach" milieu as some other works. 6 out of 10.
Big Planet 1952
Similar to the later Durdane trilogy in that it features a "low-density world", and like that series is full of weird and wonderful transportation methods. The plot isn't so strange; an agent of Earth investigates a megalomaniac who wants Big Planet for himself. 6½ out of 10.
Showboat World 1975
Two competing captains of opera boats attempt to thwart and subvert each other en route to the Grand Festival. Set on Big Planet, but not a sequel. It is definitely picturesque and buoyant, but sadly lacking in substance. This book is what some people may describe as "second order Vance" 5 out of 10.
Languages of Pao 1958
Beran of the world Breakness attempts to reclaim the world of his birthright Pao by ingenious creation and manipulation of semiotics and linguistics. The villain Palafox is thereby defeated. An amazing book if only for the novel concepts contained within, but it is plotted with some complexity. Characterisations are a bit flat, though. 7 out of 10.
The Dragon Masters 1962
Winner of a Hugo Award, this slim little novella deals with a favourite subject of Vance's; descendants of marooned or crash-landed spacefarers. Here they have reverted back to mediaevalism with naked Sacerdotes, warring clans, sinister aliens and the dragons of the title. Not dragons as in breathing fire Smaug-type manifestations, but indigenous large, ridable lizards. It's interesting reading for sure. 7 out of 10.
The Blue World 1966
Originally published as a short in Fantastic it has to be said that only fantastic adequately sums up the setting of this novel. Another one of Vance's descendants of shipwrecks books, here we have an ocean world, no land in sight, and the populace living on giant lily-pads, and they communicate by hoodwinking each other! It has to read to be believed, especially the climax. Vance's imagination at its infinite best! Would you say hello to a "Sklar Hast"? 9 out of 10.
The Five Gold Bands 1950
Vance's second published book and it is a far cry from his first, The Dying Earth. Standard cat and mouse space opera with a tawdry pseudo-Irishman as protagonist. The title refers to the secrets of space-drive denied Earth. Readable. Thanks to Neil Taylor in Canada for selling it to me, nonetheless. 5 out of 10.
The Gray Prince 1974
More sail-propelled land vehicles and more footnotes, say the cynics. It is a fair effort nonetheless, quite intriguing in its politics and discussion of indigenous peoples and their rights. Relatively engaging in its own way. According to Michael Reynolds it is "inspired directly and specifically by the events in Rhodesia in the 1970s; weakened by having to fit in this framework". 6 out of 10.
Son of the Tree 1951
The tree in question is a giant specimen residing on the world Kyril. Joe Smith has to contend with the machinations of various and disparate societies all in search of the Earthman who run off with his girl. Second rank. 5½ out of 10.
The Houses of Iszm 1964
First published in magazine format a decade earlier, this one of Vance's more intriguing efforts. The houses are in fact, plants, and the world Iszm holds a crucial monopoly over their growth and trade. Ingenious to say the least. 7 out of 10.
To Live Forever 1956
While it is hailed as a masterpiece by many Vance fans, I can't truly agree. Another welfare state, coupled with an odd caste system surrounds one man's redemption from former sins. It is readable (what Vance book isn't?) and it holds your attention to a fair degree. 6½ out of 10.
Maske: Thaery 1976
More Vancian exoticism among vibrant societies and strange trees. Footnoted and glossaried like no other book he has written as well. The book concerns young Jubal Droad and his employment as a mercantile spy. Very much a colourful travelogue and a mild joy to read. 7 out of 10.
The Last Castle 1966
1967 Nebula Award winner for a short novel. I've included it under the books section as it has been published in that form singly. A nice effort on a baroque world full of insectoid women, giant birds and masques. The castle of the title holds out against a Mek invasion. 7 out of 10.
Night Lamp 1996
The edition I have (thanks to Jerry Hewett) is an American hardcover and it has a beautiful jacket. Thematically, the book is a "Gaean Reach" novel and it is set in the same time as his Cadwal books. It lacks the waspish niggardliness of those books and it starts off well. A standard plot of a fostered boy trying to find his origins turns into a confused tale in the last third. Disappointing in the last with characters who fail in their humanity tests and there is a number of unfortunate contrivances. Good, but could have been great. 7 out of 10.
Space Opera 1965
The title says it all; it is a space opera. Roger and his ditsy aunt go gallivanting through planets civilised and primitive with their operatic company, all in order to find a mysterious troupe. A light and enjoyable read and thanks again to Jerry Hewett for the book! 6½ out of 10.
Ports of Call 1998
This is an entirely plotless novel. It starts off much like Space Opera with a Myron Tany and his overbearing aunt and her voyage to visit a quack who has developed the Fountain of Youth. Soon, she strands him on a distant world and the book descends into a travelogue as Myron flits from one world to the next with his odd shipmates and their pilgrim passengers. Vance seems to have written this from beginning to end with no real thought of developing characters or plotline. His trademarks are there: rich language, everyone endowed with parsimony and a deep vocabulary, but for Vance, I feel the well has dried up here. A mildly pleasant read nonetheless. 6 out of 10.
Lurulu 2007
I'm not mean enough to give Vance's last published book one star though there are plenty of reasons and justifications why it should be awarded that. As with Ports of Call, this book dispenses with any kind of plot and character development and instead we get a colourful travelogue, with a cohort of nameless ciphers who go traipsing about one planet after the other and to be quite frank - not a whole lot happens, apart from an early episode of vengeance.
My pet peeve with Vance is to be found throughout this book - everything and everyone is a tight-fisted miser. It's all about the freaking money! One half of the universe is trying to rip off the other half who are trying to haggle their way out of paying retail. Seriously, Vance has been at this unwelcome shenanigan for much of his fantasy and SF writing career and it overstayed its welcome about thirty books ago.
Maybe I'm being captious. Vance was ninety or thereabouts when this book was released. Few people will live as long as he did let alone write legible fiction at that age. On its own merits, that aspect is to be commended. But also on its own aspects, this book is an ipso facto stinker. Not the most ideal way to bow out Jack, but the sheer fact you even got this book out is something I'll raise a glass to. Something non-alcoholic, anyway.
Vale Jack. 5 out of 10.
Vandals of the Void 1953
Ok, this isn't a bad book, but it's a product of its time and the genre. Typically juvenile SF - young, resourceful lad uses tenacity, bravery and logic to overcome the nefarious schemes of adults. Vance's imaginary future timeline at the beginning of the novel is off, and it's actually rather odd seeing Vance write one of these, and I wonder if an editor urged him into doing it (without researching the answer).
It's an average work of fiction, tightly plotted and written in a straightforward, serviceable manner that's largely unlike Vance's usual way - outside of his mystery and police procedural novels. But his fondness for baroque language threatens to break through the simple and flowing text, hinting at where he'd been with The Dying Earth, and where he would go with the remainder of his extensive SF and fantasy oeuvre.
Second order Vance for sure. 6 out of 10
©1996-2020 Peter Greenwell Text and images Creative Commons License