Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance is the third of his Tales of the Dying Earth novels and continues the tale of Cugel from the previous book in the series, The Eyes of the Overworld. That book started with Cugel crossing Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who pays Cugel back by transporting him halfway across the world. Much to Cugel's chagrin, the end of that novel finds him right back where he started: halfway round the world in a strange place (that is perhaps a bit less so since Cugel has now been here before), though this our erstwhile hero is driven by a simple desire to return home and hopefully live out his days free of Iucounu's attentions.

Much of Cugel's Saga is about the fulfillment of that desire as Cugel signs on with one group of travelers after another. Each time, he attempts to do what Cugel the Clever does best: receive maximum payout for the smallest expenditure possible. This works admirably well sometimes. Other times, not so much. Always, Vance entertains us with his unique blend of strange characters, places, and situations. There are some absolute laugh out loud moments. Some times I wanted Cugel to get a sound smacking for his underhanded tactics. Other times, I was applauding him for his ability to out-fox the fox.

Cugel is without doubt a complex characters. Neither hero nor villain, you'll alternately like or hate him. He's neither the best of the best, nor the worst of the worst. Nor does he always come out on top. On the contrary, more often than not he's chased from town with his tail between his legs. But, like any good opportunist, he never gives up, and always sees new possibilities around every corner.

This is my first go-around with Vance's work, and I find myself eager to jump into the next and last novel in the series while also hoping Cugel makes an appearance. It's not clear from the title if he does. But if Cugel's Saga is the last we hear from Cugel, then I think Vance has concluded his tale with a fitting ending. Cugel finally learns his lesson (that, sometimes, you just have to be happy with what you have) and ultimately gets the last laugh when he has his final confrontation with his nemesis, Iucounu, the Laughing Magician.

The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance is part of the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus. Other novels in the compilation include The Dying Earth, Cugel's Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.

Jack Vance is one of the most prolific and popular science fiction and fantasy writers of our time. Many of his works are considered classics. The individual novels found in the Tales of the Dying Earth are certainly amongst them.

This second Tales novel is just that: unlike The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld is not a collection of short stories but a full-length novel. Here we have the character Cugel, who is likeable enough throughout most of the story, though I did find some of his qualities unsavory if not reprehensible at times. Still, he is our hero, so to speak, and it is his adventures we follow as the story progresses.

We begin with Cugel trying to sell some goods. Things are not going well, though, and at the urging of a fellow merchant, Cugel gets it in his head to go steal from Iucounu the Laughing Magician if only to acquire some magical items which he can then sell for profit. Cugel is caught in the act and, as penance, the Laughing Magician sends Cugel on a quest halfway round the world to bring back a favored item. Keeping Cugel in line is a parasite called Firx, who wraps himself about Cugel's liver and promises certain death if Cugel strays from his appointed task. Thus begins a series of odd and sometimes death-harrowing adventures as Cugel attempts to locate the wizard's prized item and return home, all the while keeping Firx content that he is in fact doing all he can to fulfill said quest.

Trouble arises when Cugel sees an opportunity for personal gain, which is at almost every turn, for Cugel is concerned with himself above all other things. He steals, he cheats, he lies, he even rapes a woman at one point in the story (though, to be fair, they are married and she does agree, but only after Cugel's extreme urging). Still, Cugel is likeable if only because nothing ever seems to go his way. He's the quintessential down-on-his-luck character who, after being beaten down so many times, we just want to see succeed even just once.

The Eyes of the Overworld is, of course, set in Vance's Dying Earth world, so far in our future that the Sun is nearing the end of its life and technology is so advanced (and its operation forgotten, in most cases) that it is more magic than science. Those who do know its operation are few and far between, and are actually called sorcerers and wizards rather than technologists, engineers, or scientists.

Vance's writing style is from another era; the book was originally published in 1966. The matter-of-fact narration is easy to follow, though, and the adventures Cugel finds himself on are engaging. The Eyes of the Overworld is a short novel, standing in at about 150 pages, and overall I found it a quick read. If I rated the books I review, I'd give it 3 stars out of 5.

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance is the first part of the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus that also includes The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.

Jack Vance is one of the most prolific and popular science fiction and fantasy writers of our time. Many of his works are considered classics. The individual novels found in the Tales of the Dying Earth are certainly amongst them. I found it of particular interest that Vance, like myself, spent part of his childhood in the areas of San Francisco and Sacramento:

Vance's early childhood was spent in San Francisco. With the early separation of his parents, Vance's mother moved young Vance and his siblings to Vance's maternal grandfather's California ranch near Oakley in the delta of the Sacramento River. This early setting formed Vance's love of the outdoors, and allowed him time to indulge his passion as an avid reader. With the death of his grandfather, the Vance's family fortune nosedived, and Vance was forced to leave junior college and work to support himself, assisting his mother when able. Vance plied many trades for short stretches: a bell-hop (a "miserable year"), in a cannery, and on a gold dredge,[3] before entering the University of California, Berkeley where, over a six-year period, he studied mining engineering, physics, journalism and English. Vance wrote one of his first science fiction stories for an English class assignment; his professor's reaction was “We also have a piece of science fiction” in a scornful tone, Vance’s first negative review.[4] He worked for a while as an electrician in the naval shipyards at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- for "56 cents an hour". After working on a degaussing crew for a period, he left about a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.[3]

The Dying Earth was originally published in 1950. In length, it is more novella than novel, coming in at 130 pages (figure 32,500 words; 250 words/page * 130 pages), and is, in fact, a collection of short stories. The stories share a common world: a future so far advanced that technology has become more akin to magic, even to the point where the few who still understand how the technology works are called sorcerers. Going into this compilation, I thought I was going to be reading science fiction. It was with some surprise, therefore, that I found the stories more fantasy than science fiction despite the presence of very advanced technology. In fact, in this first segment of Tales, the only technology that is recognizable as such is a sort of jet car in the story Ulan Dhor. The rest of it is described in a distinctively Dungeons & Dragons manner, with "spells" being cast with such names as Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth and another called Prismatic Spray (I'm almost certain there is a spell of the same name in Dungeons & Dragons; it's been a long time since I've played). In any case, it's clear where the founders of the game, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, found at least some of their inspiration.

The stories in The Dying Earth are told with an almost fairy tale or fable quality to them. Vance's style is of the classic era: matter-of-fact and to the point. They're enjoyable reads nonetheless. Also, one story sometimes will lead into another, with characters spanning one or more stories or sometimes making a cameo or maybe even a quick mention. This does much to solidify the experience of being in a 'real' world as the characters often run into each other and have realistic interactions as a result.

At only 130 pages, this first part of Tales of the Dying Earth is a quick read. But because this is a compilation you've got books 2, 3, and 4 right there. The whole collection comes in at just over 700 pages.