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.
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