Cugel’s Saga: Who could imagine such protean depravity?

fantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying Earth 3. Cugel's SagaCugel’s Saga (aka The Skybreak Spatterlight) by Jack Vance

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCugel “the clever” is one of the scummiest, nastiest, lowliest rogues in all of fantasy literature. He’s got no morals and no respect for women, he’s often a coward, he’s not good looking, nor is he particularly good with a sword. In the words of one of Cugel’s acquaintances, “who could imagine such protean depravity?” The answer, apparently, is Jack Vance. And that’s why Cugel is one of my favorite “heroes” — because he belongs to Jack Vance.

Cugel’s Saga, book 3 of The Dying Earth and the direct sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, begins ironically — with Cugel again fallen afoul of Iucounu, the Laughing Magician, who has now banished Cugel across the dying earth to exactly the same place he had sent Cugel before and from which Cugel had just returned to seek his revenge. Thus, Cugel begins another long journey back to Almery to get even with Iucounu, and of course it’s another series of hilarious misadventures. These usually involve Cugel entering a village, pretending to be a gentleman and getting involved in some profitable scheme, and eventually having to flee or being run out of town.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDuring each of these episodes, Jack Vance uses his characteristic humor to highlight absurd human behavior. For example, in chapter 3, after penniless Cugel has just narrowly escaped a man whose ship, wife, and daughters he kidnapped, he happens upon a town in which the men spend their days sunning themselves atop columns of stone while their wives work to pay Nisbet the quarryman to add additional stones to their husbands’ towers, thus elevating them, both literally and figuratively, above the other townsmen. Cugel, noticing how eager the women are to please Nisbet, sees this as an opportunity not only for monetary gain, but also perhaps to score benefits that Nisbet may not have imagined… Yes, Cugel is a scoundrel, but it’s hard to think too badly of him when most of the people he encounters are equally corrupt. Cugel himself explains it this way:

I am not one to crouch passively with my hindquarters raised awaiting either the kick or the caress of Destiny! I am Cugel! Fearless and indomitable!

Cugel’s various adventures do not become predictable and they never get stale — each is unique, fresh, and delightfully funny. Besides the sheer entertainment value, Jack Vance’s voice is consistently a pleasure to read. Nobody writes just like Vance and I never tire of it.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Cugel’s Saga, which was read by Arthur Morey, who has narrated their other Vance titles. He is excellent as usual — one of the finest audiobook readers I’ve ever listened to. He and Jack Vance have entertained me for many an hour as I commute back and forth to work. I’ll bet my colleagues wonder why I’m always chuckling wickedly when I pull into the parking lot.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTales of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance science fiction book reviewsThere aren’t any other books in SF/Fantasy quite like Jack Vance’s TALES OF THE DYING EARTH. (I read the omnibus version shown here.) They have had an enormous influence on writers ranging from Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. These stories highlight Vance’s amazing imagination, precise yet baroque writing style, and somewhat archaic dialogue that disguises an incredibly dry wit and skeptical view of humanity. I’ve read SF and fantasy all my life, and I can say with confidence that his voice and imagery are unique. If you’ve encountered anything like it, it’s most likely that those writers took their cue from Vance.

Cugel’s Saga (1983) is the third book in the series, coming 17 years after The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) and 33 years after The Dying Earth (1950). It’s also the second book to feature that thieving scoundrel Cugel the Clever, who often finds he is not quite as clever as he thinks, as his schemes generally end in failure at the end of each chapter, leaving him penniless and fleeing his enemies until he encounters the next adventure. This book is a similarly picaresque episodic adventure in the slowly crumbing world of The Dying Earth, as creatures, magicians and humans pass their waning days before the fading red sun goes dark.

This time, Cugel falls into the clutches of a greedy old profiteer who is plumbing the depths of a mud pit for the scales of a fallen demiurge named Skylark from the Overworld. Cugel accidentally discovers the most valuable of the scales, the Pectoral Skybreak Spatterlight, a gem that many covet when their eyes fall upon it. Cugel finds himself constantly encountering people bound by meaningless traditions and prejudices. For example, a village where social status is determined by how high the menfolk can build columns and bask in leisure above while their wives do all the work below. Vance has a ball poking subtle fun at the endless range of foolish social practices that people can concoct, all without the slightest sense of irony.

TALES OF THE DYING EARTH is a great way to experience the baroque language and fertile imagination of Jack Vance. The stories are worth reading for his understated sense of irony and humor alone, along with the bizarre creatures, magical spells, and quirky societies. It’s amazing that Vance was able to maintain a similar tone over 30 years of writing. For my money, though Cugel the Clever is Vance’s most memorable scoundrel, my favorite book was The Dying Earth, as it had a perfect balance of science and fantasy in an unforgettable setting, even 65 years after the initial publication.

~Stuart Starosta

The Dying Earth — (1950-1984) Publisher: One of Jack Vances enduring classics is his 1964 novel, The Dying Earth, and its sequels — a fascinating tale set on a far-future Earth, under a giant red sun that is soon to go out forever. Here, in one volume, is Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning author Jack Vance’s classic Dying Earth saga: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellous. Travel to a far distant future, when the sunbleeds red in a dark sky, where magic and science is one, and the Earth has but a few short decades to live…

fantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellousfantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellousfantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellousfantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellous


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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