Nifft the Lean: Vance’s Cugel reimagined by Hieronymus Bosch

Nifft the Lean by Michael Shea fantasy book reviewsNifft the Lean by Michael Shea

Back in 1950, Hillman Periodicals published a little book for 25 cents called The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. It could easily have disappeared into obscurity like thousands of other books, but there was something special about it. There weren’t any other books in SF/Fantasy quite like it, depicting an incredibly distant future earth where the sun has cooled to a red color, the moon is gone, and humanity has declined to a pale shadow of former greatness, and struggles to survive amongst the ruins of the past. The world is filled with magicians, sorcerers, maidens, demons, ghouls, brigands, thieves, and adventurers.

Book 2

The Dying Earth inspired many works ranging from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and to Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons universe. Eventually Vance followed up with a sequel, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), which introduced his most famous character, the knavish thief and swindler named Cugel the Clever. This book was just as imaginative as The Dying Earth, but was a single story of the misadventures of Cugel after he crosses Iucounu the Laughing Magician. It contains all the same sly, tongue-in-cheek humor, the strong imagery of a decaying and run-down world, and the wonderfully-stilted high language used by all the humans and other creatures of this autumnal far-future world.

So when Michael Shea asked Jack Vance, he graciously authorized him to write an informal sequel to the first two Dying Earth novels, and this became A Quest for Simbilis (1974). It was well received, but it was not until 1982 that he gave his imagine full rein to reshape Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and make it his own in Nifft the Lean, an obscure Daw paperback without fanfare. And what a bizarre and grotesque vision it was — imagine Cugel the Clever if Hieronymus Bosch was writing it, a dark and often stomach-churning trip into a strange underworld teeming with demons, lurks, scabrous beetles, ghouls, and damned souls. But before you say “that sounds unpleasant,” never fear, brave reader, for Nifft has a world-weary ironic wit that is more than a match for Cugel.

Book 3

Nifft the Lean consists of four connected novellas, mostly featuring Nifft and his companions Haldar or Barnar, strongly recalling that wonderful pair of rogues, Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD AND THE GREY MOUSER. The stories have enticing titles like “Come Then, Mortal. We Will Seek Her Soul,” “The Pearls of the Vampire Queen,” “The Fishing of the Demon-Sea,” and “The Goddess in Glass.” They are introduced by Shag Margold, a historian and Nifft’s friend, but narrated by Nifft himself except the last story. These adventures involve Nifft and his companion hoping to recover a valuable talisman, discovering a powerful sorceress or vampire goddess, getting in way over their heads, and finding ingenious (and sometimes ruthless) means to extricate themselves. There are plenty of detours and exotic encounters, just like Cugel the Clever’s tales.

The language is very baroque, much like that of Vance, and his imagination when it comes to grotesque creatures and vivid physical descriptions is boundless. The third story is like diving into Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights for a long and extended trip into multiple netherworlds lit by demonic suns and populated with all forms of nightmare beings I hope to never encounter in dreams. The final story centers on enormous metal-devouring herd animals, a giant dead insect goddess sealed in glass, and attempts by various religious groups to use their powers for their own purposes. It is one of the strangest stories I’ve ever read, and really can’t be described properly here, but I guarantee you won’t forget it.

I have wanted to read Nifft the Lean ever since I found it mentioned in David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, and discovering it won the 1983 World Fantasy Award as well. It always seemed like a neglected dark fantasy classic, much like its progenitor The Dying Earth. I’ve had the Daw 1982 paperback with the creepy Michael Whelan cover artwork for over two decades, but it was not till I checked Audible on a lark just in case, and there it was along with two later sequels I didn’t even know about, narrated by John Morgan. He certainly does his level best to capture the whimsy, horror, and swashbuckling spirit of the story, which I highly recommend to fans of Vance or Leiber.

Published in 1982. Follow the adventures of Nifft the Lean, the master thief whose felonious appropriations and larcenous skills will lead you through Stygian realms to challenge your most lurid fantasies and errant imaginings. Places where horror, harm and long eerie calms flow past the traveler in endless, unpredictable succession. Travel with the man whose long, rawboned, sticky fingers and stark length of arm will lead you down to the vermiculus grottoes of the demon sea, to stand beneath the subworld’s lurid sky and battle monsters who seem the spiritual distillations of human evil itself! We invite you to the very gates of Hell and beyond―come if you dare!

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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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3 comments

  1. Marion Deeds /

    “Netherworldly fantasy?” Really?

  2. Yes, this cover could qualify for our “Horrible Covers” contest. I much prefer the original 1982 Daw cover artwork by Michael Whelan.

  3. Simon /

    Sadly unavailable as an ebook :( I had the paperback in the 80’s and would love to read it again.

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