Rhialto the Marvellous: “Flagrant and wild!”

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying Earth 4. Rhialto the MarvellousRhialto the Marvellous by Jack Vance

“Flagrant and wild!”

If you’re a fan of Jack Vance, of course you’ve read, or plan to read, Rhialto the Marvellous, last of the Dying Earth books. If you’ve not read any of Mr. Vance’s work, you can start here — it isn’t necessary to have read the previous installments.

Rhialto, who has earned the cognomen “Marvellous” (this has something to do with him being a bit of a dandy) is one of the last of Earth’s magicians, a small group of selfish and unscrupulous men who sometimes work together and sometimes oppose each other as it suits their individual inglorious purposes. The other magicians don’t care too much for Rhialto because he is aloof, popular with women, arrogant, and generally unflappable. Rhialto the Marvellous contains three stories which feature Rhialto working with and against his colleagues.

Rhialto is more passive than Cugel the Clever and not as dastardly, so he doesn’t drive the plot or leave a swath of destruction in his wake like Cugel does. Plus, he has to share the stage with several other strong personalities, making him not as vibrant as we’ve come to expect from Vance’s main characters.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNonetheless, this novel is still chock full of the ludicrous circumstances and strange humor that Jack Vance fans love. The first story, “The Murthe,” introduces my favorite made-up Vance word: “ensqualm” — which means to turn a man into a woman. That story was hilarious as it seemed to poke fun of feminine behavior while actually ridiculing men. Arthur Morey, who narrates Brilliance Audio’s production and has become one of my favorite audiobook readers, is at top form here as he narrates Vermoulian’s dream (AXR-11 GG7, Volume Seven of the Index) in which Vermoulian meets a group of ensqualmed men and describes their behavior:

I found myself in a landscape of great charm, where I encountered a group of men, all cultured, artistic, and exquisitely refined of manner… ‘We dine upon nutritious nuts and seeds and ripe juicy fruit; we drink only the purest and most natural water from the springs. At night we sit around the campfire and sing merry little ballads. On special occasions we make a punch called opo, from pure fruits, natural honey, and sweet sessamy, and everyone is allowed a good sip… Ah, the women, whom we revere for their kindness, strength, wisdom and patience, as well as for the delicacy of their judgments!…’

He had me laughing out loud already, but when he read their answer to Vermoulian’s questions about how they procreate, I nearly spit my Starbucks onto the steering wheel. I went back and read this in my print copy — it was funny, yes, but Arthur Morey made it even better.

Rhialto the Marvellous is the last of Brilliance Audio’s Vance collection so far, and that makes me sad. I sincerely hope they’ll soon be adding more Vance titles to their catalog and that Arthur Morey will be reading them. If so, I promise that I’ll be reviewing them!

~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.

Rhialto the Marvellous (1984) is the final book and consists of three stories, “The Murthe,” “Fader’s Waft,” and “Morreion.” Overall, I’d rate this as the weakest of the four parts of Tales of the Dying Earth, but still worth reading if you enjoy the wild imagination, high language, and deadpan humor of Vance’s baroque tales set in the far-future dying earth.

“The Murthe” is a very short and humorous story of the havoc that is wreaked by a powerful magic-user from the past, who starts to convert the magicians in Rhialto’s conclave into women without them realizing it through a process of “ensqualmation.” Their antics as they become more feminine are quite amusing, and her power is not easily vanquished.

“Fader’s Waft” is the longest story, and unfortunately the weakest in my opinion. In this story Rhialto is the center of various schemes by his fellow wizards to defame his character and seize his magical possessions. Although some of the situations are fun to read about, overall it gets fairly tedious at times and doesn’t measure up to Cugel’s stories.

“Morreion,” the last story, is by far the best. It chronicles the journey of Rhialto and his fellow magicians to the edge of the universe to find a missing colleague who sought the source of the much-coveted IOUN stones (which are used in D&D, apparently).

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


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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 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 since March 2015, 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 has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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