Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
Jack Vance's Dying Earth series is set in the distant, remote future when technology and magic have become entwined. His stories are tales of humour, tragedy and whimsy set at the end of human history, and are among the most distinctive tales in fantasy fiction.

Tales of the Dying Earth collects all four of the principal Dying Earth books: The Dying Earth (1950), The Eyes of the Overworld (1964), Cugel's Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). Written over a period of thirty-four years, these books (themselves collections of short stories or episodes) are nevertheless fairly cohesive in style and readability. That said, The Dying Earth is somewhat more serious than the latter three books, and the central two novels are sometimes considered to form a duology, as they relate the misadventures of a scoundrel and thief named Cugel the Clever, whilst the other two books feature different characters and situations.

The Dying Earth itself is a collection of six short stories, but these are connected by an interesting writing device. Each story focuses on a central character who meets the central figure of the subsequent story in his own adventure, so the narrative is passed almost like a baton to the next character. So the book opens with Turjan, a wizard of some power, encountering the artificial construct T'sais. In the next story he is imprisoned by the wizard Mazirian, who is defeated in turn by T'sain, T'sais' brother. Then the narrative switches to T'sais' adventures. And so on. It's an interesting device for a short story collection and the stories are bound closely together because of it. However, The Dying Earth's success is in its atmospheric depiction of a far-future, dying world under a shrunken red sun. The stories themselves are interesting, but not as compelling as the later books.

The Eyes of the Overworld introduces Cugel the Clever, a rogue and scoundrel always on the look-out for a profit. He is manipulated by a dubious rival, Fianosther, into attempting to rob the manse of Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who discovers this attempt and is not impressed. He offers Cugel a choice between being entombed 45 miles below the Earth's surface, or journeying to remote lands to seek a mystical 'eye of the overworld'. Cugel is thus exiled to the far ends of the world to seek the artifact and has to return home, having numerous adventures along the way. It's Cugel's constant misfortune, at times reaching ridiculous and farcical levels, that makes this part of the story both hilarious and breathlessly enjoyable. By this volume Vance's skills as a writer have grown tremendously and his command of the English language is a joy to behold, with its flowery, polite terminology used to disguise feelings of hatred and jealousy like a particularly demented take on medieval court language. At length, Cugel apparently succeeds in his mission and gains the upper hand...until misfortune once again befalls him and he is left on a cliffhanger.

Nineteen years later (a break in a series that would be unthinkable today), Vance resumed the story in Cugel's Saga. Once again banished to the ends of the Earth, Cugel once again sets out for home, but this time travels by a different route. Essentially a second picaresque travelogue, the story is similar in structure to the preceding volume but is possibly even better, with more polished writing and Cugel's ambiguous appeal remaining intact. If anything, this book is even more hilarious than the second, although some may feel the relatively happy ending is not entirely in keeping with Cugel's typical fortunes.

The final book, Rhialto the Marvellous, is also sadly the weakest. It is much more overtly fantastical than the first three, incorporating voyages through space, but the focus on less interesting protagonists than Cugel means it feels like an afterthought. That's not to say the stories here are unenjoyable, merely that they are of a different nature than Cugel's and less distinctive because of it.

Jack Vance is one of SF&F's most distinctive authors, with a formidable grasp of language and a keen wit making him one of the genre's most interesting writers. The Dying Earth stories are rightly regarded as genre classics, inspiring works such as Gene Wolfe's astonishing Book of the New Sun and being cited as a major influence on numerous writers. The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous have aged somewhat, but the central Cugel stories are as fresh, comical and as fun to read now as they were when they were first published.

Tales of the Dying Earth (*****) is published in the UK by Gollancz as part of their Fantasy Masterworks range and by Orb Books in the USA. A new Dying Earth book, Songs of the Dying Earth, containing short stories by writers such as Tad Williams, Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman, edited by Gardner Dozois and George RR Martin, and authorised by Jack Vance, will be published early next year by Subterranean Press and HarperCollins Voyager.
I havent read the last story yet but i have to agree Cugel's stories are much stronger than Dying Earth.

I cant say that i agree it has aged since this collection is the finest i have seen literary fantasy wise. His writing ability,prose could make the stories fresh in another 50-100 years.
It's worth mentioning that Michael Shea also wrote a Vance approved Dying Earth novel - A Quest for Simbilis. Written in 1974 this is an alternative sequel to Eyes of the Overworld, the first Cugel book. (Maybe Shea became fed up waiting for the sequel and decided to write it himself?)

Like Vance, Shea is another wonderful stylist and if you like Vance your will most probably enjoy some of Shea's best work. Apart from Simbilis, Nifft the Lean (1983 World Fantasy winner), and 'In Yana, the Touch of Undying' are excellent. All have Shea's distinctive prose style, which has a baroque formality complimentary to Vance's rather easier, witty and elegant manner, but with his own distinct style.

I've long adored Vance for his storytelling, his mastery of written English and ability to evoke landscapes and cultures of great depth and intensity. he's not just a great fantasy writer, he's a great writer full stop.
Interesting Gullen yesterday i sat like 30 minutes beside the bookshelf in my favorite bookstore that had World Fantasy Award winners. I was thinking hard which one to get.

Michael Shea was the favorite with Nifft the Lean because of his Dying Earth connection i remembered his name.

Vance books wasnt an option the same with Last Call by Powers since i have already several books by them. I wanted a new author to me.

Its beteween Christopher Priest,Shea and Patricia McKillip.
I don't know Patricia McKillip at all but have read Chris Priest for a long time. The Prestige is a great book, but if you are looking for fantasy a la Vance or Shea you will not find it here.
Priest has done some very good work, but yes, he's quite a different sort of writer. Patricia McKillip has written several of the unique classics of the genre, and is definitely worth following up. Shea has at times been a bit of a mimic, but always within that is plenty of his own approach; while at other times he is strikingly original.

In other words, they are all three well worth your time, but each is quite different from the others, and I'd suggest trying one or two things from each to decide....
Im not a fantasy newbie that dont know the difference beteween Priest,Mckillip,Shea ;)

I have actually read Mckillip in short story.

Priest i have heard alot of good about. Two days ago when i was in the store i actually took The Prestige book to register to buy it but i went to the store in the first place to place a order for Demon Princes Volume 1 by Vance and i was told they just got in a copy of Volume one. So i bought instead the book i was there to order.

is next months book haul. I wanted another Priest book really but i dont want to wait too long, he is sound too interesting of an author. One of those authors i know instinctly i will like.
4 book series and not to be missed. :cool:

There is also a companion A anthology of stories by other authors set in the world of the Dying Earth
Songs From the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance. edited by Garner Dozois and George R Martin. This is a terrific anthology. :cool:

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