Monday, July 20, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Cugel's Saga

Jack Vance's sequel to 1966's The Eyes of the Overworld was published in 1983 -- too late for Gary Gygax to have included it in Appendix N. Nevertheless, there's little doubt that Cugel's Saga, like its predecessors, is a "D&D novel," which is to say, a novel whose characters and plot, such as it is, reflect the rambling picaresque nature I strongly associate with the campaigns of my youth. Granted, Vance's characterizations, to say nothing of his dialog, far exceed anything I ever created in those bygone days, but the fact remains that, of all the Dying Earth books, this is the one that reminds me most of the perpetually down on their luck ne'er-do-wells that populated games of yore, not just in my own campaigns but in those of my friends.

Cugel's Saga has a vaguely Sisyphean quality to it, as the title character begins the novel trying once again to make his way home to Almery after having been outwitted by Iucounu the Laughing Magician -- exactly the same predicament in which found himself in The Eyes of the Overworld. This time, though, Cugel seems even more determined to exact his revenge upon Iucounu, along the way acquiring both items and accomplices that he hopes will enable him to achieve his ultimate goal. Consequently, this novel feels somewhat different than its predecessor, even though the overall plot -- more like a collection of vignettes really -- is roughly identical.

To my mind, Cugel's Saga feels somewhat dark, though not nearly as dark as The Dying Earth. Part of that may be because his failures do not sit well with Cugel, making him ever more intent on giving Iucouno his comeuppance. Consequently, Cugel comes across, to me anyway, as a bit more despicable and self-interested than he was in The Eyes of the Overworld -- a fairly impressive feat. He's still amusingly foppish, vain, and convinced of his own natural superiority, but there's a single-mindedness to him now that casts some of his actions in deeper shadow. That's not to say the novel is not humorous, since it is, uproariously so in places. Rather, I wish to point out that, just as The Eyes of the Overworld has a different literary "texture" than does The Dying Earth, despite being set in the same world, so too does Cugel's Saga feel different than The Eyes of the Overworld, despite focusing on the same character.

Nevertheless, Cugel's Saga offers nearly everything you'd expect from Jack Vance at the height of his powers. If the book has a weakness, it's the ending, but then one doesn't read picaresques like this one for the ending; it's the journey along the way that's the true story.

8 comments:

  1. Is that cover by Stephan Fabian? I haven't seen that one before.

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  2. I always felt the Cugel in Cugel's Saga was a bit more sympathetic than in Eyes of the Overworld - though I guess he still does some pretty bad things. Maybe I was just used to him by the time I read it!

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  3. I thought the ending of Cugel's Saga was perfect. Expressed perfectly the futility and emptiness of revenge.

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  4. I'll be contrary: I love The Dying Earth, really like The Eyes of the Overworld, and found Cugel's Saga repetitious and frequently dull. For me, it's one of Vance's weaker books in which his language toally overwhelms and replaces "plot". I actually skipped large sections, which is quite unusual for me. I was quite intrigued to discover "A Bagful of Dreams" (I think that's the title) from one of the Flashing Swords collections, which has been ret-conned (as it were) by Cugel's Saga. The "Bagful" was far better IMO.

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  5. I loved all three of Dying Earth, Eyes of the Overworld, and Cugel's Saga. The one I didn't like so much was Rhialto the Marvellous; its magic seems vastly more powerful and arbitrary than that of the other three novels, and much less grounded in grubby humanity.

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  6. I find the ending often is that with in Jack Vance stories. It's almost as if he got bored and just stopped writing.

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  7. I dig the first two books but the later one's were such a bore; there's only so much obscured words and flowery prose you can take. Personally, I always thought his hero Clark Ashton Smith was a better writer.

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