Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Thoughts on Lyonesse

I've recently finished reading Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy. It was something of a Herculean task for me; I started reading it at least six months ago, probably longer. My experience with the books became an epic saga akin to that contained in the series itself, with ups and downs, twists and turns, and sudden surprises. There were big gaps here and there where I didn't read any of it for weeks at a time. At other times I would devour a hundred pages in a day or two. Gradually I forced myself to the finish.

It's safe to say I liked it. Not as much as the Cugel books, which are Vance's most extraordinary masterpiece and I think probably the best written fantasy work in the canon (if you don't include anything by Gene Wolfe, to whom no comparison is really fair). But still, it is a stunning achievement, which Vance, as always, makes look incredibly easy: above everything else, it is just incredibly entertaining in the truest sense of the word. As well as making it look easy, Vance gives every impression he was having a whale of a time writing it, which almost certainly wasn't true - it must have taken far too much energy and craftsmanship - but the sense of fun that pervades the books is indisputable. It also has more emotional depth than the Dying Earth works; while Vance's voice is as objective and detached as ever, affection for the characters and concern for their fate seeps through.

There are flaws, of course. Aillas is a bit of a Mary Sue who you never feel is likely to fail at any stage in his adventures. The sub-plot (or overarching plot, depending on your view) of the struggle between the mages Tamurello and Murgen and the fate of Melancthe is consistently less interesting than the other goings-on. It doesn't particularly matter, because the charm of the characters, the gloriously understated narrative, the joy of the exclamation mark-riddled Vancian dialogue sweeps you along.

For somebody who isn't particularly renowned for his progressive sexual politics, Vance also manages to pull off, in Madouc and Suldrun, what almost no modern fantasist has ever done: written convincing, strong female leads - main characters who drive the plot, have great lines, and don't need men - without ever once falling prey to the idiotic notion so prevalent in fantasy fiction that in order to make women characters interesting you have to make them ass-kicking badasses.

As a D&D fan, what I took most from Lyonesse, though, was that it feels far more like D&D even than Vance's earlier work. If Lyonesse hadn't been written in the 80s, you'd swear it was more of an influence on Gygax and Arneson than the Dying Earth books. It has everything - the early, low level picaresque, the mid-game of establishing a career, the kingdom-building end-game. At times it has the random feel of a hex crawl; the sense that at any moment Vance will roll the random encounter dice and come up with a new event or encounter to change, willy-nilly, the course of the plot. And it has the fluctuating and sometimes startling changes in tone that are present in every game session: on one page the feel will be that of a light hearted fairy tale; on the next a brutal torture scene will be narrated with Vance's customary detachment; on the next characters will be engaging in the pulpiest of pulp fantasy adventure. Those tonal shifts are never jarring because Vance handles them so well, just as they are never jarring in a game session because it's just the way things are.

Give it a try if you can find it. I picked up a single-volume anthology on Kindle, and it provided me with a heck of a lot of reading. It's certainly better than 99% of the fantasy books I could have been reading for the first half of this year.

10 comments:

  1. I read the first two in the eighties when I was most active in gaming. Your review is dead-on. I think I hear Amazon.com calling.

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    1. The third one is the best. Madouc is a great character, and the story comes to fruition in a very satisfying way.

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  2. Virtually the same experience trying to slog through the first Lyonesse book.

    I definitely agree that Vance's whimsical turns mirror the randomized threats and exploration principles of Old School D&D. Have you read the Demon Princes books?

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    1. No. I'm gradually working my way through Vance's back catalogue, but it's not always easy to find them in book shops. (Kindle helps, thankfully.)

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    1. It's safe to say that if you like the Dying Earth books you'll like Lyonesse. It's slow going, but worth sticking with.

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  4. The Demon Princes is fantastic space-adventure; but all of Vance's heroes tend to be what we would call Mary Sue these days. Understand, it wasn't a thing back then; and Vance balances it with lots of anti-heroes (like Cugel) in his other writing.

    I always felt the book Madouc was a form of penance, necessitated because he had mistreated poor Suldrun so badly in the first book.

    I have (AFAIK) every sci-fi and fantasy Vance has written, but I have to say the Demon Princes and the Cugel books are the best. In the Demon Princes he perfects the style of whimsical locations and odd asides and footnotes. Gene Wolfe is a master stylist, but I think Vance is the most under-rated writer of the last century. It's like he invented irony. (Although James Branch Cabell preceeded him.)

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  5. Please say more about what makes Suldrun a "strong female lead." I don't recall her getting that much time to function as anything like a protagonist. Thanks...!

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    1. Really? She's in most of the first book, I think.

      What makes her a strong female lead is that she does what she wants to do, even unto death. If a male character does that sort of thing she does in fiction, we tend to applaud the sense of defiance, his courage, and also the courage of the author in creating a hero whose heroism comes from resistance rather than action. I don't see why Suldrun is any different (unless we are coming at it from the school of "In order for female characters to be interesting they have to be all-action badasses").

      Being a protagonist doesn't necessarily mean doing lots of things. In can mean remaining resistant in the face of repression, which is what Suldrun does.

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    2. Yes, really. Thanks -- I agree that she's a compellingly drawn character. It was just that I couldn't find any examples of her in a role more active or "resistant" than restraining her tears beyond around page 130, so was curious what made her such a strong lead in your eyes. Suum cuique, I suppose.

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