Posted by: markfender | May 29, 2012

The Dying Earth

So, I’ve recently been embarking on a “fill in the back catalog” quest. Which is why I just read Jack Vance’s Dying Earth.

According to the cover, it’s a fantasy masterpiece. That may or may not be true. I’m only familiar with it because Dungeons & Dragon’s magic system is “Vancian.” That is, based on the magic system in these stories. And, yeah, I guess it is. More on that later.

I actually quite enjoyed these stories. Vance uses the biggest words in the English language all the time. I spent a lot of time with a dictionary while reading this. But that also means that everyone delights in verbal wordplay to an insane degree. The Cugel stories, in particular, revolve around a conman who cons his way into a good situation and then discovers its not that great a situation and has to con his way back out – over and over. Along the way, he jousts with mages, village elders, crazed cultists, and everything in between. In the same way that Conan achieves great victory at the end of one story and then is starting over from scratch in the next, Cugel triumphs over adversity at the end of one chapter and then has all his forward progress crushed at the beginning of the next. They’re entertaining. However, Cugel in particular isn’t a great person. There’s a couple instances of, well, date rape would be the closest analogue I guess. He abandons innocent people to take the wrath of the people hunting him often. He’s definitely carved from an earlier time’s ideas of heroics. So that might not be to your taste.

So, yeah, the magic system is fire and forget. Mages memorize spells, only to have the knowledge wrested from their heads when they cast the spell. Even the spell names show up in D&D (Excellent Prismatic Spray, for instance, not to mention Ioun Stones). What’s odd to me is that there’s more than one magic system in these books. Rialto, an archmage, relies upon sandestins – essentially genies/demons that he’s bound to his service. As he uses their powers, they work off the services they owe him. So, where’s that in D&D?

So, would I recommend these? I guess. I got a kick out of the verbal fencing, even if the stories themselves didn’t really go anywhere. Like so many fantasy books from that era, there’s not a whole lot of plot. It’s just adventure after adventure with little connective tissue. But I certainly found these more entertaining than, say, Conan.


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