Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

If you've read The Eyes of the Overworld, this will be familiar. Not in any bad sense, I hasten to add, but the picaresque adventures of the same guy in the same circumstances on the same world by the same writer will tend to have a certain similarity.

Jack Vance introduced his Dying Earth in a series of loosely-related stories, very early in his career. Those were assembled in 1950 as The Dying Earth; it didn't have a single protagonist or narrative, but characters recurred and it cohered in that general fix-up way. More than a decade later, he wrote another sequence of stories, all about one of the characters in the first book, Cugel the Clever. When those appeared in book form in 1966, The Eyes of the Overworld was still clearly a fix-up, but the kind that basically becomes a novel if you squint at it slightly: Cugel started one place, with an aim in mind, and made it to the end of his journey, with adventures along the way.

Another decade-plus later, Vance did the same thing again in 1983's Cugel's Saga. The edition I just read - in the omnibus Tales of the Dying Earth - does not credit earlier magazine publications for the pieces of the Saga, but it reads in that same episodic style, so I would be surprised if none of it hadn't been published as separate stories.

And Saga, or at least a single-sentence description of it, is almost precisely the same as Eyes: the magician Iucounu dropped Cugel on the far northern beach Shanglestone Strand, there to make his way, however he can, back to his homeland of Almery.

The difference is: in one book he turns right on that beach, and goes through one series of lands, and in the other book he turns left. Saga is the story of that journey after turning left, in thirteen chapters that each are roughly standalone novelettes, with titles like "The Inn of Blue Lamps" and "The Ocean of Sighs" and "The Seventeen Virgins" and "The Bagful of Dreams." (And a number of place-names, as well.)

In each of those stories, Cugel comes to a new place, slightly closer to his destination. He has generally just tried a scheme to enrich himself, which has almost worked, but the riches he hoped for have adhered to the hands of someone else, and he has been forced to flee. Cugel is clever, and skilled, and smart - but not quite as much of any of those as he thinks he is. And so each story sees a new scheme, and new ways for circumstance to foil Cugel once again.

It's a picaresque, so the point is to enjoy the various adventures of our picaro. Cugel is a magnificent, deeply entertaining picaro, and Vance's languid, detailed, enchanting sentences are perfectly tuned to tell picaresque stories. The point is the journey rather than the destination, but I can say that Cugel does indeed make it back to Iucounu and is somewhat more successful in his revenge this time than he was in Eyes.

Vance was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, both in his uniquely poised sentences, full of obscure words always used precisely and well, and in his amused but world-weary attitude, which was far more adult and nuanced than most of what appeared in SFF during his long career. That style and attitude also means, happily, that his work does not age nearly as much as most of his contemporaries - Vance was not of his time then, and doesn't read as being of that time now.

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