Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance (2009)

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  • Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
  • Page count: 632
  • My rating: 8/10

Is there any writer alive today who could mimic the style of Jack Vance? Some of the biggest names from fantasy and science fiction try their hands on writing a Jack Vancian Dying Earth story. This collection shows that it is indeed very hard. Jack Vance was unique and if he had never existed, then no one would have had the imagination to create him, or his stories.

What this anthology is celebrating is of course the Dying Earth novels, of which Jack Vance wrote exactly four: Tales of the Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvelous. They are usually found together in a single collection. These novels started an entirely new subgenre of novels that are set in the far future, at the time when the sun is nothing more than a dying red disc. Human history has become so long that it is beyond our minds to grasp it, and a general nihilism has overtaken the human societies that are left.

The stories are generally about crafty wayfarers and jolly wizards who live in sumptuous mansions. Vance concocted a magic system with hints of technology that would later form the inspiration behind the Dungeons and Dragons games. His stories are full of dry wit. His style is wholly unique and impossible to describe well.

Each author added a personal memory of how Jack Vance inspired their writing. The collection is rich and full – Vance’s stories are clearly beloved – and the page count is even higher than the original four Vancian stories together. If you love the four Vance novels, this collection is an amazing addition to them. The authors in this anthology do their best to imitate his style, but also give their own twist to the Dying Earth.

Let’s look at the stories. If you’re a fantasy/sf reader, you’ll recognize some names here.

Robert Silverberg “The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale” (3.5/5) opens the anthology with a good tale about a wizard who gets robbed of his finest vintage. The tale is appropriate, but too verbose. Vance would have written it in half the pages.

Matthew Hughes “Grolion of Almery” (5/5) wrote a perfect tale. This is pure Vance, and Hughes’s crime writing is already heavily influenced by Vance. A complex story of grievances, magical wonder and decisive action. Typical Vance is that the characters fall into situations that are already made complicated by past conflicts and motives of revenge.

Terry Dowling “The Copsy Door” (4/5) offers an amusing story, occasionally raises a laugh, but a bit predictable and too straightforward.

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Liz Williams “Caulk the Witch-chaser” (3/5), her story feels like a generic fantasy story. A bit bland and indecisive in its structure. The ending seems out of place. It’s one of the weaker ones.

Mike Resnik “Inescapable” (3.5/5) is mainly occupied with referencing existing characters and he wants to provide backstory to a familiar name. It’s serviceable.

Walter Jon Williams “Abrizonde” (4/5) is off on a rocky start. He introduces too many nonsense names and the writing is clunky. But in the course of the tale he finds his rhythm and the story unfolds to something very entertaining and inventive. It’s great to see a Sandestin again.

Paula Volsky “The Traditions of Karzh” (5/5). Her story is a love letter to Cugel the Clever and his madcap adventures. The situations of her character are quite random and inventive, and the story echoes Cugel’s journeys to retrieve certain objects from strange places. Also, Cugel’s tormentor Firx is represented here as a slow-burning poison. Great stuff.

Jeff Vandermeer “The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod” (4/5) The title sounds like a Lord Dunsany tale, but the story that he presents is a fusion between Vance and the Vandermeer style of New Weird. This Dying Earth is weirder in its magic than we are used to. It’s a fine story in and of itself, but it is only a Dying Earth story in name. Vandermeer’s style doesn’t approach Vance in any way and I think he didn’t attempt to. What is sorely lacking is the dry wit and comedy of Vance. On the plus side, it features mushrooms.

Kage Baker “The Green Bird” (3/5). This one has some superficial signs of being set in the Dying Earth, including the character Cugel the Clever, but under the surface it felt like a completely different beast. Some characters felt like they were lifted from entirely different genres. The ending is good, but the rest I don’t know what to make of it.

Phyllis Eisenstein “The Last Golden Thread” (4/5) is a pleasant enough tale, without any great conflict or tension. It completes the story of Lith. Since Vance’s characters are so often devious or mischievous, I expected something bad to happen all the way through the story, but it never came. This one is a very rare Dying Earth happy ending.

Elizabeth Moon “An Incident in Uskvesk” (1.5/5) had nothing to do with the Dying Earth. I think she penned this story down at an earlier date as a generic fantasy short and just sent it to George RR Martin, and he kept it in because she is a well-known writer. The story is about a dwarf, and it is rather uninteresting.

Lucius Shepard “Sylgarmo’s Proclamation” (5/5). I am constantly impressed by Lucius Shepard’s writing. He’s lucid, witty and inventive, and his metaphors are stunning. More characters from Cugel’s past show up and seek him out to take revenge on past misdeeds.

Tad Williams “The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee” (4/5). An ok story, but Williams is being very wordy. He seems to enjoy himself greatly. Conversations are spun out endlessly with archaic language that is more stilted than witty, and the ending is abrupt.

John C Wright “Guyal the Curator” (5/5). Maybe the best story in the collection! This is a proper homage. Wright added loads of little references to not just the Dying Earth novels, but some other Vance series as well. This is the work of someone with a deep love and respect for Vance. His writing is heavy and dreamlike, with lots of obscure words and dry witty conversations.

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Glen Cook “The Good Magician” (3/5). A story set in the milieu of Rhialto the Marvelous. Not Rhialto but Alfaro, a starting underdog magician, finds himself in the court of Ildefonse. Cook’s writing is a bit businesslike, but he adds some good humor to the tale. Ultimately, the story is a bit bland and ineffective.

Elizabeth Hand “The Return of the Fire Witch” (4/5). Rich in imagery and language. Elizabeth Hand’s story could very well play out in a fantasy world of her own making, different from the Dying Earth but just as fascinating. Stars two witches with a strained relationship and lots of mushrooms.

Tanith Lee “Evillo the Uncunning” (3.5/5). Reads more like a fairy tale about a young orphan boy who seeks his destiny. The boy meets a great storyteller named Canja Veck (hint: shuffle the letters around) and follows the locations of the old Cugel tales. Frantic, fast-paced, a bit too derivative, but ultimately an enjoyable tale.

Dan Simmons “The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz” (4/5). A fun, satisfying tale; longer than the others but well-paced. Simmons’s interpretation leans more overtly towards science-fiction. The tale transports us halfway across the planet, together with Shrue the Diabolist and the frequently recurring warrior princess Derwe Coreme.

Howard Waldrop “Frogskin Cap” (2/5). Very short, and doesn’t have a plot. At least, I couldn’t discover the clue to this story. It’s just a story of a magician walking to the Museum of Man and being the last curator. And that’s all. Some of the language is rather un-Vancian. Underwhelming.

George RR Martin “A Night at the Tarn House” (4.5/5). Three travelers encounter each other in a tavern (famous for its hissing eels!) and mayhem ensues. Felt like a western, like The Hateful Eight set on the Dying Earth. Good Vancian names and characters. One of the best stories of the collection.

Neil Gaiman “An Invocation of Incuriosity” (3/5). A bit short and disconnected from the rest of the collection. It felt like Gaiman wanted to present something different than all the other authors, but it didn’t do much for me, because the story itself was rather short and even a bit clichéd in its own way.

Jack Vance was 93 when this collection came out, and passed away a year later. He still had the time to see this collection and express his thanks. This anthology only underlines how great his work was and how much he will be missed.

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