Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance
As I’m writing this, Jack Vance’s under-appreciated Lyonesse trilogy has been off the shelves for years. My library doesn’t even have a copy — it had to be interlibrary loaned for me. Why is that? Publishers have been printing a seemingly endless stream of vampire and werewolf novels these days — same plot, same characters, blah blah blah. If not that, it’s grit. We all want grit.
Or maybe it’s that more women are reading fantasy these days and publishers think we want to read about bad-ass heroines who kill vampires. But, the publishers and authors are just giving us what we demand, I suppose. We all got sick of the sweeping medieval-style multi-volume epics that take forever to write, publish, and read. So now we get vampires and sassy chicks with tattoos and bare midriffs. When we’ve become glutted with those (it can’t be long now), what’s next?
I’ve got a suggestion: Publishers, why don’t you reprint some of the best classic fantasy? Let’s start with Jack Vance’s Lyonesse. Here we have a beautiful and complex story full of fascinating characters (even those we only see for a couple of pages are engaging), unpredictable and shocking plot twists, and rambling and entertainingly disjointed adventure. No clichés. No vampires.
As a psychologist, I especially appreciated the many insights into human cognition and perceptual processing that I found in Suldrun’s Garden. But what’s best is Jack Vance’s unique style. He’s quirky, funny, and droll. He uses language not just to tell us an interesting story, but he actually entertains us with the way he uses language to tell the story. Similar to Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, or Catherynne Valente, but in a different, completely unique style. I love authors who respect the English language and compose their prose with care and precision. Many of Jack Vance’s sentences are purposely funny in their construction and I find myself laughing and delighted not at what was said, but at how it was said. Here’s his description of Shimrod’s excursion to another world:
He apprehended a landscape of vast extent dotted with isolated mountains of gray-yellow custard, each terminating in a ludicrous semi-human face. All faces turned toward himself, displaying outrage and censure. Some showed cataclysmic scowls and grimaces, others produced thunderous belches of disdain. The most intemperate extruded a pair of liver-colored tongues, dripping magma which tinkled in falling, like small bells; one or two spat jets of hissing green sound, which Shimrod avoided, so that they struck other mountains, to cause new disturbance.
And here is part of King Casmir’s lecture to his daughter Suldrun when she announced that she’s not ready to get married:
That is sentiment properly to be expected in a maiden chaste and innocent. I am not displeased. Still, such qualms must bend before affairs of state … Your conduct toward Duke Carfilhiot must be amiable and gracious, yet neither fulsome nor exaggerated. Do not press your company upon him; a man like Carfilhiot is stimulated by reserve and reluctance. Still, be neither coy not cold … Modesty is all very well in moderation, even appealing. Still, when exercised to excess it becomes tiresome.
If you can find a used copy of Suldrun’s Garden, the first of the Lyonesse trilogy, snatch it up. There are some available on Amazon and there’s a kindle version, too. (Beware the Fantasy Masterworks version, which is known to have printing errors). Jack Vance is original; You won’t get his books confused with anyone else’s. This is beautiful work for those who love excellent fantasy literature!
Update: Since I originally wrote this review, the Vance family has produced all of Vance’s books in ebook format, so they are now easily attained.
Lyonesse — (1983-1990) Omnibus editions available. Publisher: The Elder Isles, located in what is now the Bay of Biscay off the the coast of Old Gaul, are made up of ten contending kingdoms, all vying with each other for control. At the centre of much of the intrigue is Casmir, the ruthless and ambitious king of Lyonnesse. His beautiful but otherworldly daughter, Suldrun, is part of his plans. He intends to cement an alliance or two by marrying her well. But Suldrun is as determined as he and defies him. Casmir coldly confines her to the overgrown garden that she loves to frequent, and it is here that she meets her love and her tragedy unfolds. Political intrigue, magic, war, adventure and romance are interwoven in a rich and sweeping tale set in a brilliantly realized fabled land.