I’ve already said, numerous times, how much I love Jack Vance, so I’ll skip all that this time. You can read other reviews on this page if you missed that.
The Eyes of the Overworld is the second part of Tales of the Dying Earth and the main character is one of my favorite Vance characters: the self-titled Cugel the Clever. Cugel is not the kind of guy you want to have dealings with — he’s clever, sneaky, completely selfish and remorseless. He is always trying to figure out how he can take advantage of other people in order to make his own circumstances better.
In The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel decides to burglarize the house of Iucounu the Laughing Magician so he can sell some of Iucounu’s thaumaturgical artifacts. But the magician catches Cugel and punishes him by setting him on a quest to procure a lens which allows the wearer to view the overworld.
Cugel is clever, but as clever as he is, he often finds himself facing a foe who, at least temporarily, manages to outwit him (which invariably surprises Cugel). This time his quest leads him on a series of misadventures in which he: gets captured by rat people… is forced to be the watchman of a village… steals more than one person’s inheritance… deals with demons… trades a woman for information… impersonates a god… and travels a million years into the past. Wherever he goes, Cugel, sometimes purposely and sometimes unwittingly, leaves sorrow and destruction in his wake. He deprives people of their hope, their faith and, often, their lives.
This doesn’t sound like it should be very entertaining, but oh, it is! That’s because the story is written in Jack Vance’s singular style: high language, bizarre occurrences, and Vance’s characteristic humor. I hate to say it again, but the best comparison I can make is to Monty Python. If you’re a fan of that type of strange dark humor, then this should be your thing.
I listened to The Eyes of the Overworld in audio format. I can’t express how excited I was to learn that Brilliance Audio was producing these, and I’m pleased to report that they did an excellent job. Arthur Morey once again brought out all of the nuances of Vance’s humor and he made a perfect Cugel. In fact, The Eyes of the Overworld was even better than The Dying Earth, probably because it follows the same main character rather than being divided up into separate short stories. I loved it.
There aren’t any other books in SF/Fantasy quite like Jack Vance’s TALES OF THE DYING EARTH. (I read the omnibus version shown here.) They have had an enormous influence on writers ranging from Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. These stories highlight Vance’s amazing imagination, precise yet baroque writing style, and somewhat archaic dialogue that disguises an incredibly dry wit and skeptical view of humanity. I’ve read SF and fantasy all my life, and I can say with confidence that his voice and imagery are unique. If you’ve encountered anything like it, it’s most likely that those writers took their cue from Vance.
16 years after The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) details the misadventures of the self-interested, not-so-clever scoundrel Cugel the Clever after he crosses Iucounu the Laughing Magician. It contains all the same sly, tongue-in-cheek humor, the strong imagery of a decaying and run-down world, and the wonderfully-stilted high language used by all the humans and other creatures of this autumnal far-future world. Basically, Cugel is not a charming scoundrel with panache like James Bond or Arsène Lupin III. Instead, he basically is just morally bankrupt and self-serving with a thin veneer of suave talk. He doesn’t hesitate to betray companions at the first opportunity, and has loyalty to no one. I think Vance’s take on the anti-hero is quite fresh, but I find it hard to be sympathetic to Cugel. Still, on further reflection I think that it is his inept selfishness and repeated failures to achieve his goals that has endeared him to a lot of readers, an unwitting Inspector Clouseau in an epic fantasy setting. Cugel’s adventures are still miles above your average sword-and-sorcery tale, but fail to reach the sublime heights of The Dying Earth.
TALES OF THE DYING EARTH is a great way to experience the baroque language and fertile imagination of Jack Vance. The stories are worth reading for his understated sense of irony and humor alone, along with the bizarre creatures, magical spells, and quirky societies. It’s amazing that Vance was able to maintain a similar tone over 30 years of writing. For my money, though Cugel the Clever is Vance’s most memorable scoundrel, my favorite book was The Dying Earth, as it had a perfect balance of science and fantasy in an unforgettable setting, even 65 years after the initial publication.
The Dying Earth — (1950-1984) Publisher: One of Jack Vances enduring classics is his 1964 novel, The Dying Earth, and its sequels — a fascinating tale set on a far-future Earth, under a giant red sun that is soon to go out forever. Here, in one volume, is Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning author Jack Vance’s classic Dying Earth saga: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugels Saga, Rialto the Marvellous. Travel to a far distant future, when the sunbleeds red in a dark sky, where magic and science is one, and the Earth has but a few short decades to live…