A few years ago Subterranean Press published what has ever since been my favorite anthology of all time — Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance. It’s a hefty collection of stories written by 22 authors who consider Jack Vance an influence on their own work. Each wrote a story set in Vance’s DYING EARTH universe and many of them attempted — often quite successfully —Vance’s trademark style. Each also wrote an afterward which explains how Vance influenced them personally. I’ve reviewed that anthology here.
This month Subterranean Press is releasing Dan Simmons’ contribution to that anthology as a hardcover stand-alone novella. It has previously been released on Kindle. The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz takes place in what seems to be the very last days of the dying earth when the sun is dim and sputtering and hardly seems to manage to heave itself into the sky most days. Many people have fled the earth, but Shrue the diabolist is staying because he wants to see what happens.
One day Shrue’s avian spies inform him that the powerful magician Ulfänt Banderōz lies dead in the Ultimate Library and Final Compendium of Thaumaturgical Lore, a place that Shrue has been trying for years to infiltrate. Immediately Shrue and KirdriK, his scary servant, set off to see if they can get into the library before any other magicians show up to loot it. Along the way they meet up with a fierce warrior maiden named Derwe Coreme who Vance fans will recognize as the girl that Cugel used so treacherously in The Eyes of the Overworld (aka Cugel the Clever). (As an aside, I find it interesting that Simmons chose her as Shrue’s companion — I wonder if he, like me, felt sorry for the girl and hoped for a brighter future for her). Shrue, KirdriK, and Derwe Coreme meet many strange creatures and have several bizarre adventures before their quest is done.
Several of the authors who wrote stories for Songs of the Dying Earth wrote a pastiche, and I noticed that those tended to be my favorite stories in the anthology because they captured not just Jack Vance’s world, but some of the elements I love most about his work, namely his vocabulary, prose style, dry wit, and droll dialogue. Simmons’ story, in contrast, is homage rather than a pastiche. It’s clearly set in the dying earth with landscapes and characters and creatures and even magic spells that we already know or that sound like they belong there. For example, we encounter pelgranes and demons, a city named Xeexees, a magician named Hrestrk-Grk, creatures from vats, and the familiar spell called Phandaal’s Excellent Prismatic Spray.
But Simmons doesn’t emulate Vance’s style. The vocabulary isn’t quite right (though he does use the words “efulged,” “sublimation” and “ichor”) and he throws in a few things that don’t quite fit such as a ritual called the Scaumish Rite of Multiple Erotic Connections (which has the right rhythm if not the right tone for a Vance story), a Conan the Barbarian allusion, the words “crap” and “shit,” the phrases “whatever the hell” and “ass-end of nowhere” and some sexual situations that are less obfuscated than Vance would have written. I think most noticeable, though, was when, after one of the characters says “Hand over the Nose,” Simmons writes “Something about the phrasing of that demand made both Shrue and Derwe Coreme laugh.” It may seem like such a petty nitpick, but Jack Vance never points out his jokes or cues us to laugh, so that felt out of place. In general I felt that Simmons missed the subtle humor that is such an important part of Vance’s style.
So, overall, I have to say that while I enjoyed spending time with Dan Simmons in Jack Vance’s world, and while I especially liked how he redeemed Derwe Coreme, his story was not one of my favorites from the anthology. I don’t know if Subterranean Press plans to release the other stories as stand-alones, but if they do I’ll be sure to point out my favorites in future reviews. (Though I think you should buy the complete anthology.)
This 120 page volume is gorgeously illustrated by Tom Kidd who, as far as I know, does all of the Jack Vance-related art for Subterranean Press. I love his work and the best part is that he must get his artwork in early because, though usually Sub Press sends me review copies without art, all the Jack Vance review copies have the art, which I’m always thrilled about. I’m including a larger cover here so you can see how awesome it is.
At the end of The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz is a sweet afterward in which Simmons’ talks about reading Jack Vance when he was a boy in the summer of 1960. As soon as I finished, I pulled out my own copy of The Dying Earth and presented it to my son. I want him to have memories like that.