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Tonight's book review

'Songs of the Dying Earth - Stories in Honour of Jack Vance', edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Jack Vance's Dying Earth setting is one of my favourite of all fantasy settings. It's an Earth so far in the future that the Sun is pale and red and ready to sputter and die at any moment, all of which tends to lend the characters who inhabit the world a certain inevitable melancholy. Add to this peculiar setting Vance's own eccentric turn of phrase and you get a truly glorious fantasy sequence.

Influential too, and not just in fantasy literature. The D&D magic system was based on that in the Dying Earth and Cugel the Clever, the cunning and amoral anti-hero of 'The Eyes of the Overworld' and 'Cugel's Saga' has been identified by Gary Gygax as the model for the D&D thief class.

Vance is still with us, but he's in his nineties now. It's nice that this tribute anthology was published now and not too late for him to see.

And what an impressive anthology. I don't know who it was who assembled the authors (22 in all) who each contributed a Dying Earth short story, but there are some very good writers here (including genuine A-listers like Martin, Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman).

Some of the authors have used existing Dying Earth characters. Some (but not all) have attempted to write in something approaching Vance's style - a tough challenge for any fantasy author I would imagine. They all, without exception, manage to capture that strange end of days melancholy that is such an important part of the original stories.

Incidentally, if you haven't read The Dying Earth, read Vance's stories first, even if you are tempted to read a short story here by your favourite author. Trust me, you will get so much more out of reading in that order.

I won't review each of the 22 short stories, but I would like to pick out my personal favourites.

Mike Resnick's 'Inescapable' is a fable of unrequited lust featuring one of Vance's best creations from the first Dying Earth book.

Kage Baker's 'The Green Bird' sees Cugel once again attempting to devise a cunning plan to acquire a magical treasure. As is ever the case, Cugel turns out to be much less clever than he thinks he is.

Glen Cook's 'The Good Magician' takes us back to the competitive group of archmages we met in Vance's 'Rhialto the Marvellous'.

Byron Tetrick's 'The Collegeum of Mauge' sees a young man searching for the father he has never met, and brings back a couple of Vance's best characters.

George R.R. Martin's 'A Night at the Tarn House' is one of those collection-of-weird-and-wonderful-characters-take shelter-at-a-strange-inn kind of stories. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman's 'Worlds' End'. Which brings me on to...

Neil Gaiman's 'An Invocation of Incuriosity', in which East Grinstead's finest gets the honour of finally killing the Sun.

All in all, a great collection of fantasy writing. But do read the Vance works first.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
Playing devil's advocate since I don't actually have a dog in this race, considering the stance on fanfic of at least one of these authors, I am moved to wonder where "stories in honour" end and fanfic begins?
May. 27th, 2010 07:20 am (UTC)
My guess would be that the difference is the permission of the original author?

Though it seems a little harsh to assume an either-or, as that would mean that authors that explicitly grant a licence to fanfic don't actually get fanfic, only 'stories in honour' and that fanfic is non-permissive by definition.
May. 27th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think that would be my view. 'Songs of the Dying Earth' is very definitely done with the blessing of Jack Vance, who wrote the foreword.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )