For one thing, the book is better structured, with a framing story of the hero being sent on a quest and a sequence of related picaresque adventures as Cugel traverses exotic lands and meets monsters, maidens, ghosts, flying men, pygmies, giants, grotesque mutants and magic adepts. Concentrating on a single main character also helps, as there's no need to introduce and establish a new face in every episode.
“What lands lie between us and Almery?”
“They are wide and dangerous and peopled by gids, erbs, and deodands, as well as leucomorphs, ghouls and grues. Otherwise I am ignorant. If we survive the journey, it will be a miracle indeed.”
For a second thing, the presentation is less melancholic and resigned to a doomed future. Cugel is a lot more pro-active about saving his skin and getting ahead in the rat race. The book is a lot funnier that I expected, often in a subtle, sarcastic way, as the self-annointed 'Clever' scoundrel gets tricked time and time again. I would make a last observation on general approach: it seems that once the worldbuilding was established with the first collection, the author felt less need to include the science-fiction elements (flying cars, underground data centers, nanotechnology, cloning tanks. etc) and the new saga is almost pure sword & sorcery fun.
Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his somewhat lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candor, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth.
Word of the day, kids: Pertinacious :
1a: adhering resolutely to an opinion, purpose, or design
b: perversely persistent
2 : stubbornly tenacious
Sound like a swell hero in this first presentation, does he not? I'm not well enough versed in Jack Vance lore to say whether Cugel is a typical hero or not for the author, but he sure makes for a memorable scoundrel. Usually, when we say anti-heroes, we refer to grumpy, cankerous, reluctant fighters who hide a heart of gold and who are ultimately ready to sacrifice themselves for some cause or some friend. Not so with Cugel, who manages to be thoroughly self-absorbed and without any moral scruples. From the opening sequence where he casually tries to rob a powerful wizard only to get caught and sent on the main quest to recover a magical lens, Cugel will thoroughly demolish the myth of the noble Knight Errant by lying through his teeth, cheating at dice and cards, cowardly pushing other people in front when it comes to fighting, bashing innocent people on the head, selling the ladies he meets in bondage, leading a bunch of gullible pilgrims to their death, and on an on. Yet, I have come to enjoy following the rascal around, mostly because his schemes usually go awry and he gets tricked in his turn. Here's just one example of the sneaky sense of humor to be found in these pages (Cugel tries to get a free meal and 'nympharium privileges' from a wizard; the wizard tries to discourage him):
- "I will gladly perform a more comprehensive divination, though the process requires six to eight hours.”
- “So long?” asked Cugel in astonishment,
- “This is the barest minimum. First you are swathed head to foot in the intestines of fresh-killed owls, then immersed in a warm bath containing a number of secret organic substances. I must, of course, char the small toe of your left foot, and dilate your nose sufficiently to admit an explorer beetle, that he may study the conduits leading to and from your sensorium. But let us return to my divinatory, that we may commence the process in good time.”
... Uhmm, Thanks, but no thanks!
The use of language is superb throughout the volume, a little toned down in terms of polychrome / psychedelic landscapes but with a more jocular bent in the dialogue and in the pseudo-scientifical theories:
Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a suprapullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a crystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute.
(I guess that's a wizard explaining how a summoning spell works, or the operating principle of a washing machine, I can't remember precisely)
Beyond the picaresque adventures, there are deeper meanings for the reader that wants to discover them in the text. The central quest sends Cugel to a village where all the inhabitants live in squalor, but also wear all wear rose-tinted glasses that permit them to look upon the Overworld:
I dimly recall that I inhabit a sty and devour the coarsest of food — but the subjective reality is that I inhabit a glorious palace and dine on splendid viands among the princes and princesses who are my peers. It is explained thus: the demon Underherd looked from the sub-world to this one; we look from this to the Overworld, which is the quintessence of human hope, visionary longing, and beatific dream. We who inhabit this world — how can we think of ourselves as other than splendid lords? This is how we are.”
This ecosystem is not self-supporting, so a second village must exist, where peasants toil for years in the hope oneday they will inherit one of the magical lenses. If you want, you might look upon it as a metaphor of the American Dream : you might live in the gutter, but one day you too could live in the house on the top of the hill, eating posh food and hobnobbing with the jet-set, looking at the world through distoring glasses and seeing only beauty and happiness all around.
Another recurring theme for Vance is religious intolerance and faith as a con game. In the first book, there was an island with two warring sects. Here there's a group of pilgrims discussing their varied points of view around campfires and during a river journey. A hilarious anti-young-earth argument develops:
The so-called Funambulous Evangels, who, refusing to place their feet upon the ground, went about their tasks by tightrope. In a curt voice Lodermulch exposed the fallacies of this particular doctrine. “They reckon the age of the earth at twenty-nine eons, rather than the customary twenty-three. They stipulate that for every square ell of soil two and one quarter million men have died and laid down their dust, thus creating a dank and ubiquitous mantle of lich-mold, upon which it is sacrilege to walk.
True to his character, Cugel is using his silvered tongue to make it look like he is one of the pilgrims, only to offer another opportunity to Vance to showcase his sarcastic sense of humor:
- “And you, Cugel the Clever, for once you are reticent. What is your belief?”
- “It is somewhat inchoate,” Cugel admitted. “I have assimilated a variety of viewpoints, each authoritative in its own right: from the priests at the Temple of Teleologues; from a bewitched bird who plucked messages from a box; from a fasting anchorite who drank a bottle of pink elixir which I offered him in jest. The resulting visions were contradictory but of great profundity. My world-scheme, hence, is syncretic.”
The ending is superb, I can't tell you much about it without spoiling the fun, but it is a typical Cugel messy project, one I believe would make a great Pink Panther or Monty Python skit.
On to the third book.
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|Title||The Eyes of the Overworld (The Dying Earth, #2)|
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|Book rating||4.17 (1971 votes)
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