Tales of the Dying Earth (2000 omnibus) by Jack Vance

TalesoftheDyingEarth2000Examining an author’s work over the course of four decades often takes time and some degree of commitment, but the 2000 omnibus of Jack Vance’s stories set in his most popular and influential fictional world, Tales of the Dying Earth (2000), provides us with an array of textures from a long and varied career.

And array, it is. For each one of the four Dying Earth books does something different, and the differences in quality are vast. Among these four installments of fix-ups and restarts, we encounter three versions of Vance.

Vance #1: Vance?

The Dying Earth (1950)

A wunderkammer of sorts, and perhaps the most explicit exploration of Vance’s far future, preapocalyptic world. The sun’s power is waning, with its dying rays permeating the atmosphere with a reddish glare, while twisted, gnarled trees and succulents dominate the lush setting. We meet the amateur sorcerer Turjan, his failed gene-mod experiments, a set of opposite twin women (who kind of have agency!), and some monsters. You get the sense that the stories only exist for the sake of world-building, but it’s worth it when the world is so intriguing. It’s enjoyable, even when every other mystery is “this woman may or may not be a witch,” which provokes a few good-humored eye rolls.

Gene Wolfe has credited Vance with inspiring the setting of The Book of the New Sun, and this particular set of stories most brings to mind the lush decay and disconnect of Severian’s world, though this is clearly just a surface read and nothing like Wolfe’s narrative puzzles. (Though, I really thought Vance was going somewhere with those twin women, but, alas, no.) (I really wanted more of T’sain and T’sais.)


Vance #2: Vance!

The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), (and damn the editor who thought that was a better a title over Vance’s preferred Cugel the Clever, which is a more fitting name.)

TalesoftheDyingEarth1966Speaking of Severian, here we meet the listless vagabond, Cugel the Clever, which he isn’t. But Vance is. Vance isn’t the most talented or technical author, but he manages a clever trick by invoking reader responsiveness to his amoral fuckup protagonist. Cugel is a criminal, a liar, a lazy twit. More like Cugel the Crooked and Possibly Deluded.

Finally a fantasy story that doesn’t take itself too seriously! When Cugel abandons damsels to distress, when his trickery backfires, when he turns tail and flees the story at the climax, we see Vance’s true colors shine through. Those trite, annoying traits of fantasy fiction are lampooned here: the chivalry, the bravery, the moral superiority, those delineated lines of good and evil… it’s all exaggerated and flimsy to the point of ridicule. And better yet, despite all of Cugel’s shortcomings, you’ll cheer when he finally gets laid (if only for a little bit, because that will backfire, too).

This is comedy gold. And even better, it’s deadpanned the whole time. No authorial elbow nudges here.

If you only read one Vance selection, make sure it’s this one.


Vance #2.5: More Vance!

Cugel’s Saga (1983)

More of our dim antihero’s hapless adventures. Some parts published previously, but less of a fix-up than the previous two books, however, you get the sense that Vance is merely grasping to reclaim the past. More successful than not, but it doesn’t quite have the magic of the previous book.

And it rings a bit disingenuous. Cugel’s wit is a bit quicker. His ideas… just might work (even if he does kidnap a family of women and rape them). And that happy ending? Sorry, I prefer to see Cugel fall flat on his face.

Still good for those who miss fantasy’s favorite dimwit.


Vance #3: Vance.

Rhialto the Marvellous (1984)

Speaking of grasping. When the fans clamor for more, you must give in, right?

With Cugel’s story over, we meet Rhialto, a suave and intelligent foil to his idiot band of wizards. Lots of old dudes drinking and arguing in this one, which reminds me a bit of Leiber’s Ffhard and Gray Mouser tales. Ugh.

Along with his characters, Vance may have imbibed a bit too much while writing this one. Go home, Vance, you’re drunk.




She may or may not be a witch.

One thing that remains consistent throughout all four story collections is the humorous use of stilted, archaic dialogue. Much anti-contractionism:

       “Have no fear,” declared Cugel. “My word is my bond.”
“Excellent!” cried Iucounu. “This knowledge represents a basic security which I do not in the least take lightly. The act now to be performed is doubtless supererogatory.
(p. 140)


      Cugel frowned and tapped his chin. “Your question is more profound than it might seem, and verges into the ancient analyses of the Ideal versus the Real.”
      Faucelme sighed. “Tonight I have no zest for philosophy. You may answer my question in terms which proximate the Real.”
      “In all candour, I have forgotten the question,” said Cugel. (p. 435).

As you can see, that stiltedness heightens the humor. This kind of talk had me in fits of giggles. Even better, as was pointed out to me on Goodreads, the character names grow in absurdity over time: Ioucounu, Pharesm, Weamish, Hache-Moncour, Dulce-Lolo (Dulce-Losers Only Live Once, as I prefer to call him), as if to drive home the point that this is not to be taken seriously.

Also, after finally looking up the definition of the mysterious “IOUN stones,” I discovered that this inspired a lot of Dungeons & Dragons terminology. So that seems important, although I still don’t know what “IOUN stones” are.


Recommended for fantasy lovers. Recommended for fantasy haters. Particularly those middle Cugel stories. (Which is how I was advised by very reliable blog buddies, but since when have I ever taken advice?)

Next week: Sure, cuckoos are evil homewreckers, but enough with the inexact metaphor battery.

29 thoughts on “Tales of the Dying Earth (2000 omnibus) by Jack Vance

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    If I ever get a pet, I’m naming it Weamish.


  2. Steph says:

    I think I would enjoy the first but not the rest. I think I might like the humor of Cugel not being the consummate hero.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anton says:

    This is the best review of Vance’s stuff I’ve ever read. I personally never made it through the entire omnibus. As I pointed out when I was writing about this particular volume, Vance is for tasting, not for binging.

    And yes, D&D players should read Vance just to know where they come from. The idea that you can only hold so many spells in your head is definitely from here. There is an article on Tor.com somewhere about Vance’s influence on D&D.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I love your Dying Earth review! And I agree with Carl that your comparison to The Silmarillion is a good way to convey that mythic, saga feel of the first volume.

      The volumes with Cugel are very different from that first volume. You get a sense thar Vance was just dabbling in his world with that first part.

      It is for tasting, not binging. It took me a month to get through it (though mostly because I was contemplating dumping it when I got to Rhialto. Boring.)


  4. wildbilbo says:

    You just reminded me I need to read that Vance book I have at home – its one of those Ace Doubles (Son of the Tree & House of Iszm)…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For some reason, last night I had the feeling you would have a post up. if I’d known it was Vance I would have crawled my way to a computer!

    I’ve always liked the depth of world-building in The Dying Earth, but the characters and plots are so shallow—agreed that I would have liked to see more of T’sain and T’sais. Rhialto is like writing a half-hearted sequel thirty years after the greatest hits came out. It was like he was trying to do Cudgel without using either the journey bits or going 100% picaresque. I’ve re-read the others, but not this one, so you’re not alone there in finding it pretty meh.

    Cudgel is where it’s at. He’s an unlikable doof, but that’s what gives him his charm. That and you hit the nail on the head; Vance’s pseduo-archaic, quasi-baroque language just heightens the ludicrousness of it all. He didn’t write every story like that, but most of his works feel similar… part crazed, part refined, part antiquated. So if you liked Cugel, you’d probably enjoy something like the Jack Vance Treasury.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. These have long been on my list because of the apocalyptic element, but I have to say they have never managed to interest me much. But you have succeeded in getting me interested in Cugel. At least in that (I think it was) second book.


  7. Like with most authors in the SFF field (or possibly in any genre literature), you have to know what you read an author for, because they only very rarely deliver the whole package, so to speak. Vance one does not read for the plot or the deep characterization (or deep anything, for that matter) but one reads him for his fertile, bizarre imagination and the hothouse-flowery excesses of his language; and I think under this aspect The Dying Earth and even the Rhialto the Marvellous stories (“The Flying Sorcerers” was actually the first thing by Vance I ever read) work just fine – but then, I am a confessed admirer, so chances are I might be just a tiny bit biased. 😉

    And even I would agree that the volumes of Cugel’s adventures are the best by a very wide margin, and are doubtlessly among Vance’s best work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I am very impressed by Vance’s Cugel stories. His deadpan timing was excellent and his setting was fantastic.


    • And with knowing what you’re going into with each author is knowing there’s a lot of ups and down in quality. I like Vance for his humour, and sometimes the action can be swift (I generally get bored by action scenes); in serious mode he can be interesting, but as you say, characterisation and plotting leaves a lot to be desired. Emphyrio was a huge disappointment, though the first half I quite enjoyed with the father-son relationship, the father being far more interesting than the son who took over the story. That humour tends to permeate most of his work though. There’s a bit in The Dying Earth books where someone is asked for information, and the informant bargains different levels of information at different prices. It’s quite humorous just how it’s done.

      I am interested in reading the Alastor novels still though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I do enjoy Vance’s sense of humor, although it gets obnoxious in Rhialto. Too bad Emphyrio was a disappointment for you! I’ll probably still read it one day, but I was hoping it would be good.


        • Rob Gerrand says:

          Emphyrio is superb. I have just discovered your reviews, which are first rate, full of insight and witty. I recommend Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy, if you want to read one of the true classics of last century, in any genre


  8. unsubscriber says:

    Love that cheeky Ace cover, all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Rabindranauth says:

    Okay, I love the sound of this. Lolo, ha. Great review as always. Come to think of it, yours is the first I’ve read of this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      For some reason, I thought you had already read Vance. Yeah, I think you’d enjoy Vance, especially after your recent fantasy burnout.


  10. […] Tales of the Dying Earth (2000 omnibus) by Jack Vance I said I would just stick to the Cugel stories, but I ended up reading the entire thing… which made me wish I had just read the Cugel stories, and maybe that first volume, but I should have skipped the Rhialto stories. Rhialto is boring. […]


  11. […] and affect), it’s just another unwieldy fantasy adventure with lots of monsters popping up (which Vance had long ago already made fun of), and what Merrill refers to as another response to “myth-loss.” She describes the tale as […]


  12. […] The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) by Jack Vance, narrated by Arthur Morey […]


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