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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance

Tales of the Dying Earth: The Dying Earth/The Eyes of the Overworld/Cugel's Saga/Rhialto the Marvellous - Jack Vance

This is a book that should be read aloud, even if only to yourself. It has this elegant, primeval, oral-tradition quality that just doesn't resonate as well when it's only bouncing around inside your head. For example:

The light came from an unknown source, from the air itself, as if leaking from the discrete atoms; every breath was luminous, the room floated full of invigorating glow. A great rug pelted the floor, a monster tabard woven of gold, brown, bronze, two tones of green, fuscous red and smalt blue. Beautiful works of human fashioning ranked the walls. In glorious array hung panels of rich woods, carved, chased, enameled; scenes of olden times painted on woven fiber; formulas of color, designed to convey emotion rather than reality. To one side hung plats of wood laid on with slabs of soapstone, malachite and jade in rectangular patterns, richly varied and subtle, with miniature flecks of cinnabar, rhodochrosite and coral for warmth. Beside was a section given to disks of luminous green, flickering and fluorescent with varying blue films and moving dots of scarlet and black. Here were representations of three hundred marvelous flowers, blooms of a forgotten age, no longer extant on waning Earth; there were as many star-burst patterns, rigidly conventionalized in form, but each of subtle distinction. All these and multitude of other creations, selected from the best of human fervor.

Skim over that with your eyes, and it's just an unbroken wall of text, an overly long paragraph of description with entirely too many run-on sentences, semicolons, and words like "fuscous". A pompous, protracted way of saying, "The characters are now in an art museum."

But when you read it aloud, even in a whisper, there's suddenly depth and beauty to it, it becomes something you experience, an actual place. It's the kind of prose you have to be in the right mood for, and you have to be willing to give it the time it needs to properly wash over and through you, but it's worth it. It's so worth it.

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of loosely-connected short stories. They take place in the far-distant future, when the sun is a senile red giant and the moon has drifted away. Earth is covered in ruins, and peopled with sorcerers and demons, evanescent gods and strange creations forged by spellcraft. Everyone talks in perfect grandiloquent diction, whether speechifying or talking smack ("Careful, Etarr, lest I mischief you with magic. You may go limping, hopping hence with a body to suit your face. And your beautiful dark-haired child shall be play for demons." Ooooh, burn. "I have magic as well, and even without I would smite you silent with my fist ere you worded the first frame of your spell." Oh, NOW it's on like Donkey Kong...) If you're in the mood for this high-fantasy sort of linguistic ostentation, it doesn't get much better than this book.

My favorite story here is "Ulan Dhor", about a young man who is sent off to the ancient city of Ampridatvir (say that five times fast) seeking hidden treasure. What he finds is the ruins of an incredibly technologically-advanced city, millennia-dead, but with some of the expertly-designed technology still (eerily) functioning. Living there are the descendants of the two warring religious groups whose rivalry originally caused the city's downfall. They're still zealous, still mortal enemies, but now they have reached a point where they actually can't see each other anymore. It's the situation in Miéville's The City and the City, only thoroughly creepier. Ulan Dhor breaks the spell that keeps the factions invisible to each other, and uncovers the secret that has kept the city dormant for so long. Only, the restoration of the city to its original glory is not a triumph, but an abject Lovecraftian horror. The finale of this story is pure high-octane nightmare fuel, and it is awesome.

And actually, for a book that belongs nowhere near the horror shelves, there are quite a few completely pants-shittingly terrifying scenes. There's one story that ends with the phrase "I am Chun the Unavoidable," which sounds kind of silly out of context, but OH MY GOD. My nightmares from here on out will forever feature a shadowy beast that sneaks up behind me to whisper softly in my ear: "I am Chun the Unavoidable." *SHUDDER*

And then there's the love story between the defective bitter spell-born girl and the hideous demon man who pissed off the wrong witch and ended up cursed forever. Their only hope is that a long-drowned god will take pity on them and heal their disfigurements. It's like "Bitchy Beauty and the Beast", and it's unexpectedly tender.

There are no bad stories in this book, though some falter here and there with rambling sidetracks that go nowhere (what was the point of the sinister flute-player and his daughter in "Guyal of Sfere"? Sure, it's creepy - SUPER DUPER MEGA CREEPY - but it goes on for pages and has nothing to do with the rest of the story...) But overall, this is a solid, strange, luminescent set of tales. I so want to read them aloud as bedtime stories to some unsuspecting kid, but I think that would qualify as child abuse in some states. Still, I think I could do a pretty awesome "I am Chun the Unavoidable" voice. *mwahahahahaha*


5 July 2011