The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Whereas Vance's previous volume in the The Dying Earth series was composed of several short stories, each featuring a different character, The Eyes of the Overworld focuses on one character, Cugel the Clever. Though the book is episodic in nature (each story was published separately over the course of a couple of years before being compiled in this volume), the character is consistent. And while the characters in The Dying Earth were capably presented in their individual stories, Cugel the Clever is featured in every story in this volume.
And rightfully so! The character that Vance has created here deserves, nay, needs a more lengthy format to shine. Vance is able to extrude the subtleties (if they can be called that) of his main character with this form because Cugel is, if not clever, complex. Well, he is clever from time to time or, more appropriately, cunning, but there are several times when he fancies himself much more clever than he actually is. Still, he is no clown. This presents a wonderful Wodehousian dynamic to the whole book. In a nutshell, it is rather funny throughout. The section that I will call "The Lodermulch Ruse" had me laughing aloud, and demonstrated one instance in which Cugel's ability to improvise proved brilliant. Still, his mis-steps make me think that Sergio Aragones must have read this work before penning his comic Groo The Wanderer. If anything, the title "clever" should have been reserved for Vance, not Cugel, though Vance's use of the title for Cugel shows some genius.
Cugel, caught in the act of thievery from the powerful magician Iocounu, The Laughing Magician, is forced on a quest for items of interest to Iocounu. To ensure cooperation, a small demonic, alien being named Firx is affixed to Cugel's liver. Firx, a'la the bomb implant in Snake Plissken in the movie Escape from New York, keeps Cugel "on task" by torturing his liver whenever he became distracted. This enforced quest is a sort of Grand Tour of the Dying Earth, introducing the reader to several strange peoples and customs. I was about to say "magic," as well, but in this setting, the line between magic, as thought of in most fantasy settings, and technological artifacts, as one would find in a science fictional setting, is blurred and sometimes altogether erased. There is a sense of deep time here. Not just of ancient magics, but of even more ancient technology whose creators are forever lost in the dull light of the giant red sun that once glowed bright yellow when these artifacts were first conceived.
Vance continues in the wonderful writing voice from his first volume in the series. Not too baroque or flamboyant (as, I admit, my own work can sometimes be), but with enough flair to keep one enthralled and engaged. The more I read Vance's style, the more I like it. It strikes a great balance: not too presumptuous, but not treating the reader like an idiot.
He's saved the idiocy for Cugel, and the world, whether out own or that of the Dying Earth, is better for it!
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