Talk about hidden treasures! In the last few months I’ve read two works by the late great Jack Vance. These are the kind of books I kick myself for reading – because I haven’t read them sooner.
Let’s start off with some general discussion about the author. This is a guy who knows how to be spare when he needs to be spare, florid when he needs to be florid. He knows how much characterization someone needs and how the character is serving the story’s purpose. I mean, someone who writes, there are moments when you’re reading Vance and you think – ok, this is how it’s done. This is what I should be striving for. He’s so deft. He can build a world in a page and half and it is as real as anything the fantasy writers take pages and pages to develop. But let’s get to the specifics.
I’ll start with The Demon Princes. This is collection of five novellas hooked together as a tale of revenge. Most of Kirth Gersen’s family was killed when he was a young boy – murdered in a massacre conducted by the five most evil men in the known galaxy. Only he and his grandfather survived, and since that time, the old man has been training young Gersen to be seek these men out, the demon princes, to kill them. It’s a great hook, deceptively simple but the vagaries Kirth has to go through to get to these men are not simple at all. I’m not going to detail all five books. I’ll just say that the fourth, the Face, was my favorite, because of the grand climax at the end. It is a joke that soars, so to speak. That’s an intentional pun and you’ll have to read to find out more.
The last book is also very good. The hook: what it would be like to have the bullied kid show up at his high school reunion as the most successful criminal of all time? Given all the bullying propaganda that plays out in the schools nowadays, this made for a very interesting read. The last demon prince is no tortured soul to be pitied. Hoo, boy no.
Each of the chapters in these books have artifacts (newspaper clippings, historical treatises, diary samples) that begin them. At first, I found these to be hard going. I’ll admit to that. It’s almost the same frustration I feel reading a short story collection – that feeling that I’ve got to come out of the story I liked and have to now get to know characters and place I didn’t know before. But very quickly, I got over this hang up and began to enjoy the inserts for the gems they were. Often they would give a glimpse of a world, terrible and new, that Kirth would soon be visiting. The world full of poisonous plants was one such highlight. Another: a desert planet with stinging insects that houses a “prison” where people around the galaxy are held for ransom until someone pays up. Again, I stand in awe at his economy of description and how interesting and distinct all these places are in his fiction.
Demon princes is in the highly recommend category. I actually read a fight scene and sent it to a friend via text. It was that good.
From science fiction adventure, let’s next turn to Vance’s work in fantasy. I was equally impressed, if not more so, by the first volume in his Lyonesse series, Suldrun’s Garden. All the encomiums above apply here: economy of description, vivid places, characters rounded when they need to be, their wants clear and the action tight. But let me highlight a few things that became even more apparent in this work.
In the Demon Princes adventures, Kirth definitely doles out the frustration for his main character. There are plans made by the hero and they are summarily thwarted by the evil men themselves or, sometimes, pure happenstance. This is taken to another level in Suldrun’s Garden, and it makes for terrific surprise in the fiction. I have read enough fantasy fiction that I thought myself immune to surprise. Vance cured me quickly of that vanity.
Suldrun is an unwanted, unloved daughter of a Casmir, a cold and calculating king of Lyonesse. A few words about the fun setting: Lyonesse and the other kingdoms dealt with in this trilogy are fantastical but not otherworldly. They are set on the Elder Isles, a clump of landmasses further west into the Atlantic from Europe and the British Isles and have since sunk into the ocean. It is a fun way to make the tropes of fantasy more grounded, because they are definitively earthbound, but also allows Vance to create a miniworld to his heart’s content.
But back to the problems and surprises. You feel a growing connection for Soldrun as you read on, the uncaring father mentioned above is matched by a mother, the queen, who is equally uninterested in her beautiful daughter. Soldrun finds solace in a secret garden, tends it, seeks it out whenever possible as a relief from her lessons in the castle. She grows up, alone often but not lonely, content in her own way. Eventually a young man, fallen off a ship, is washed up on the shore that runs along the edge of the garden. You get the picture from there.
But that quick plot summary doesn’t nearly do the book justice. It can veer from fairy tales that last only a few pages, complete and beautiful like a crystals, and those are embedded in an epic that can last many chapters. But the book isn’t a simple quest tale. It has a few quests going on all the time. Revenge plots, tactical maneuvers of armies, the small details of a wet nurse’s life and how they can impact a kingdom. It’s just well done and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
So, I guess I’m a new fan. A fanatic in fact. What about you? Have you read an author from the past recently that got you excited? Leave it in the comments and I’ll add it to my list.