Howard and James’ Ten Vance Favorites
Recently the Skull issued a decree to various minions, bonded thralls, pseudo-sandestins, and temps from the secretarial pool to provide for his edification a list of their favorite works from the great and powerful wordsinger Jack Vance. Much of these replies were inferior, riddled with wrong opinions and bad taste, and those responsible were punished with hideous thoroughness for their failure. Only the perennial worthies Howard Andrew Jones and James Enge adequately fulfilled the Skull’s demands, not only sparing themselves a sorcerous expurgation, but providing a handy list of stand-out favorites from Jack Vance that make for a great recommended reading list.
Howard: With an author as gifted and prolific as Jack Vance it’s a challenge to select ten favorites because that list might change depending on your mood. It turns out that a lot of my favorites overlapped with James Enge’s, but we decided to discuss different books. And sometimes I cheated.
Five Vance Favorites from James Enge
To Live Forever/Clarges
A harrowing tale of revenge and social climbing in a futuristic city where the first prize is immortality and the second prize is death. The first prize is also death.
The Eyes of the Overworld
Here’s where I rant a bit. This is one of the greatest works of sword-and-sorcery ever written. An episodic novel whose episodes (mostly) appeared in F&SF during the 1960s, the story follows (but does not endorse) the actions of Cugel the Clever: thief, trickster, liar, and just a tad less clever than he thinks he is. He fails in an attempt to loot a sorcerer’s mansion and is hurled to the far side of the world. He has to con, sneak, and fight his way home to have his revenge on Iocounu the Laughing Magician, which he does… sort of. The setting is Vance’s greatest creation, the Dying Earth: full of magical traps, ancient menaces, and red shadows in the last days before the sun goes dark.
Maybe Vance’s funniest book. An eccentric millionaire drags her nephew and a picked company of Earth’s greatest operatic talent to stage an interstellar tour of opera performances before nonhumans. Nothing goes as planned.
The Blue World
This is an adventure novel on a worldwide ocean where human beings, having practically no resources except their own intelligence and determination, fight for survival against a sea monster. The biggest obstacle to survival is born from human nature itself—specifically, from superstition and greed. Vance has a satiric point to make, as he often does, but it gives weight to the story rather than distracting from it.
Vance has a number of novels where a young man has to make his way alone in the world against overwhelming odds. The theme must mean a lot to him (given how it echoes his own life). This book or Emphyrio might be the best of that bunch, though they are all pretty good. I give Maske: Thaery the edge because of its unusually satisfying ending, and the relentless wiliness of the hero, Jubal Droad.
Five More Vance Favorites from Howard Andrew Jones
Planet of Adventure (City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, The Pnume)
Here’s where I cheat and list all four books as my favorite Vance work, at least today. Four grand adventures of Adam Reith, a resourceful scout stranded on the planet Tschai, determined to find his way off planet. As usual with Vance, there are strange cultures and customs and stunning descriptive passages, but you also get a clever and determined central character who constantly surprises.
The Demon Princes (Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face, The Book of Dreams)
Did I mention I cheat at these things? I count all five books in this sequence as another favorite, yet on reflection I think it was the first three — written some twelve years before the last two — that I enjoy the most. The Demon Princes saga follows adventurer Kirth Gerson as he tracks down the five dangerous, terrifying criminals who enslaved the people of his settlement when he was a child.
Wyst: Alastor 1716
I like all of the Alastor novels — a very loose sequence of books tied together by their location in space as well as an occasional recurring character and customs — but Wyst, with its ongoing mystery (which I dare not reveal) and plot versus counterplot structure may be my favorite of them
The Dying Earth
Vance’s most famous novel, The Dying Earth remains a wonder, a series of loosely connected tales stunningly brought to life among weird imagery, strange and horrifying and wondrous places and fascinating people.
I wouldn’t want to meet Cugel, but I sure love to read about him, and I find this second book of his adventures just as enjoyable as his first, for all of the same reasons James cited above. And as an added bonus, if you’re craving just a little more Cugel the Clever, the late, great, Michael Shea wrote a delightful, note perfect, authorized book-length pastiche, A Quest for Simbilis, that slots in between the two books.