The 1980s found Jack Vance moving into his sixth decade of life. Imagination still sharp, he produced such works as the Lyonesse trilogy, the second half of the Cugel saga, as well as began the Cadwal Chronicles, Araminta Station published in 1989. The novel on par with the best of Vance’s oeuvre, the second novel in the series, Ecce and Old Earth, sees only a slight decline in quality, the story furthered in fine fashion. The third and concluding volume, however, is like a different writer took hold of the script. The story delivered is dry and bland, and does not come close to the bar set by the first two. Throy fortunately not bad enough to destroy the integrity of the series, the Cadwal Chronicles contain all of the tropes that make Vance, Vance, and likewise make the series well worth a read for any fan of the author.
The Cadwal Chronicles is the story of Glawen Clattuc and his fight to protect the planet Cadwal from being overrun by greedy developers and political dissidents. The planet set aside as a nature preserve and population limited many centuries prior by a group on Earth called the Naturalists, in the time that has passed since many things have changed for the worse on the planet. Aside from the deterioration of the Naturalists, a listless, unintelligent group called the Yips have slowly settled in the beautiful but dangerous forests of Cadwal and caused social problems of all variety. Making matters worse, the eight families designated to oversee the planet and ensure it’s pristine quality have begun to collapse internally, Glawen’s own family even suffering from in-fighting and civil turmoil. Through this mire of family feuds and social ills, not to mention political plays for power and motives of overblown revenge, Glawen needs every bit of wisdom and luck at his disposal to protect the planet he’s bound by duty to oversee.
Araminta Station opens the Chronicles in brilliant fashion. Life amongst the eight families and dealings with the Yips possess every ounce of wit and humor Vance has. (In my opinion, this is Vance’s funniest book.) The trumped up goals of the Bold Lions, the flawed reasoning of Spanetta and Arles Clattuc, the black sarcasm of Chilke, the extents of laziness the Yips have formalized, and, of course, the Big Chife rank high in imagination and cleverness. (For anyone who has walked the back streets of New Delhi or the lesser-known waterfronts of Shanghai will know exactly what the Big Chife is.) Not just humor, fantastical creatures, and detailed world building, the book tells a wonderfully good tale, as well. A handful of storylines unfolding from such a surprisingly simple premise, the reader never knows how things will turn out for Glawen, the suspense kept high by Vance at all times.
Ecce and Old Earth literally picks up the story where events of Araminta Station leave off. A Maguffin installed, the novel details the search for an artifact vastly important to the fate of Cadwal. Vance also features perhaps his greatest heroine, Wayness Tamm. In Nancy Drew fashion, Wayness sets about tracing the path of the artifact. Her travels take her to places not so unique in comparison to the other worlds Vance has created, but the characters she meets are amongst the greatest and dearest. Countess Ottilie (and her dogs) and Lefaun Zadoury are a delight to hear, the dialogue simply crackling.
Throy, unfortunately, closes out the series in tired fashion. A feeling that Vance had to write rather than wanted to write, pervades. Gone are the interesting twists and electric character interaction that defines the first two books. (If it’s any indication, Throy is only 292 pages, compared to the 480 and 420 page efforts of the first two.) Gone also is the feel of events and outcomes falling naturally into place. The plot proceeding linearly with no obstacles in sight, the entire middle section of the book could have been dealt with in a single paragraph without hindering the denouement—which is a poor one at that. Though justice is done, the concluding volume lacks the quality of the first two and ultimately prevents the series from being amongst Vance’s best. Were Throy to have been of the same caliber, easily Cadwal would be spoken of in the same breath as the Tchai and Cugel works.
In the end, the Cadwal Chronicles are still a great read despite the poor conclusion. Araminta Station is amongst Vance’s tip-top best and worth the series alone. It, however, cannot be read alone if the reader desires to know the conclusion of the handful of story arcs left unfinished. Ecce and Old Earth taking the baton and continuing the race in fine fashion, Throy sees the tank running dry. Story and dialogue simply does not meet the standard set by the first two. The series becoming increasingly difficult to buy at a cheap price, interested readers should strike now rather than later.