I was going to post different review, but hearing of Jack Vance's passing this past week, I've decided to pay a small tribute to the master of the imaginative fantastic by posting a review of one of his novels, instead. Thanks for the stories, Jack.
By the mid ‘70s, Jack Vance had established himself as an important name in science fiction and fantasy. Having gotten initial forays into pulp out of the way, he’d reached a strong mid-point in his career. With the unique Blue World, well-developed Emphyrio, and, if anything else, highly imaginative and entertaining Tchai series under his belt, Vance’s books had found a singularity of voice that would later be taken to even greater heights in the Cugel saga, Lyonesse, and Cadwal Chronicles. Perhaps the most mature of this transition period, the author’s 1976 Maske:Thaery deserves more attention than it receives.
Maske: Thaery is the story of Jubal Droad. A second son, Jubal is left to seek gainful employment outside the home upon the death of his father and the ascendancy of his older brother to the Droad house seat. The isolated peninsula where they live, Thaery, dominated by a traditional social structure, House Droad is viewed by the other Houses as haughty, forthright, and all too lacking in restraint—character traits Jubal unwittingly exhibits to a T. A slight to his House’s honor occurring while Jubal is in the wilds one day, the remainder of the book is Jubal’s quest to effect reprisal, but the form it comes in is not what he inititally hopes.
While this synopsis may seem to present Maske: Thaery as yet another Vance tale of ingenious revenge a la The Demon Princes or Lyonesse, rest assured the novel is one of Vance’s more delicate works. The narrative polished smooth, it contains every ounce of Vance’s hallmark style, but trades salience for subtlety in a fashion that interestingly leans more toward realism than the arch wryness of Cugel or Araminta Station. Jubal deadpanning lines that are spot-on, it’s low fidelity cannot be stressed enough.
That Vance couples the consistently smooth prose with theme, however, is what makes Maske:Thaery one of his best. Shoring up two fronts, on one hand Jubal’s story is a coming-of-age. His sense of entitlement and struggles within the established social and political system not going easily at first, Vance advances his characters in tiny steps to a higher plane of understanding: some things simply must be accepted or dealt with in a manner other than forthright aggression. The other thematic front is one that does not reveal itself until late in the novel, so it’s best to leave the details to the reader. Suffice to say, Vance’s social and cultural concerns—undoubtedly a product of his own peripatetic ways—remain relevant to this day. If only the solution in the novel existed in reality, many of our ills could be dealt with in proper fashion.
For those concerned this talk of so-called literary qualities may in fact damage the novel, fear not. Vance’s imaginative world building, culture sculpting, scene setting, deft plotting, and sublime observations on the little things that make humanity tick are present in full quantity from front to back. Those interested in entertainment will no doubt shake their head in confusion at the denouement. Everyone else, however, will fully comprehend the manner in which Vance intertwines the two aforementioned thematic fronts to produce an atypical yet poignant closing that remains fully the author’s original style.
In the end, Maske: Thaery is certainly one of the more unique works in Jack Vance’s oeuvre. Part bildungsroman, part cautionary, and all story, the master of imaginative science fiction and fantasy weaves yet another highly readable tale of intergalactic culture and adventure. Reviving a motif from “The Moon Moth”, hinting at the indignation of Cugel that was to come, and sketching out a setting that would later be reworked in the Cadwal Chronicles, the novel comes highly recommended for anyone who enjoys the author. One of many great entry points, no reason not to start here if you haven’t tried Vance yet.