Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review of Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

First half of Jack Vance’s Cugel duology, The Eyes of the Overworld (aka Cugel the Clever), is a riot of wit, charm, and the most colorful storytelling that a reader can encounter. Rogue an unintended wayfarer (as we all are, to some degree), his quest to capture the ‘eyes of the overworld’ and return them the Laughing Magician is the joy of fiction in 150 pages. The last pages of that book indicating just how two-edged Cugel’s ‘cleverness’ is, it remains for Cugel’s Saga (1983), second and final book in the duology, to complete Cugel’s tale.

Having accidentally transported himself back to the very same place at which he started his quest for the eyes of the overworld, Cugel’s Saga opens with Cugel standing on said shores, with nothing in his pockets, wondering what to do. Heading in a different direction, he comes upon the manse of a magician, and there finds gameful employment collecting the scales of a dead demon from from a pit of slime, all for pitiful pay. Escaping the miserly magician on his own terms, Cugel once again finds himself alone in the wide world, but with a numinous object in his pocket tat he feels will surely lead him to revenge on Ionuscu, the Laughing Magician.

If The Eyes of the Overworld is as fun as fantasy can be, then Cugel’s Saga only enhances and complements it, completing Cugel’s tale. Vance deploys every ounce of his wit, cleverness, and imagination resulting in a follow up that is at least what people who like the first novel want, plus more.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference of Cugel’s Saga to Overworld is the roundness of Cugel’s character. Where in Overworld he was largely one, occasionally two-dimensional, in Cugel’s Saga Vance plays with all three dimensions. Is Cugel going to win the Nobel Prize for sensitivity to character and the human condition, no. But certainly Vance has invested in him a subtlety that does not belie the ostensibly comedic nature of his adventures. Readers will find more to relate to in him as a human than most works of science fiction and fantasy. Thus, the book's ornamentation is of the most colorful, imaginative variety, but at heart Cugel has something of all of us whether we express it or not.

In the end, Eyes of the Overworld is brilliant, but Cugel’s Saga fills out the theme and character in a way that is more relatable, sustained, and outright satisfying. For me it is the crack-cocaine of my library, and I have to do my best not to indulge too often lest I spoil the experience.

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