(or as Vance preferred, Cugel the Clever) (1966).
Figuratively and literally (at least in the text), The Eyes of the Overworld, first of the two Cugel novels, is magic. Ostensibly far-far-far future Earth, the sun is a dying red blob in the sky, occasionally fading out to pop back to life, while below on Earth humans live a quasi-futuristic/Medieval existence. One such existence is Cugel. At the outset, he is a wannabe tradesman at a flea market who quickly succumbs to his baser instincts at the behest of a fellow seller. Coming to regret his decision to steal from the local magician’s manse, Cugel finds himself thrown across the sky into foreign lands with the spells of the Laughing Magician impelling him to find and acquire an object of inestimable value and bring it home. All manner of being resourceful (a useful trait considering he gets himself into trouble as much as he avoids it), Cugel fulfills his mission, sort of. But as with most things, it’s the journey not the destination…
What some might call “Vance’s thing”, Overworld has a sharp eye to human culture, and what grounds us fundamentally as humans. Conveyed in sharp, overt fashion, however, the people and societies of the novel may not bear outward similarities to us today but certainly at heart they are the people you know, love, and yes, hate. Vance able to sketch people in the shortest yet most telling lines, everywhere Cugel, and the reader, encounter the colorful and the exotic, and yet they remain people motivated by wholly human means.
A fundamental dichotomy of Overworld is thus altruism vs egotism. And it’s a relationship that Vance exploits in both the most humorous and unjust fashion from all sides. The rogue that Cugel is most often comes across as wholly egotistical. But when it comes in contact with more altruistic people, Vance succeeds in bringing readers’ emotions to the surface, the injustice apparent. But it’s the scenes in which Cugel’s egotism clashes with other characters’ selfish ways, particularly the clever manner in which Cugel handles these or doesn’t, which really shine, and make him lovable and understandable, and to some degree sympathetic. The world is a tough place, Vance seems to posit, and sometimes a person just needs to look out for themselves, something we can all relate to. And other times, they need to pay the price.
And the diction, oh Vance, how I love your prose. The maker or breaker of a potential Vance addict—ahem, reader, the man’s style has no equal in fantastika. Primarily dialogue based, Cugel’s interaction with people strikes a most enjoyable contrast something akin to the Queen’s English spoken by clowns. If the joys of language are your thing, Overworld is laugh out loud funny.
At the end, it’s as I feared: I don’t feel I’ve done Eyes of the Overworld justice. It’s almost a book that needs to be experienced by the reader for them to make up their own mind. But like coconut, I imagine it’s such a specific creation that there can only be two outcomes: love or dislike. Thus, just try for yourself. Despite his rough ways, Cugel will either clash with your sensibilities and you can safely set the book aside, or, he will enter your blood stream, providing dose after dose of reading serotonin that will require Vance’s oeuvre to fully satisfy. Good luck!