“Songs of the Dying Earth” is an homage to the Dying Earth world of Jack Vance. The list of authors who have contributed to this tome reads like a who-is-who of today’s top fantasy writers and I am delighted to hold this marvelous collection in my hands. As setting and style are predefined, the stories don’t win prices for special originality. However, almost all entertain and some even manage to capture the unique spirit of Jack Vance or to enrich the existing tales. It was a pleasure to roam once more the familiar world and to see some famous authors play with the toy. Each story features an afterword in which the author describes his or her relation to Jack Vance.
The rating of the stories is A (excellent), B (good) or C (didn’t like it).
(B) The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale by Robert Silverberg is a light, melancholic story. A man reflects on his life and has to find a way to get rid of intruders. The pieces of poetry add much to the atmosphere, the extensive listings of various items on the other hand slow down the speed too much.
(B) Grolion of Almery by Matthew Hughes is a dark adventure story about a very special house. It starts quite interesting, telling the story from an unusual perspective, but the events in the end went over my head. I am not a big fan of Matthew Hughes so your mileage may vary.
(A) The Copsy Door by Terry Dowling is a wonderful light story about a sorcerer who finds himself trapped in a troublesome situation. Very clever and very funny.
(C) Caulk the Witch-Chaser by Liz Williams felt unmotivated. Caulk is forced to look for an owl in a very dangerous country. I didn’t understand why he could be forced nor did I like how the story unfold.
(A) Inescapable by Mike Resnick tells the story of a watchman who falls in love with a beautiful witch. This is a funny and smart story, making the connection to a very famous Vance story. Highly recommended.
(A) Abrizonde by Walter Jon Williams is another highlight. Vespanus, a constructor by profession, is stuck in a castle which is under attack. With the help of his servant he invents counter-schemes but the enemies are not dumb. Very smart and very entertaining.
(B) In The Traditions of Karzh by Paula Volsky Farnol of Karzh has to show his mastership as a sorcerer. He has neglected this part of family tradition as best as he could but now he is forced to gain knowledge – quickly. I was turned off by the boring way how the quest starts. The adventures though were interesting, especially the encounter with the pelgrane.
(A) The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod by Jeff VanderMeer is the next highlight. Its strong points are the characters. They are on a quest but they are also forced to think about who they are. I find it amazing how Jeff is able to describe believable relationships in just a few words. Recommended.
(B) The Green Bird by Kage Baker is a Cugel story. It’s not bad and the twist at the end is really good but it never felt like the real Cugel.
(A) In The Last Golden Thread by Phyllis Eisenstein a merchant son desperately wants to become a sorcerer. His motivation is led astray when he meets a famous witch looking for a golden thread to complete her carpet. A very well told story with neat ideas.
(B) An Incident at Uskvosk by Elizabeth Moon features interesting characters and events but I had a big problem with the social structures. Usually the servants look for holes in their arrangements with the master and try to cheat them. Not so in this story where we have a powerless dwarf who is trapped in an unfortunate situation. I don’t know how this fits into the Dying Earth scenario.
(A) Sylgarmo’s Proclamation by Lucius Shepard is a dark revenge story with great imagination and gets an A-. What I didn’t like was the sinister way in which Cugel is described and actually I didn’t care much what became of him in the end. The rough way of life is described excellently though.
(A) The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee by Tad Williams not only has the longest title, it’s a funny story in which the blackmailer has to pay for his crime. There is a dark twist in the end that provides some unsuspected depth. Recommended.
(A) Guyal the Curator by John C. Wright starts very slow with setting up the scene. An effectuator, whose main source of power is a special wand, wants to help a man who has lost his memory. Obviously this man has some insight into the artifact so both begin to look for traces. What begins is an exciting adventure with religious overtones. Recommended.
(C) Stripped down to the bare essence, The Good Magician by Glen Cook is not a bad story. The inferior sorcerer Alfaro has a vision. A bunch of top-class magicians are summoned immediately to investigate the secret, which goes far back into history. It’s nice to meet some old characters, but I found the plot hard to believe and disappointing.
(C) It’s telling that the introduction to The Return of the Fire Witch by Elizabeth Hand doesn’t loose a word about the story. After some pages I felt puzzled and confused – and gave up.
(B) The Collegeum of Mauge by Byron Tetrick is a very light and cheerful story about a man who is looking for his father. He stumbles into a group of wannabe sorcerers who have just started with their training. To be honest, the begin reads more like fan fiction but the second half is fine, introducing an interesting twist.
(A) Evillo the Uncunning by Tanith Lee is by far the funniest story of the collection and in true tradition to Jack Vance. An orphan with a tough childhood meets an intelligent snail and starts the adventure of his life. His naive worship for Cugel combined with the magic skills of the snail lead to unexpected situations. Highly recommended.
(A) The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons is the longest piece and pretty much reads like a Jack Vance story. The keeper of the Ultimate library has died and turned to stone. This attracts many magicians who are still on Earth, among them Shrue the diabolist. Although he quickly finds the library, it’s only the start of an exciting and dangerous adventure. A beautiful story with special care on the characters, breathing life into the dying Earth. It even features a second illustration showing the main protagonists.
(B) The Frogskin Cap by Howard Waldrop is a short piece which shows that even at the end of days someone cares for knowledge. Nothing special but well told.
(A) A Night at the Tarn House by George R.R. Martin is exactly that. Three different people meet in a shabby Inn. Nothing is at it seems and strange things happen. This is a dark, vicious story with great characters. Recommended.
(B) In An Invocation of Incuriosity by Neil Gaiman the sun finally dies. Does it mean the end? Not if you have a backdoor! An interesting story although it doesn’t do full justice to the Dying Earth setting.
My first Jack Vance book was Alastor and I have read it many times. On various rainy Sunday mornings I stayed in bed, picked up the book and enjoyed the exotic worlds, the different people and the unusual societies. Later I read almost everything written by Jack Vance, the Tales of the Dying Earth being one of the last but I immediately loved Cugel and his funny adventures and admired the setting at the end of Earth’s days.