April 1st, 2012


Book Review: The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance

Old-school swords & sorcery that deserves its reputation as a "foundational" work of sci-fi/fantasy.

The Dying Earth

Hillman Publishing, 1950, 175 pages

The stories in The Dying Earth introduce dozens of seekers of wisdom and beauty - lovely lost women, wizards of every shade of eccentricity with their runic amulets and spells. We meet the melancholy deodands, who feed on human flesh and the twk-men, who ride dragonflies and trade information for salt. There are monsters and demons. Each being is morally ambiguous: The evil are charming, the good are dangerous. All are at home in Vance’s lyrically described fantastic landscapes, like Embelyon, where, “The sky [was] a mesh of vast ripples and cross-ripples and these refracted a thousand shafts of colored light, rays which in mid-air wove wondrous laces, rainbow nets, in all the jewel hues....”

The dying Earth itself is otherworldly: “A dark blue sky, an ancient sun.... Nothing of Earth was raw or harsh—the ground, the trees, the rock ledge protruding from the meadow; all these had been worked upon, smoothed, aged, mellowed. The light from the sun, though dim, was rich and invested every object of the land ... with a sense of lore and ancient recollection.” Welcome.

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Verdict: Vance's Dying Earth may not have quite the influence of Hyboria or Melniboné or even Amber, and it's not quite as literary as Gene Wolfe's Urth, but Vance is still a hugely influential writer without whom modern fantasy (and particularly fantasy gaming) would not be quite the same. The characters and stories in this book aren't extremely memorable, but the prose is lyrical (a term I don't use often) and it's an interesting, fantastic, slightly alien world that will nonetheless be familiar to anyone who's read a lot of genre fantasy. In other words, it's well-written and a lot of fun.

My complete list of book reviews.