Friday, August 9, 2013

Forgotten Jack Vance Books: Lyonesse - aka Suldrun's Garden (1983)

This ain't really a review. It’s more like 1/8 of a review, because this book has 434 pages, and I’ve only read 58 of them. Will I read more? Chances are slim.

Suldrun's Garden was described as historical high fantasy, so I expected to like it. I’ve read a fair amount of historical fiction and some standout high fantasy, so a combo seemed a pretty cool concept. But five chapters into the book, I’ve yet to see the point.

The setting is a vast collection of islands and mini-continents in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (Atlantis territory) which are now lost to history. These lands are peopled by several races and several rival kingdoms, none of whom like each other much. There are occasional connections to the world beyond, like Roman ruins, trading ships that venture as far as Brittany, and encroaching Christianity.

Magic still works here. We see very little of it in the first 58 pages, but mention is made of mermaids, mermen, fawns and fairies. The heroine encounters semi-anthropomorphic chairs, and has actual face-time with a two-headed goblin and a magic mirror.

OK for purposes of a fantasy novel I can accept the notion that magic once existed and mythical beings roamed the earth. That’s Suspension of Disbelief 101. My problem is that Vance’s history is every bit as fanciful as his fantasy. This series (yes, it’s the first book of a trilogy) is set not long before the advent of King Arthur. If such a person actually existed - and that’s not impossible - it would have likely been around 700 A.D.

As I’m sure you know, the tales of King Arthur were put to paper sometime in the 12th Century, and portrayed the society of the 12th rather than the 6th Century. That’s a huge historical anachronism, and for purposes of Arthurian legend that‘s fine. But the Lyonesse series takes it a step further, giving us a 12th Century lost world before Arthurian times. I admire an author who plays games with history, but games upon games can get a little silly, and I find it distracting. I’d have preferred a straight fantasy.

On top of all that, the protagonist of this book, Suldrun, is a young girl. We meet her at four, check in at seven and again at ten, eleven and fourteen. The thing is, with rare exceptions (like maybe Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn) I despise stories with kid protagonists. Maybe Suldrun will get older. Maybe she’ll even grow up. But five chapters in she’s still a kid, and doesn’t interest me.

The same can be said of the story. So far it’s all set-up. We’re still being introduced to some of the world and some of the players, and getting hints of some of the possible conflict to come. But at this point the only storyline revolves around who, if anyone, Suldrun will be forced to marry. Ho hum. There‘s nothing to make me care what happens to Suldrun or her father the king or her mother or maids or goblins or magic chairs.

And yeah, there’s a garden, the one the book’s named after. But there’s nothing interesting about it, and nothing interesting has happened there. Jack Vance is a fine writer, as I know from other works, but do I really want to spend another 376 pages with this tiresome girl and her impossible world? And another 800-odd pages to complete the trilogy? The prospect holds little appeal.

Maybe it’s just me. In search of something different, I recently read The Sun Also Rises. It was OK, but seemed about 50% mundane narration, 30% travelogue, 10% bullfighting and 10% sexual frustration. I failed to see what all the fuss was about. I’m now twenty chapters into Anna Karenina, hailed as one of the greatest novels of all time. It’s OK too, but just that. It would seem I’m suffering from a major case of the literary blahs.

More Forgotten Vance Books (and others) at In Reference to Murder.


George said...

I agree with you. The Lyonesse series is not one of my favorite Jack Vance series. Too long and tedious. Vance's best work was written before 1980.

Kelly Robinson said...

I'm not a genre snob at all, but fantasy is probably the sole category I just can't get into. (Romance might be a close second.) I admire your honesty in saying you don't think you'll finish it.

Todd Mason said...

The LYONESSE sequence was perhaps too much a labor of love. (And Vance noted that everyone else was getting fat and rich off fat fantasy novels?) Do try the Dying Earth novels, or THE LANGUAGES OF PAO (which latter is sf rather than fantasy) before shutting all the books on Vance...

Evan Lewis said...

I know I read Dying Earth, probably Tales of, and I'm pretty sure about Languages too. But it's been a coon's age - around the same time I read The Fox Valley Murders. They're all hazy.

stevr said...

This was an excellent trilogy about the restoration of a kingdom through the complex interaction of a fascinating and varied cast of characters in a beautifully realized setting. The inability to appreciate this work may be the result of exposure to too many role-playing games, music videos, tweets, and other forms of minimal-attention-span-instant-gratification entertainment. I sympathize with the reviewer and hope there's a cure.

Harrumphrey said...

Did you mean fawns or fauns? Re: Arthur, any historicity links that chieftain with the fifth and sixth centuries, not the seventh. Re: Lyonesse, you really ought to read it in the V.I.E. edition. The middle book, The Green Pearl, is the best, and can be read on its own as an stand-alone. Of course with Vance's fantasy it's all about the Cugel books.

Harrumphrey said...

Pardon me, I meant not the eighth.