Complete Lyonesse by Jack Vance

(2010-09-09)

The Complete Lyonesse by Jack Vance

Afterword by Adam Roberts

Hardback: Black leather edition

Published by Gollancz, August 2010. (Originally 1983, 1985 and 1990.)

ISBN: 9780575090248

1028 pages

It’s not every day that a major publisher claims to be publishing one of the great masterpieces of fantasy. It is rarer still when such hyperbole actually may be deserved. Professor Adam Roberts, in his Afterword to this edition, claims that ‘Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books are the greatest fairy tale of the twentieth century.’ (page 1015.)

Here we have, not one, but the three books of Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy (Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl and Madouc) in one lovely looking volume, illustrated throughout by Les Edwards.

The first impression is that this is a tome that shows care for the material: for the first time ever, the text has been taken from the Vance Integral Edition (so eliminating textual errors), the paper is a fine quality and the endpapers by Dave Senior show a lovely map of Lyonesse, the ancient mythical island allegedly just off the South West coast of England. (Mention has been made that Lyonesse may have been the mythical Atlantis.)

Perhaps more importantly, the stories themselves are also wonderful. It would be wrong to tell all here, as much of the fun is in the telling. However, in brief:

Book One, Suldrun’s Garden, tells the tale of princess Suldrun, daughter of King Casmir of Lyonesse, who is brought up in the castle in Lyonesse Town. Her father agrees to marry her off to Faude Carfilhiot in order to solidify political machinations. When Suldrun refuses, she is abandoned and locked away in the part of the castle known as her garden. The arrival of a half-drowned sailor is actually found to be Prince Aillas of Troicinet, betrayed by his brother, Prince Trewan. Aillas is imprisoned by King Casmir, but not before Suldrun and Aillas fall in love. Whilst Aillas is imprisoned, believed dead, Suldrun has a baby, Dhrun. Under the care of Suldrun’s old nursemaid (to keep the child hidden from Casmir), Dhrun is taken by fairies and replaced with a female changling, Madouc.

Suldrun, believing that both father and child are dead, hangs herself in the garden she has been imprisoned in for all this time. Upon Aillas’s escape from his cell, he returns to the garden, is told by Suldrun’s ghost of the child and sets off on a quest to retrieve his son from the fairies.

In the meantime, jilted magician Faude Carfilhiot is involved in political machinations in order to achieve greater magical powers. Most of this involves conflict with fellow magician Shimrod, but it also means that he kidnaps Dhrun and ends up combating Aillas.

In Book Two, The Green Pearl, the tale tells of the creation of (through the death of Faude Carfilhiot) and the subsequent search for a legendary green pearl, from which destinies can be formed. So again, a quest novel of sorts, whilst Casmir and Aillas continue to battle between themselves and the issue of the changeling child is still to be resolved.

Book Three, Madouc, tells us more of the changeling daughter of Suldrun, Princess Madouc. Here she wishes to find out her background and thus there is a quest for knowledge and understanding. Like her mother, Madouc refuses to involve herself in a marriage alliance set up by Casmir. She instead becomes a prize for anyone who brings Casmir the Holy Grail. In another adaptation to the grail tale, Madouc, in turn, decides to search for the Grail herself in order to secure her own future.  This book is still as dark in places as the earlier books but my overall impression is of a lighter tone than the other two books, and so can thus sit a little oddly, though it is still great reading.

Such brief descriptions of quite lengthy and complex tales do not really do them justice. It is the way that they are written that makes these tales sparkle anew. They are, in turns, detailed, funny, bawdy, scary and romantic. Vance’s use of names and vocabulary makes these books a joy to read.

Though originally published separately they do work together as one tale. Overall, the tale, as in the best fairytales, is a magnificent mixture of history (though not necessarily our history), romance and myth – in this case, Arthurian legend. Amongst this we have honour and romance, lust and betrayal, and quests. There are kings and queens, princesses, witches and magicians, fairies, trolls and goblins. However, just in case that the use of the word ‘fairytale’ might give you an impression that this is a light, fluffy and somewhat inconsequential tale, it must be said that this is most definitely not. It can be rather dark. The creatures here are quite nasty, to say the least. There are scenes that are definitely adult in nature – sex and even rape are part of the tapestry of life here, for example.

The books themselves are typical Vance: deftly written, filled with unusual words, strange names and stranger events. There is that mischievous Vance humour too: names such as Queen Sollace and Kerce, (as ever with Vance, say them out loud to get a full impression), weird things that outside the context of the novel sound bizarre: drumming hedgehogs, anyone?

And yet its tone is such that a reader cannot fail to be impressed. For all its fun and frivolity, within the context of the novels, it works.  The characterisation is well done, the sense of place otherworldly and yet wonderful. This is clearly not our world, and not (unlike many) a medieval Fantasy tale in Tolkienesque trappings. It is richer and deeper than many.

For those who have not read Vance before but have liked some of the more recent big sellers, there are echoes of Tad Williams’ Osten Ard here, as well as some of that Song of Ice and Fire world building – except that this one predates them all. It may be worth mentioning here, if it wasn’t known already, that Vance’s influence on George RR Martin has been noted by the man himself, as too Raymond Feist and Terry Pratchett (Both quoted on the back cover.)

The Afterword is an addition specific to this edition. It is also a magnificent summary of what Roberts sees as the key aspects of Vance’s writing skill and the value of the Lyonesse novels to the genre. Many fans of Vance’s writing claim that Lyonesse is his masterwork, which is pretty impressive considering the number of books written by Vance over the last sixty years or so. (There are three pages of stories and novels collated in small print in the bibliography at the front of this book.)

Consequently this one also comes from me, for what it’s worth, with a full seal of approval. If you haven’t read them already, this is one volume that you must have. Even more impressively, this edition does the work justice. This one’s a keeper. Essential reading.

Mark Yon, August 2010.

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