Friday, 25 March 2016

Book review: Lyonesse by Jack Vance - a Mythic Fairytale of High Fantasy

Aside from the Dying Earth books, I’ve not read much Jack Vance. Which is odd, as I do adore those, the complexity and richness of the language, the sly wit and dark humour, the anti-heroes so well rendered. Lyonesse is a quite different beast. In some ways it feels far more of a traditional fantasy than the much earlier tales of Cugel the clever and Turjan and Chun the Unavoidable. It is definitely more of a true novel; most of the Dying Earth books are portmanteau made up of episodic short stories, while this is a distinct single tale.

The novel is set in several of the divided kingdoms of the Elder Isles, placed south of Ireland and north of Iberia, roughly where the Bay of Biscay becomes the Atlantic Ocean proper, as shown with a truly terrible map. We gather from the setting and occasional footnotes that this is where so many of the myths of Europe originate; this is Atlantis and Hy-Brasil and the Fairy Isles.

It did take me a little while to find my feet, for a couple of reasons. It wasn’t initially clear to me where this Atlantean land in which the tale unfolds was situated in time; the language and mores felt largely like those of the late middle ages (or, at any rate, with that Arthurian feel of the late middle ages from which much high fantasy takes its tone) but the references did not truly help to place it anywhere - or, rather, anywhen. It is stated that the founding family of one kingdom are also of the line that gave rise to Arthur Pendragon, although this seems to have been some time before. There is a Christian missionary, and reference is stated to the power of the church of Rome. It is, I think, deliberately vague and anachronistic, and it cased to be an issue once I was in caught up in the story.

Also early on, I had a problem with some changes of tone. At the outset the authorial voice is recognisably high fantasy, and becomes somewhat mythic or fairytale at points, but then we have a sudden shift into a rather dry chapter of historical and political exposition, before returning to the fairytale fantasy tone. Not long after this, however, I saw how the separate sections began to come together and that they were threads weaving into a greater tapestry. Vance does this quite superbly, introducing what appear to be obvious directions for the plot (obvious because of the fairytale fantasy inflection of the writing) only to immediately subvert them - and then call back much later on with an unforeseen payoff.

The characters are somewhere between mythic archetypes and actual people, something brought out by the habit of several of the magicians of the books splitting off from themselves scions, or sub-personalities, which begin as an aspect of the original but quickly develop their own characteristics.

For perhaps the first quarter of the book I was enjoying Lyonesse and thought it fine but, by the halfway point, I began to see why this is considered one of the great works of fantasy.

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