Review of Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance by

Book cover for Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance

This is the reason why I hunted down a copy of The Dying Earth and read it. Subterranean Press told me it was publishing a huge anthology of short stories by authors I love, all as a tribute to this Jack Vance guy, who is apparently a Big Deal. See my review of The Dying Earth for thoughts about Vance and my reaction to his series.

As far as anthologies go, this one is awesome. There are no two ways about it: fans of The Dying Earth will love most, maybe not all, of these stories; neophytes like myself will still find something to enjoy. Every author brings his or her interesting perspective to the table. That's what make this book work, especially for a reader like me, who isn't too enthusiastic about the original Vance tales. As Dan Simmons notes in the afterword to his fun novella, The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz, they aren't imitating Vance so much as paying homage to him. That makes the anthology work well.

Here are some highlights.

The first story, by Robert Silverberg, is "The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale." It's a good way to start off the collection, for it isn't a travelling tale and has few characters. But it gets you into the mood of the Dying Earth, that sense of inevitability that seems to plague every action.

I liked "Grolion of Almery," by Matthew Hughes, even more. Grolion is an anti-hero who cares mostly for himself, an archetype we will see pop up frequently throughout this anthology. Hughes, and Terry Dowling in the next story, "The Copsy Door," have a good handle on the whimsical side of Vance's magic. Anything, and I mean anything, can happen with magic. And it's bizarre. I love the setup for "The Copsy Door," probably because I have a thing for stories where the conflict is an unfair competition.

"Abrizonde," by Walter Jon Williams, is a hilarious story about a magician named Vespanius who gets trapped between two opposing armies as they lay siege to a fort that protects the pass between their towns. Watching as Vespanius engaged in a game of wits with the other sides' faceless wizards was a lot of fun.

There are a few more in between that fans of the Dying Earth might like more than I did, but my next favourite was "The Last Golden Thread." Lith's original story in The Dying Earth was great, both for the way Vance set up the fall of the protagonist and for Lith's tragic circumstances as well. This was a great way to revisit that legend with a fresh take. All of the characters in Phyllis Eisenstein's stories were neat, particularly the mentoring mage who indulges Bosk's obsession with Lith.

One of the true stars of this book is "The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee," by Tad Williams. As with "Grolion," the eponymous character isn't a nice guy, and he deserves some comeuppance, which Williams delivers exactly as promised by the title: laughably and tragically (or vice versa, if you prefer). The book is worth reading for this story alone. The same is true of Simmons' novella, which I've already mentioned. I don't love everything Simmons writes, but this story is good.

The last three stories display the roughly chronological order of this anthology, and we creep up to the very end of the Dying Earth. "A Night at the Tarn House," George R.R. Martin's contribution, was quite clever. I have to admit that Neil Gaiman's closing "An Invocation of Incuriosity" disappointed me. I know that end-of-the-world stories are hard to write, but ever since Good Omens, I seem to have associated Gaiman with such fare. This story didn't really fit with the rest of the Dying Earth motif, nor was it really very interesting.

The few disappointments aside, I really liked this anthology. It took me longer to read than I had hoped but shorter than it might have—usually I don't read such collections all at once but instead intersperse the stories among other novels. How you choose to read Songs of the Dying Earth is, of course, up to you. If you are a Vance fan though, go and get it today.

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