Review: The Complete Lyonesse, by Jack Vance

The Complete LyonesseThe Lyonesse trilogy shares a commonality with The Lord of the Rings in that it forms one novel which is commonly divided into three to its detriment. It’s a book that is much greater than the sum of its parts; when taken into consideration as a whole, its interweaving of Celtic-inspired legendry, Grimm- and Perrault-style didactic fairytales, and feudal politicking makes for a defining work of fantasy.

The story begins with Suldrun, the young daughter of King Casmir of Lyonesse and his Queen, Sollace. There is no love lost between Suldrun and her parents, who wished for a boy of more robust character, and as with so many young women of her time, to her family she is primarily of use to cement an alliance in marriage. She rejects her fate, though, and is sentenced to live out her days confined in her garden, a peaceful, neglected part of the castle grounds that leads down to the sea, until she comes to her senses. Or, as it happens, until the lost prince of an enemy nation washes up onto her garden’s lonely shore.

Suldrun’s story is a gentle first step into a wider world in which she ultimately plays little part, so although the star-crossed lovers plot is rather tedious, it paves the way. From there the narrative expands into three main layers. At its simplest, you have the adventures of one or two isolated characters, like the children Dhrun and Glyneth, or later Glyneth’s time in Tanjecterly; these stories feel the most traditionally fairytale-like, with the world itself the primary threat as each new hamlet or spot of wilderness unveils some new strangeness. The middle layer is the political, with the Elder Isles forming a large game of chess between Casmir and Aillas, and it’s here that Lyonesse feels most connected to the real world and the narrative to that of a typical epic fantasy. The final layer belongs to the wizards, who operate on a mythological scale, and the prohibition of their Merlin-like lead figure prevents the scale of their power from diminishing the importance of the other conflicts, while subtle breaches of that ban keep their machinations connected to the other threads of the story. And it’s on this layer that the trilogy derives its sense of the melancholy, because they serve as a reminder of the futility of these other struggles. Lyonesse will pass into legend, will eventually be remembered only as an echo in the stories of the Round Table or the sinking of Atlantis.

These are difficult characters to connect to at times, because they aren’t really creatures of multiple dimensions. They are very archetypal, relatable for what they represent rather than for who they are. Perhaps the most compelling as people are the wizards, for their fascinating practice of splitting aspects of their own personalities off into separate individuals, their scions, so that they might live and operate on multiple levels. I would have liked to spend more time exploring the relationship between some of the wizards and their scions, but it’s an understandable choice on the author’s part to avoid doing so, since it would likely have diminished the mystique of people whose narrative power is, after all, sometimes most effective by their absence.

If sometimes the one-note characters render the story a little flat, it’s easily compensated for by Vance’s droll humour, which is in fine form throughout. It’s not the kind of humour where I stop to read side-splitting passages aloud to my family, but rather the kind that so subtly permeates the page that it grows larger in hindsight. His language is arch and lovely, but I expect he remains undervalued as a comedian, certainly in this work.

Initially I was a little disappointed with the transition from The Green Pearl, the second part of the trilogy, to the third, Madouc, as the middle book is very political, whereas the setup of the third is so reminiscent of Suldrun’s Garden as to seem a step backwards. By the end of the book, I’d revised my estimation: While the pacing is frustrating to deal with, it’s an incredibly fitting full-circle ending, as Madouc gets to be what Suldrun never was: Capable of her own self-rescue. In that respect, it’s not a repetition, but an evolution.

I heartily recommend The Complete Lyonesse to fantasy lovers, with the caveat that reading the three volumes back to back is as essential for proper appreciation as it is with The Lord of the Rings. The black book all-in-one edition of the trilogy by Gollancz makes for a lovely way to appreciate this work, albeit a wrist-breakingly heavy one.

4 stars

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