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Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance Hardcover – July 31, 2009
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2010: Sixty years ago, in The Dying Earth, Jack Vance introduced his own version of the distant future, where the sun has become a red giant, powerful wizards fight over the scraps of ruined civilizations, and a handful of colorful and eccentric characters insist on having a few adventures before oblivion descends. In Songs of the Dying Earth, 22 sci-fi and fantasy writers, from newcomers like Liz Williams and Byron Tetrick to established names like Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, each offer their own snippets of Vance's Dying Earth. In one story, an apprentice architect stumbles into a duel between two powerful mages, for example, while in another a poet-philosopher tries (and fails) to forget the coming apocalypse in a drunken haze. Some stories capture Vance's style and inventiveness, while others recreate his perfect combination of black humor and creeping dread. Songs of the Dying Earth is both a respectful homage to a sci-fi master and a whirlwind tour of a world that readers will want to revisit. --Darryl Campbell --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This stellar anthology features 22 original stories set in the far future of Grand Master Jack Vance's 1950 classic The Dying Earth, wherein sorcerers, rogues and demons squabble for power beneath the waning light of a bloated red sun. Some of the field's most talented writers successfully adopt Vance's convoluted style, ironic dialogue and amoral protagonists, as in Dan Simmons's epic novella The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderoz, which relates the desperate quest of Shrue the diabolist to find a dead wizard's Ultimate Library, and Liz Williams's excellent Caulk the Witch-chaser, concerning a minor wizard forced to ally himself with his quarry. Exquisitely illustrated by Tom Kidd, these are tales to savor and a fitting tribute to one of the field's finest authors. (Oct.)
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Top Customer Reviews
Robert Silverberg: The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale -- This would have been an excellent Jack Vance story, because Vance would have written it in 8 to 10 pages instead of meandering on for more than 20. Perplexingly, Silverberg makes the classic mistake of the novice Vance emulator, which is to assume from Vance's high-flown vocabulary that he is a verbose writer. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, Vance's defining quality is his ability to use unusual words in order to achieve a ruthless economy in his plotting and pacing -- an economy sadly missing from this story and quite a few of its fellows in the anthology.
Matthew Hughes: Grolion of Almery -- Hughes has a better handle on the Vancean style than the great majority of writers here. He also understands how Vance builds characters and situations, and how Vance wrings the most entertainment value out of his revelations, in some cases by leaving them completely implicit.
Terry Dowling: The Copsy Door -- At almost 30 pages long, this story bears an unhappy resemblance to the sun of the Dying Earth: pale and over-expanded and only occasionally letting loose a gleam of warming illumination. Dowling does a great job creating a Vancean protagonist who suffers from a Vancean curse, but the duel of wizardry that results is indulgent and at times dull, and its excessive length gives one plenty of time to see the "twist" at the end coming.
Liz Williams: Caulk the Witch-chaser -- A passingly good tale, once the protagonist navigates the overlong introductory action. Toward the end, it rushes into an odd bit of character evolution, but I'm ambivalent as to whether that's a good thing or a bad one. Bizarrely, the editors saw fit to telegraph the ending in their introduction to the story, so be sure to skip the intro until after you've read it.
Mike Resnick: Inescapable -- Resnick makes no attempt whatsoever to imitate Vance's style in this story (or if he does, then his own style must be the epitome of stripped-bare prose; I've not previously read him). That's not necessarily unforgivable, as the middle portion of the story does a good job capturing the Vancean trope of the man whose obsession strips him of all conscience. The beginning and ending left me flat, though.
Walter Jon Williams: Abrizonde -- More or less successful as a Vance pastiche, this story is like most of its companions in that it demonstrates a facility at certain Vancean techniques and falls short on others. Williams didn't seem to know how to end it; the last several pages seemed rather tacked-on, and almost made me wonder if the editors put a minimum length on submissions, with only Howard Waldrop being allowed an exception.
Paula Volsky: The Traditions of Karzh -- One of the better in the book, this story gives us a callow young Vancean protagonist brimming with the sort of indolence and nonchalance that Vance himself always uses to such good effect. The main character's quandary develops briskly, his responses are clever and engaging, and everything comes to a rousing climax, with cunningly planted devices used to propel the plot along throughout.
Jeff Vandermeer: The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod -- An interesting tale featuring two or three protagonists, this one will suit you if you're a big fan of Vance's fascination with the ambiguous. I found it a bit diffuse, with a tendency to introduce its magical devices just at the moment they are needed and then move on, whereas Vance himself usually plants his enchantments early on and then draws them from the arsenal when they will be most surprising and apt.
Kage Baker: The Green Bird -- All but perfect. Anything I might say against this story would mark me for a quibbling pedant. Baker has crafted a work that would fit directly in with anything in The Eyes of the Overworld or Cugel's Saga, both in drollery and cunning.
Phyllis Eisenstein: The Last Golden Thread -- Even better than "The Green Bird." It's a shame Neil Gaiman wrote the story that he did, because this one would have made for a much superior finale.
Elizabeth Moon: An Incident in Uskvesk -- Oddly grubby, given the paramount characteristic of the Dying Earth: that virtually everyone there is outwardly polite. In Vance's world, threats are kept implicit, insults veiled, propositions oblique. But most everyone in this story shows a straightforward callousness that borders on crass. Beyond that, the plot is contrived and there are multiple references to wormigers that remind us how inventive Vance is with fantastical animal husbandry, whereas this story offers us giant insects.
Lucius Shepard: Sylgarmo's Proclamation -- In the midst of an impeccably crafted story, Shepard wins the Best-Distilled Essence of the Vancean Style Award for the following sentence (which you shouldn't read until you've read the story itself; as with the best of Vance's sentences, it suffers when removed from context): "The absence of all kinetic value bred a sense of foreboding in Thiago." Shepard also gets points for using footnotes.
Tad Williams: The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee -- After getting off to a ponderous start, this one musters some reasonable entertainment value out of a forced partnership of the kind Vance so often constructs. The effect is less sure-footed than in most of Vance's examples, and reaches a muddled conclusion that makes me suspect the whole story was written seat-of-the-pants rather than plotted in advance.
John C. Wright: Guyal the Curator -- Wright shows a nimble understanding of Vance's style, in prose, concepts, and themes alike. His characterizations are somewhat aloof; the motives of Dying Earth characters are often more transparent than we see here, so that the protagonist's actions struck me at times as authorial caprice, though they're ultimately revealed to be in keeping with the story's overall thrust. In short, a good story, but one in which I as a reader failed to become fully lost.
Glen Cook: The Good Magician -- At times, too oblique; at others, too direct.
Elizabeth Hand: The Return of the Fire Witch -- Extremely solid from start to finish. Hand is apparently a King Crimson fan in addition to a Jack Vance enthusiast, and her work here manifests a kinship between the two that I hadn't previously realized existed.
Byron Tetrick: The Collegeum of Mauge -- Tetrick succeeds in creating characters who are at once sympathetic, appealing, and plausible within the setting of The Dying Earth. He places them in a situation that sparks both interest and curiosity. Then he resolves it all with an arbitrary plot featuring cameos by Vance's characters that fail to either convince or satisfy.
Tanith Lee: Evillo the Uncunning -- The hero of this tale is a hapless innocent, yet Lee treats him as Vance treats his own scurrilous rogues. The result is not as morally satisfying as some of the other tales in this volume, but the style and the conceits are appropriate, and the pacing is good.
Dan Simmons: The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz -- Some ruthless editing would have improved this one considerably, but after a very slow start it maneuvers along engagingly to a suitable if unspectacular end. Had it not been by the guy who wrote Hyperion, I think I would have been more impressed. Unfortunately, Simmons set his own bar very high back in the day.
Howard Waldrop: Frogskin Cap -- Odd.
George R.R. Martin: A Night at the Tarn House -- Martin has written better Vancean tales (Sandkings comes notably to mind), but this one will do in a pinch, though it's neither as comedic nor as resonant as I might have hoped for.
Neil Gaiman: An Invocation of Incuriosity -- This one starts off with a bit of, "I'm Neil Gaiman, so the rules do not apply to me," then settles into a relatively satisfying Dying Earth tale, then wraps up with a bit of almost-convincing "Here's why I broke the rules." Because he is Neil Gaiman, it works. But it also makes me wish that he'd avoided his coy, "Jack Vance is not imitable" pose and simply done what we all know he could have done, which would have been to write the best, most authentic story in the entire collection.
To sum up: My advice for Vance enthusiasts would be to buy this volume and read the stories by Hughes, Liz Williams, WJ Williams, Volsky, Baker, Eisenstein, Shepard, Wright, Hand, Lee, Simmons, Martin and Gaiman. Save the stories by Baker and Eisenstein for last. Then reread all of your copies of the Dying Earth books themselves, along with all of Michael Shea's Vancean books. Then, if you're still starving for more, go back through this book in its entirety.
I'll finish up by saying I rarely reread a book. I'll reread this one. I can only hope there's a sequel in the works.
Anyway when I saw that many of today,s best and best-paid writers of fantasy (call it sci-fi, if you will) had assembled to create a nearly 700 page tribute to Jack's "Dying Earth" books, I had to have it.
Maybe I'm spoiled by low kindle prices, so I thought ten bucks was kinda high. Then I just ordered it. A foreword by Vance, an intro by Koontz, stories by Gaiman, Moon, Martin, Lee... You get the idea. These are writers trying to make a living. And the book is well worth the price.