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By Ryan on 10-30-11
Witty, refreshingly different
Like its companion novel, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga is an odd duck of a book, nominally fantasy, but different from most popular fantasy in setting and style. It takes place on a far future Earth, where magic exists, the Sun is about to go out (or so the inhabitants of the world believe), and all manner of odd people, weird creatures, and bizarre societies occupy their own corners of the world. The writing is very tongue-in-cheek, mixing high-minded language and ideas with low humor, and the hero of the story, Cugel, is about as much of a vain, swindling, self-serving rogue as can be imagined. Exiled to a distant beach by a magician that he failed to rob in the previous book, Cugel wanders through a wholly different series of misadventures than before, each time coming up with some clever scheme to enrich himself, and almost (but not quite) pulling it off.
Despite the overt silliness of affairs, Vance is a smart, literate writer, and the clever exchanges between characters can be a hoot. Everyone on the Dying Earth, it seems, from cart boys to sorcerers, is an amateur philosopher, theologian, legal scholar, or student of etiquette, though many are as amusingly corrupt as Cugel himself. A number of the situations he gets implicated in have a parable-like meaning, if one reads between the lines. And the background world seems full of half-forgotten myth and history, which, while never explored in much depth, gives the story's details a tapestry-like richness. (Speaking of which, if you're interested in a more serious-minded cycle of books set on a similar end-of-Earth world, I highly recommend Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, which was directly inspired by Vance's Dying Earth, and takes it to a whole new level.)
As with Eyes of the Overworld, the episodic nature of the story and lack of recurring characters limits its depth, but if you're in the mood for something imaginatively *different*, either or both novels are worth a read. I thought this one had a bit more continuity than its predecessor and made Cugel a little more sympathetic, so I liked it more. I also enjoyed the audiobook narrator's inspired choice of making Cugel sound like Richard Nixon.
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