Lyonesse - 1: A Vancian Novel?

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First off, welcome to all to 2019, and welcome as well to the Tabletop Roleplayer's Book Club to anyone who is just joining us for the first time to discuss Lyonesse by Jack Vance.

To anyone who is new to the club, we typically handle discussion by posing a number of questions. I'll lead us off with a few, but if you find you have a specific topic you'd like to discuss in relation to our book that hasn't been addressed elsewhere, then please feel free to post a new topic and introduce it.

1: The Vancian Novel
Have you read Vance before? In what ways is Lyonesse similar to other Vance novels? How is it different? If Vancian magic is 'cast and forget', what is a Vancian novel?

Comments

  • 3

    Concentrating just on fantasy (I've not read much Vance SF), Lyonesse doesn't have the cheerful nihilism of the Dying Earth. But it very much has Vance's writing style, his dry wit, instances of verbal logic taken to extremes, and the uncertainty of any sort of happy outcome. There's no mistaking Vance's style,

  • 3

    I love Dr. Mitch's phrase "cheerful nihilism." That's a good description of my favorite bits of Vance. I love the feckless wandering of Cugel and the constant stream of mishaps he creates for himself. This had some small bits of that with Dhrun's wandering, but it was cut with a lot of fantasy politics that left me cold.

  • 2

    I have read virtually (possibly) everything Vance wrote at least once. These books are massive by Vance standards. But it's like a giant economy class Vance. Everything else is the same. Just more space for more quadruple twists.

  • 1

    This is, to my knowledge, the first Vance book I've read. It might be the last, if this is typical? I'm only 120 pages in and there's a whole not of not much memorable magic. There's a few throwaway lines, but it doesn't seem to dwell on things.

    The most memorable for me so far is the magician who got turned into an iron post and the magic mirror that only gives you three questions. Did I glaze over anything notable early?

    It really feels like a ton of infodump for not much reward. The eye-stabbingly worst was the first paragraph of chapter 10, which lists off like six countries and twenty people you've never heard of before and I have no handle on any of it. There have been a few lines that have been interesting or promising (I like the whoever-it-was who just threw off the jerk into the ocean in the middle of the trip).

  • 2

    Ppeople tend to either love Vance or be bewildered by people who love Vance. You are obviously in the second camp! :wink:

  • 1

    I've read the Planets of Adventure series a while ago, and this seemed to be in a similar writing style. But I've not read enough Vance to make meaningful comparisons with his other work.

    Bits of prose are put together well, but there's a lot of filler exposition that doesn't seem to connect to the plot. Yes, Jack, you've done a lot of thinking and worldbuilding to give a consistent backdrop to the story. No, you don't need to inflict on us all that detail, such as the names of the various minor warlords in a small island somewhere.

  • 2

    Oh, one thing to add about the writing style: it comes across to me as being a long-form fairy tale rather than something cleaving closer to a naturalistic retelling of events. Both the style and the events show the sort of simplicity I associate with folk tales and the like.

  • 0

    I think @dr_mitch nailed the key elements of Vancian style as I understand it. I also haven't read a lot - I only read the Alastor trilogy, which was a very early club pick, but that spurred me on to buying many more of his works, which I'll get to eventually. I did also play the Dying Earth setting - three times now, with @Loz at the helm, and using different variations of the rules. But what all of those games had in common were extremely inventive, even absurd and probably satirical, setting elements. Those are in Lyonesse. All our games featured that sense of verbal manipulation which is certainly in Lyonesse. And they featured a wide and obscure vocabulary - also in Lyonesse, though perhaps not quite to the extreme of the games. So the upshot it that I feel I've a sense for The Dying Earth, even though I've never read the series.

    This book is certainly wasn't an easy read for me - it was very dense, and that really slows down a purposeful reader like me. Plus it was easy to miss key plot points if your attention wandered, which quickly leads to one being lost, which is never enjoyable. It's also very hard to see where the book is going. There are so many turns in the plot, and characters that come and go from the story - sometimes within the same chapter. The viewpoint character changed a lot, too, and the main one we begin the book with isn't the one we finish the book with, so that can make it hard to latch onto as well.

    I think the key to reading it is just to sit back and enjoy the ride - not to worry about where you are going, or who you are sitting beside. That takes a leap of faith, and it takes patience. But by the end you are rewarded with a good (complicated) story, many wonderfully memorable events, some great characters like the scion-wizards or the Ska, who are dead upon capture.

    But it was never a breeze for me - it was always work. It was like eating a pomegranate filled with jelly beans.

  • 0

    @NeilNjae said:
    Oh, one thing to add about the writing style: it comes across to me as being a long-form fairy tale rather than something cleaving closer to a naturalistic retelling of events. Both the style and the events show the sort of simplicity I associate with folk tales and the like.

    This is a great comment and one I'd really like to explore. What are the hallmarks of a long-form fairy tale? What was it that made this seem not naturalistic? I feel like you are correct in my heart, but you mention simplicity of style and plot as an example; I found neither to be simple, but perhaps I'm missing your meaning.

  • 0

    So far as I can remember for sure, the only Jack Vance I have read is one of the Dying Earth series... but I am quite sure that I probably read much more years ago which I have subsequently forgotten. I liked Dying Earth (but haven't yet bought into the whole series) but struggled with this. World-building - spectacularly interesting. Story execution - well, it left me cold as I tried to work out why person X was trying to achieve goal Y,, and why it was taking so long... Plus all the politics stuff which others have mentioned, and which certainly didn't grip me. The Arthurian connection showed promise, but to my mind was never really followed through, and felt like a kind of hook to secure a wider readership.

  • 1

    Weirdly, I found the read relatively relaxing. As @Apocryphal says, I could sit back, enjoy the ride and watch everything whoosh by without getting too analytical, and not try to read too much all at once; even a relatively small number of pages gave me plenty. And the more I read, the better and easier it got.

  • 3

    My experience is like Dr. Mitch's - essentially effortless and more so the deeper I got. Then again, I never analyze fiction at all, for any reason, and I am essentially watching all this unfold cinematically, being vastly entertained at no effort. Essentially my ideal read, which is why Vance is by far and away my favorite author. It's been marvelous, and I generally dislike Fantasy.

  • 3

    If you question why kittens should speak exactly like the human characters, and with the same vocabulary, than I submit you will not fully appreciate this book.

  • 1

    @clash_bowley said:
    Ppeople tend to either love Vance or be bewildered by people who love Vance. You are obviously in the second camp! :wink:

    I don't want to yuck in your yum, but clearly I am!

  • 1

    @NeilNjae I totally agree regarding the style. I don't think I dislike it.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:

    @NeilNjae said:
    Oh, one thing to add about the writing style: it comes across to me as being a long-form fairy tale rather than something cleaving closer to a naturalistic retelling of events. Both the style and the events show the sort of simplicity I associate with folk tales and the like.

    This is a great comment and one I'd really like to explore. What are the hallmarks of a long-form fairy tale? What was it that made this seem not naturalistic? I feel like you are correct in my heart, but you mention simplicity of style and plot as an example; I found neither to be simple, but perhaps I'm missing your meaning.

    A few things stood out for me.

    • One was (as mentioned in another thread) is the ingenuousness of the characters: characters generally told the truth, and just about everyone was trusted to be telling the truth.

    • Characters generally acted directly, taking immediate steps towards their goals. They didn't try to do several things at once, and they generally didn't try to manipulate other characters into acing in ways that were either beneficial to the manipulator detrimental to the manipulated.

    • The world was capricious. Many times, characters received a boon only to have it snatched away very soon after.

    • Connected to this, everyone was fatalistic, accepting their fate (whether good or bad) without complaint or delight.

    Compare all this to the characters in a Le Carre novel, where there's lots of interpretation of events and actions, people making plans and hedging bets to deal with uncertainty, and so on.

    It all amounts to the reader/listener not having to keep a great deal of character motivation in their head at any one time.

  • 2

    @dr_mitch said:
    Concentrating just on fantasy (I've not read much Vance SF), Lyonesse doesn't have the cheerful nihilism of the Dying Earth. But it very much has Vance's writing style, his dry wit, instances of verbal logic taken to extremes, and the uncertainty of any sort of happy outcome. There's no mistaking Vance's style,

    This strikes me as spot on.

    Lyonesse is a 'high fantasy' series, with a clear and virtuous 'rightful king', written in Vance's erudite and sarcastic style, and with various 'Dying Earth' elements injected into (I have in mind especially the magicians, many of whom are quire amoral and could've have appeared in a DE story).

    Vance has a very distinct style, which obviously isn't for everyone but which I adore.

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