Cugel’s Saga [Amazon affiliate link] and The Eyes of the Overworld are both described as picaresques, but in my mind, a key element of a picaresque is to take the absurdity and dial it up to eleven. Cugel as portrayed in the 1966 short stories has a kind of obtuse earnestness to his quest for revenge. Cugel in the 1983 novel is almost like a parody of his former incarnation.
The world changed a lot inbetween 1950 and 1983. The Dying Earth [Amazon affiliate link] did too. In a sense, we have something much like before. The episodic structure remains, as some chapters were previously published as short stories. However, Cugel himself seems a bit different.
I often laughed out loud while reading Cugel’s Saga, but I also struggled a bit to finish it. While it is funny, I don’t primarily look to adventure novels for laughs, so I found my interest in Cugel waning a bit in this volume. The earlier chapters are perhaps the most absurd, but this truly is Cugel’s saga, and there was a grander story lurking in the background. My initial impression was redeemed by the denouement.
One of the really fascinating things about The Dying Earth is how infrequently lethal violence is used between men. The world is plenty dangerous, with wild beasts and ravenous flesh-eating half-men in abundance, so in Cugel’s many journeys, I was honestly a little surprised at how infrequently he solved his problems by killing them.
In part, this is due to Cugel’s style, which is very much that of the confidence man. He is apt to skip town the second things start looking like they are going sideways. In The Eyes of the Overworld, the alien parasite nestled in his belly kept Cugel moving, but it turns out that Cugel himself doesn’t often hang around long, as his marks get wise to him.
The other part of it is this just seems to be how things are done in The Dying Earth. Iucounu didn’t simply kill Cugel for breaking and entering, he imposed a quest upon him instead. You see this style in other places too; revenge often stops short of death. This gives the series a unique flavor, and I appreciate the difference.
I very much see why Cugel was an inspiration to Gygax. Even though this volume came after the Dungeon Master Guide by some years, it still very much has the feel of the kind of adventure which D&D was intended to imitate. At least in my case, the whole was better than some of the parts, but that may be a matter of taste; if you like anti-heroes and the absurd, this may be just the ticket.
Other books by Jack Vance
Other Pulp Adventures
A. Merritt. The Moon Pool
Leigh Brackett. The Coming of the Terrans
C. L. Moore. The Best of C. L. Moore
Robert E. Howard. The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Fritz Leiber Ill Met in Lankhmar
H. Beam Piper Space Viking
H. Beam Piper Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen
Robert E. Howard The Savage Tales of Soloman Kane