Book Review: Lyonesse, Jack Vance’s Triumph

The late Jack Vance wrote many fine novels, but the Lyonesse trilogy, written 1983-1989, in WC’s opinion, is the best of his work. And among the great epic fantasy series of all time.

Vance’s richly imagined land of Lyonesse and the Elder Isles, the lost islands of fantasy between France and Britain, is alive with magic, vivid characters, devious schemes and Old Folk. In a wonderful synthesis of Tolkein and Old English myth, kings and children, magicians and knights, faeries and ogres wander in and out of each other stories.

Suldrun's Garden, Vol. 1 of Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy

Suldrun’s Garden, Vol. 1 of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse Trilogy

Suldrun’s Garden opens the trilogy. Suldrun, the daughter of the relentlessly scheming King Casimir of Lyonesse, wants nothing to do with the future her father has planned for her. For her stubbornness, she is exiled to a garden at the edge of Casimir’s castle. One day, a shipwrecked sailor washes up on the shingle at the bottom of her garden. He is Ailias, prince of the kingdom of Troicent, pushed overboard by his cousin. Lyonesse is at war with Troicenet, and the doomed relationship is one of the threads that make up this wonderful tale. Prophesying magic mirrors, fairy changelings and scheming friars add to the mix.  

From changelings to evil tyrants, from hedge witches to the great magician Mulgren, who has dedicated his life to keeping the Elder Isles above the waves, Vance does a fine job of interweaving new stories and old. There are children’s adventures that trace to the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson; there are sly references to the King Arthur (his grandfather appears briefly); and there is much that is the marvelous creation of Vance himself.

The Green Pearl is the second book in the Trilogy. The opening chapters, tracing the malevolent Green Pearl

The Green Pearl, Vol. 2 of Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy

The Green Pearl, Vol. 2 of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse Trilogy

of the title, is a stunning piece of writing, among the very best of the genre. Vance continues to skillfully weave together seemingly unrelated stories into a coherent whole. Mostly, the book centers around the adventures of Ailias, now a king, and his efforts to solve the personal and royal problems that beset him. 

As was the case in Suldrun’s Garden, there are long stretches that are almost dreamlike in their tone. A long interlude between Ailias and a barbaric Ska princess is remarkable for its combination of lucidity and dreamlike character; when that particular adventure ends, you very much feel that you, with Ailias, have wakened from a dream.

The book does suffer the problem of any second book in a trilogy: it’s primarily a bridge between the discoveries in the first book and the denouements in the last. But there are enough new characters and new ideas to keep you fascinated. There are comically sinister magicians, recalcitrant nobles, dying kings and a different view of the barabaric Ska. The book is much less derivative than Suldrun’s Garden.

Madouc, Vol. 3 of Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy

Madouc, Vol. 3 of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse Trilogy

Madouc, the final book in the Trilogy, is probably the best. The title character, Madouc, and her search for her pedigree, are among the most charming characters and quests in fantasy. She steals the show. Casimir has learned that Madouc, the child he thought was his grandaughter, is in fact a fairy changeling. That is somehow wrapped up in the mystery of Dhrun, son of Ailias of Troicenet, of whom it was prophecied by a magic mirror that he would be the king of all the Elder Isles. Not if Casimir can help it. He wants that throne for himself.

And there are much larger, darker schemes afoot, as the evil magician Tamurello and the mysterious witch Desmei plot against Murgen, the Elder Isle’s greatest wizard, who alone keeps the Elder Isles from sinking into the sea. And the relentlessly scheming Casimir plans war against his neighboring kingdom. 

Into this web of political and magical intrigue wanders Madouc, determined to learn her pedigree, possessed of a bit of her fairy mother’s magic and a truly wonderful charm all her own. It is Madouc who sets this novel apart from other fantasies. Vance does a splendid job creating a central figure who will beguile and amaze you.

Vance continues to blend myths from half a dozen cultures into a seamless whole. The Elder Isles are saved, if at a terrible cost. The kingship is resolved, after a terrible war. And Madouc even learns her pedigree. The book is full of surprises, and sly references to other legends. As just one example, you will learn how the Holy Grail got to where Sir Gallahad could find it…

This is WC’s test for excellent fantasy: when you read it, the world created is brighter and more vivid than the world you return to at the end of the book. This book easily passes that test. WC would love to wander the forest of Tantrelles, or talk with Shimrod, or hike the Teac a Teac. But the Elder Isles are lost, long drowned now, with only Vance’s vivid stories to preserve their memory.

Highly recommended.