3 out of 5
It was so much fun, we might as well do it again.
Not that I have any insight into writer Jack Vance’s motivations for writing Cugel’s Saga (or that I can glean from casual wiki persuals), but just as a reader, I support that: I was so entertained by the previous Dying Earth “book,” Tales of the Overworld, that I’d be wholly down for another go with the lead character, Cugel. And because my sole criticism of that previous collection – and hence my calling it that, and putting “book” in quotes – is that its fix-up nature was betrayed at points, slightly unsettling its tonal cohesiveness, knowing that Saga was (seemingly?) mostly written together was promising: just the jump from the random-ish The Dying Earth to the linear tale in Underworld encouraged, to me, a bump in affect of the read, so following that thread, if Cugel’s Saga was again linear, and written as such from the start… another bump?
On one hand, yes: the throughline of Cugel’s journey is very strong throughout, and we can feel the humorous parallel of the way Cugel views himself (as ‘the Clever,’ at one point) versus the occasionally overheard opinions of others – his dunderheadedness; his questionable looks – derail our protagonist’s sense of confidence along the way, even while he maintains his forever calculating methods, and, surely, lovable rogue status. On the other hand: this is almost the same exact book as Overworld, literally retold from the other direction – Cugel is banished to a foreign land, and instead of heading East to get home, a la the former story, he heads West – and without the direct motivators of a quest item and a living stomach virus that inflicts pain whenever one steps off the narrative path. So the Saga is fun, and Vance’s mastery of language is well-balanced here, applying the ten dollars words a bit more judiciously, but there’s the sense that we’ve been through this routine before. And unfortunately, perhaps as a trick of the mind when we minus out the ticking clock element of Cugel being forced to do something he doesn’t want to do – his trek back to Almery is completely of his own whims this time, for “revenge” on Iucounu even though, in pure Cugel fashion, it was his own mishandling of Iucounu’s spells that shunted him, once more, to this far off land – the chapters of Saga are rather repetitious, all following the exact same structure of Cugel wandering to a new village, sussing out a mark which he can abuse for cash, travel, or both, gaining those advantages, and then winding up back at zero by chapter’s end, running away from whatever new enemies he’s made, and toward the next chapter’s lands. This is – again – essentially what Overworld did, but just the wrinkle of those interactions being something of a consequence of Cugel being urged onward by stomach pains and whatnot made them seem more individually inspired. Cugel’s Saga, in comparison, comes across as not only a remix of Overworld, but then each chapter also a remix of the other.
Does this wholly subtract the entertainment factor? Not at all. Lined up side by side, while all of this book’s and the former’s chapters might follow the same template, Vance’s depthless imagination applied to the individual pieces is staggering, and results in the craziest of concepts, given life by between-the-paragraphs cultural heritages; new worlds – new groups of people with their own beliefs and traditions – exist within each new section, and sometimes its even further layered, adding worlds within those worlds. That is still, to me, Dying Earth’s high level “joke:” how our relative lifestyles are always inherently self-justified, and when you take one person – Cugel – and move them across all of those varying points of view, you can be cynical about it, and proclaim none of it as worthwhile, or you can accept all of those behaviors as elements of the larger world. And, in Cugel’s case, elements to be ignored in favor of common concepts like dat cash money. (Though this is part of the character’s philosophy, and the only time Vance really speaks to the Earth as dying as the generalized background for this: that we don’t know when the sun’s last setting will be, so who cares for tomorrow? To that extent, if it makes today easier, Cugel will jump on the local village’s religious traditions; he’ll machinate on something for now, and figure out the rest later. Y’know, some 1980s YOLO variant.)
Cugel’s Saga is a more streamlined, less urgent take on the travails the character experienced in Eyes of the Overworld. While the thought is perhaps that more of the same could mean Vance took the opportunity to better that same, that wasn’t exactly the case. Thankfully, the writer’s skill and the careful balance of tone (Cugel is never too dastardly or dimwitted) mean we could, likely, read this kind of stuff ad nauseum, though I admittedly prefer when the stories are underlined by some of the more commentative underpinnings found in Overworld; Cugel’s Saga is rather just fun and games.