Rhialto the Marvellous – Jack Vance

3 out of 5

As a progression of the Dying Earth cycle of stories, Rhialto the Marvellous combines some of the more fantasy-fueled aspects of the original short stories with the comedic hijinx of Cugel’s tales. Read separately from those books, the three parts – primarily dealing with Rhialto, but all concerning a group of magicians of which he is a part – are entertaining, and very fully-formed in their characterizations and Vance’s representation of spells within his setting, but they also somewhat lack drive. Each story’s focus feels besides the point; our magicians always have something better to do, and so whatever the issue is – a roger sorceress; a missing document; the rescue of an associate – there’s rarely the sense that it “matters” all that much. This is different from the way Cugel would justify his actions, in part, due to the fact that the sun may die out at any moment: the characters here rather just don’t give the impression of caring all that much, whatever the case, as long as they can reside in relative peace and comfort in each of their homesteads. That means we’re lacking in a POV that drives our read. Thankfully, Vance is still ever witty and inventive – excepting the rather muted final story, Morreion, there’s always something pretty funny or unexpected happening to make the read a worthwhile one. This inherent value is increased by following this on to the other Dying Earth stories, as Rhialto’s approach to things is actually very similar to Cugel’s – always scheming, always trying to get ahead – but Rhialto is actually successful in his schemes, and smart enough to plan them out in advance. Both The Murthe and Fader’s Waft – the first two stories – have relentlessly clever interplays that mirror those in the prior pair of Dying Earth books, with Waft, in particular, essentially the same fetch-quest structure as those stories; one can imagine Jack wanting to retell Eyes of the Overworld with Iucouno (Cugel’s adversary in that book) as the lead.

Morreion pays off with some solid ideas and a good, concluding “joke,” but it’s rather Rhialto-absent and more paced and straight-forward than Murthe or Fader’s Waft; it’s not surprising that it was initially published separately. It’s a weird beat on which to end Rhialto the Marvellous, but it’s also fairly short, at forty pages, so not a big drag or anything.

As a one-off Jack experience, Rhialto the Marvellous can provide some sense of the writer’s world-building; assaultive use of you’ll-only-ever-see-these-in-Jack-Vance-books wordage (though it’s set at about Cugel’s Saga levels); and sense of humor. Murthe and Morreion both have some conceptual playfulness that may especially surprise, even if Vance doesn’t go deep with it. But at the same time, nothing really stands out especially boldly; it wouldn’t be my first choice as a go-to intro to the writer. As a followup to the other Dying Earth books, though, it’s a good coda, gathering up some stylistic touches of the preceding books and streamlining them, led via the generally charming main character, Rhialto; it’s a graceful way to step away from the ultimately more unique and entertaining Cugel books.