Suldrun’s Garden – Jack Vance

Suldrun's_Garden_-_Jack_Vance_cover
Lyonesse #1

Suldrun, daughter of a king of Lyonesse, is dissatisfied but unfocused. Complex events across the island lead to dark deeds and intrigue.

I first read Suldrun’s Garden when it came out in the 1980s. At least I think I did; maybe it was later. In any case, I didn’t like it much. I recall thinking that it seemed like an effort to get in on the latest Arthurian craze (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon came out around the same time. It felt like references to myth and legend were shoehorned in, and Vancian imagination was crowded out. It was still written in his inimitable style, though, so I read the rest of the series anyway.

Re-reading it now, I can vaguely see what I was thinking of. But there’s also a lot of traditional Vance in here, and I’m not sure why I didn’t give it credit at the time. It’s more in the style of The Dying Earth‘s Mazirian than it is The Dogtown Tourist Agency, but it’s Vance without a doubt.

The story concerns the Elder Isles off the coast of France (now sadly sunken), including the large island Hybras, and its regions Avalon, Ulfland, and Lyonesse. Ambitious kings and magicians vie with each other for power and land. Some outcomes are sad, some brutal, many melancholy. Happiness tends to happen off stage.

In any case, the story is interesting, and I must update my earlier evaluation. One thing that I don’t recall, however, and that is nonetheless true, is that this first volume of the trilogy just stops. Many plotlines are resolved, and there’s really no barrier to a satisfying close, but there isn’t one. Instead, the text just ends at a moderately convenient point, and the book is over. Or nearly over, since a very awkward epilogue is tacked on that starts “What now?”, and frankly reads more like Vance’s notes for the sequel than like text the reader should be seeing. While I’ve upgraded my ranking from a remembered two stars to three, it’s this poor closing, rather than my earlier quibbles, that prevents the book from getting four.

It’s a good story, but I continue to suspect that the praise it got when issued was more a recognition of Vance’s historic skill than for the story itself. Overall, this is good, and worth reading (as a full trilogy), but it’s not Vance’s best work.

***


It took me a while to post this review, since I picked the book up to read just around the time Jack Vance died. I admire his writing so much that I was uncomfortable posting an unenthusiastic review just while I was encouraging people to (re-)discover his genius. Still, here it is. It also inspired me to write a story triggered by a scene in this novel when Scharis remains at Maroe , and titled (‘Punctilio’) in Vance’s honor. I don’t pretend to Vance’s magic with words, but keep an eye out for it eventually.

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