Tales of the Dying Earth (Millennium Fantasy Masterworks S.)

by Jack Vance

Paperback, 2000



Call number




Gollancz (2000), Paperback


Here, in one volume, is Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning author Jack Vance's classic Dying Earth saga comprising The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous. Travel to a far distant future, when the sun bleeds red in a dark sky, where magic and science is one, and the Earth has but a few short decades to live.

User reviews

LibraryThing member santhony
I purchased this novel immediately after reading and enjoying the author’s Planet of Adventure series. Much like Planet of Adventure, this book consists of four related novellas, set on far future Earth. While Planet of Adventure would be best labeled as science fiction, Tales of the Dying Earth
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is purely fantasy.

The first novella, The Dying Earth, is actually a collection of six short stories which are only very loosely related. Pure fantasy, lots of magic and sorcery, a few interesting life forms and moderately entertaining story lines.

In the second novella, Eyes of the Overworld, we meet our protagonist for the next 500 pages, Cugel the Clever. Cugel is a rapscallion of sorts, not a particularly good person, except by comparison. He is certainly clever, as he survives adventure after adventure solely by virtue of his wits and willingness to suspend all moral value.

The third novella, Cugel’s Saga, is simply a continuation of the previous story. Cugel is transported to the far reaches of the known world and must find his way home again. On the way, he meets and outsmarts many species of humanoid and animal specie, as well as sorcerers and mythological creatures. As in Planet of Adventure, the author does a masterful job of creating strange life forms and imbuing them with mores, cultures and traditions. His sense of imagination is stunning and highly entertaining.

The final novella in the quartet, Rhialto the Marvelous, is essentially three short stories, focused on a consortium of 20-30 minor magicians and their often adversarial relationships. The first of these, I found virtually unreadable. The second and by far the longest was quite enjoyable. The third, while not as engaging as the second, was entertaining nonetheless.

As mentioned before, Vance is a master of imagination and excels in the creation of landscapes, cultures and alien life forms, while avoiding stereotype. As another Amazon reviewer so perceptively put it, when commenting on these creations:

"Fictional characters definitely, but also vehicles for Vance to express his sharply perceptive take on the human condition in all its extremes of exaltation and debasement, hilarity and wickedness.”

For fans of science fiction and fantasy, I cannot recommend Vance’s work highly enough.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Another fantasy work definitely not to be missed, Tales of the Dying Earth is fantastic. It is divided into four parts: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto The Marvellous.

All of the tales take place in a far-off future Earth in which the sun is dying, and in which
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the earth's population has dwindled. Magic is the rule of the day.

The Dying Earth is a series of tales which are interconnected, following the exploits of a few people (and some very odd creatures & even a demon or two).

My favorite section of the book follows the story of Cugel, in The Eyes of the Overworld, in which Cugel the Clever has the great misfortune of trying to rob a powerful magician and gets caught in the act. This story follows Cugel's journey to get home to plot revenge on the magician, who has transported him to the far North. It is often very funny, and really so well written that I could actually visualize the action.

Cugel the Clever reappears in the next section, Cugel's Saga, and although not as humorous as Eyes of the Overworld, still a fun read.

Rhialto The Marvellous is the final story in this collection. Rhialto is a magician, and is part of a group of other magicians. Here, Rhialto is framed for misdeeds of which he is innocent; later, Rhialto and his fellow magicians find themselves on a quest to rescue someone stranded on the edge of the universe.

The book's length may detract some readers, but don't judge it simply on number of pages: I was entranced from day one and took every opportunity I could to get back to reading it after having to put it down. The stories are incredibly well written so that the reader cannot possibly get bored. Some of Cugel's exploits, for example, had me laughing out loud.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy that involves magic, or fantasy in general. Do not miss this one!!
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LibraryThing member shabacus
NOTE: This book is an omnibus, containing four separate works. I will be reviewing each individually as I complete it. The overall star ranking will correspond to the entire volume, and will not necessarily be an average.

The Dying Earth:

Going into this book, I had no real idea what to expect. I
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knew Jack Vance only from a single short story, "The Moon Moth." But I liked that story, and looked forward to more of his output.

I was not disappointed, though I admit to being confused at first by the episodic nature of the book. This is a collection of short stories, linked by characters (at times) and the world in which they are set, but nothing more.

This is a world so far advanced that science and sorcery blend into one--indeed, the reader is left just as befuddled as the characters. But the precise mechanism is not important. What we find are humans left to attempt to understand a world that is old beyond imagining, one in which the knowledge of the ages is mostly lost.

The language, although inflated to pretentiousness at times, is at least done consistently enough to work. To a modern reader, the depiction of female characters is simplistic to the point of insult, but it was a product of its time, and must be viewed as such. The greatest success is the clear and compelling depiction of the world in which the stories take place. Rating: ****
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LibraryThing member ragwaine
This really scared me at first. I had always heard it was great. Then I started listening to it. The narrator sounded kind of strange but it wasn't only him. The dialogue was so B movie, I just kept thinking this sounds like very 15-year-old role player trying to do serious role-playing. It was
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SOOOOO bad. I thought I might give up.

Then it started to grow on me and I think it got better too. THEN it got great. Vance has a vocabulary topped by none in the sci-fi field. He strings together 10 words you've never heard used before and the shocking thing is that you know what he meant at the end. It's not like Shakespeare where you're just left clueless and have to read it over 12 times to get 65% comprehension. This is the real deal.

I'm not saying that I would want all sci-fi fantasy to read like this but it's an incredible achievement that I would think even the most accomplished writers would have trouble duplicating.

The funny thing is that it really reminded me of the movie Heavy Metal. So if you wrote Heavy Metal as a novel this would be it. Even down to the "many short stories with a kind of common theme/setting". I do have a soft spot for the Heavy Metal movie (it had cartoon boobs, that may have been part of it).

Anyway, the moral of this story/review is: Don't give up. It gets better. Or at least it did for me.
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LibraryThing member saltmanz
Of the four books collected in this omnibus, I can only recommend the first: The Dying Earth contains a set of enjoyable short stories set in a world infused with an atmosphere of magic and mystery. The additional volumes, though at times entertaining, more often than not were a chore to get
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through, and often felt internally inconsistent. The first volume is definitely worth a read, though, and if you can find the omnibus edition at a decent price, go for it.

3-1/2 stars for The Dying Earth
2-1/2 for the rest
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LibraryThing member TheDivineOomba
So this was one of those books that have been sitting in my unread pile for awhile, and I read it to reduce that pile (hah!)

So, this volume contains a series of stories set in the days when the sun could go out at any minute. Magic is now back, and the death of the planet at any moment leaves the
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people remaining a bit audacious and reckless in their actions.

The stories themselves are quite funny, once the lingo becomes understandable. From Cugel the Clever, who stole from a wizard and found himself flung to a distance place, not once, but twice, to Rhialto the Marvelous, a magician following the Blue path, who gets accused of a crime, only to find the Blue Adjutant who will judge the rules, was misplaced somewhere in the past.

There isn't anything deep with these stories. Men are men, women are playthings for men (although every women was willing in these stories) and the world is full of odd creatures, some created, some evolved, some even sentient.

Of course, this was written in the 60's and 70's, and it shows - from the style of writing (overly dramatic) to the stereotypical characters, but it has charm.

Also, I did wonder about the magic - is it technology from an earlier era disguised as magic, or is the magic real. It doesn't really matter in these stories, but it is an interesting idea.
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LibraryThing member MillieHennessy
I've read the first two books in this omnibus and at this point, I'm going to set it down. Not sure if I'll ever return to it. Here's what I think so far:

The Dying Earth - This is really a collection of shorts revolving around different characters who all live in the same world. There were two
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characters that crossed from one short to the next, but after that, none of the characters came across each other, so I'm not even sure if all the characters in this book are living in the same time period. I didn't really get a great sense of the world (except that Earth is dying and the sun is expected to go out someday, because in almost every story they talk about this). Characters typically just fought one another or went on quests for magical items. But the lack of detail regarding the world, character development and plot made these feel more like reading greek legends or myths than actual stories.

Overall the book felt more like a fantasy novel than a sci-fi, as there's a lot of magic and strange creatures, but very little emphasis on technology. One thing that's clear is that this book was written in the 1950s because it is different than any other sci-fi I've read and does have an "old" feel to it, though I'd be hard-pressed to clearly explain why I feel that way. One thing that does stand out though, is Vance's portrayal of women. They're merely beautiful accessories to men. Even if they're strong (though most are borderline helpless to straight up possessions men use at their leisure), they're strong because of a man. Not a viewpoint I'm used to reading, at least not so glaringly.

The Eyes of the Overworld - Or as I like to think of it, Cugel is an Asshole. Cugel is a magician of sorts, though more someone who sells magical wears. Another, more successful, magical merchant hints that Cugel could steal from a powerful wizard while he's away from his home. So he does, and he's caught. Cugel is punished and sent on a wild quest by the magician to retrieve an artifact he needs. Cugel vows revenge, as he feels that the wizard is in the wrong for punishing him so. Through his travels he meets and takes advantage of various people, gets into further trouble and gets himself back out of it again. He even ends up on a couple quests within his quests.

Cugel was incredibly unlikeable and I'm not sure if that was on purpose or not. He's a complete tool and does his best to take advantage of everyone he can and when he screws up, he faults others rather than himself. Like in the previous book, he treats women like dirt too. The only comfort I took was that at the end, when he tried to pull one over on the wizard and the merchant, rather than exact his revenge, his plan backfired and he was again sent to the far corners of the world.

The next book is called Cugel's Saga and since I can't stand that prick, I'm going to take a hiatus from this book. The only major plus to reading these books was that I learned quite a few new vocab words. I do have a collection of shorts by various writers (including Tanith!) that were inspired by Vance's dying earth universe, and I think I'll pick that up. I'm hoping the voices of other writers might lend some life to this universe.
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LibraryThing member pahoota
I've previously read (and reviewed) Eyes of the Overworld so I checked this book out to read the first "novel". As noted, the novel is simply a collection of short stories. Vance's style was much more accessible here than in his later Dying Earth works. I can see how his work was unique among the
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fantasy world back in the 50s and can appreciate his influence, but after reading "he Dying Earth" I'm not impressed enough to seek out anything else by Vance.
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LibraryThing member apilgrim
Collection of 4 fantasy collections of short stories made into novels.
The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld are fantastic and great imaginative fantasy (Clark Ashton Smith good recommendation if you like those).
The second pair of novels isn't as good and is just entertaining.
The book itself
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gets a high rating because of content and completeness. 1-star deduction for an awful cover. A shame because all of the original paperback covers are well done.
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LibraryThing member veritatem.dilexi
- The Dying Earth, four and a half stars
- The Eyes of the Overworld, four stars
- Cugel's Saga, three stars
- Rhialto the Marvellous, three stars

A necessary read for sci-fi/fantasy fans! I didn't realize how much had been borrowed from Jack Vance's series until I read them. Still poignant and awfully
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hilarious all these years later.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Overhyped Hodgpodge: I looked forward to a bunch of great stories about the future of earth and how mankind was dealing with it. Instead this was three or four books obviously done at different times that were were slapped together to form a somwhat continuous story for the most part. I liked the
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first couple of stories and then the repetitiveness of Cugel wore me out. Unrepentent, scurrilous Cugel was funny for the first 30 pages but after what seemed like 1000 pages I wanted to bump him off myself.
Please beware of the other reviews. Unless you want a semi humorous fantasy novel telling a bunch of semi linked stories about a dying earth with lots of magic then stay the heck away from this.
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LibraryThing member Ilirwen
Three stories from the first book (The Dying Earth) were good, I've thought so from the time I first read it, but the rest of the book was just terribly disappointing. What a waste of money. :(
LibraryThing member michaeladams1979
Clever and fun adventures. Kind of a bridge between the fantastique school, the darker side of wizardry and necromancy Clark Ashton Smith worked in, (also featuring a touch of his expansive vocabulary), some light sword and sorcery fair, and you can also definitely see how it layed the foundations
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of modern fantasy (even including some of the magic systems of D&D). A definite recommendation for fans of both new and old swords, sorcery, and weird fantasy worlds.
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LibraryThing member BruceCoulson
An absolutely terrible cover for this collection. The Dying Earth is a classic in the field. The other stories show the progression of Vance's writing; they aren't as good, since he's going over ground already covered, but still have that prose-poem feel.
LibraryThing member crop
This collection of four books, sharing the same setting, appears on the famous-in-certain-circles "Appendix N": the "inspirational and educational reading" section of one of the early D&D rulebooks. (In fact, D&D's technique of spells needing to be memorised each day, then being forgotten when they
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are cast is known a "Vancian magic", after the author of this book). Vance mostly obliterates the line between antagonist and protagonist, so if you like to root for the main characters when you read, this probably isn't your book. Pretty much all the characters are selfish and, at best, kind of dickish, but still fascinating. Likewise, if you are looking for strong, or even slightly two-dimensional female characters, look elsewhere, as there are none to be found here.

The collection contains four books, written over wide timespan. The first of these, a collection of stories from 1950 clearly stands above the others, featuring a chain of characters, where a secondary character in one story becomes the main character of the next. The last (1984), also episodic, features the same cabal of characters and also shines. The center pair, which follow a single scumbag's misadventures, still entertain, but less strongly than the others.

All the characters in the last days of the earth speak in stylised language, which will have you saying things like "I do not care to listen; obloquy injures my self-esteem and I am skeptical of praise" for weeks after reading (though, I confess using my Kindle's dictionary lookup feature a lot while reading this one). This style, particularly the dialogue, make this book a delightful read, even when (especially when) all the characters are out to sabotage each other.
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LibraryThing member selfnoise
Really a very heterogenous collection, as it spans decades, writing styles, and themes. The Dying Earth was one of Vance's earliest works and has an episodic, contemplative quality that is missing from his later works. The two Cugel novels are vintage Vance: strange, cynical, and darkly humorous.
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I've yet to read Rhialto the Marvellous.
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LibraryThing member AlanPoulter
NB This review is only of the first novel in this collection, 'The Dying Earth'.

Although I been reading science fiction and fantasy (the former mostly) this is the first from this author I have read, his recent death being the driver. The 1950 copyright dated did not not bode well as surely
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something from that era could not still be relevant today?

I was very surprised. This is not the wooden, retrogressive, good against evil, D20 cardboard stuff, but real fantasy, with all its strange, unpredictable beings, decayed places and histories, and stories which twist and turn, rarely ending in cozy closure, more at home in folk tales than trilogies It was easy to see where M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, Christopher Priest, John Crowley and more had got their inspiration from. For one example, a story even had people dressed in different colours 'not seeing' each other as in China Mieville's [The City & The City]
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LibraryThing member antao
Cugel the Clever, protagonist of “The Eyes of the Overworld”, is one of the finest characters in SF. The prose is also marvellous. Cugel hugely entertaining and immoral character and seeing him get his comeuppance when his plans fail is always fun.

The following comes from the sequel, titled
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“Cugel’s Saga”, but gives an idea of the tone:

‘Faucelme returned, shaking his head in puzzlement. He seated himself in his chair and resumed his reading. Cugel came up behind him, looped the rope around his chest, again and again, and it seemed as if the rope would never exhaust the coil. Faucelme was presently trussed up in a cocoon of rope.

At last Cugel revealed himself. Faucelme looked him up and down, in curiosity rather than rancor, then asked: "May I inquire the reason for this visit?"

"It is simple stark fear," said Cugel. "I dare not pass the night out of doors, so I have come to your house for shelter."

"And the ropes?" Faucelme looked down at the web of strands which bound him into the chair.

"I would not care to offend you with the explanation," said Cugel.

"Would the explanation offend me more than the ropes?"

Cugel frowned and tapped his chin. "Your question is more profound than it might seem, and verges into the ancient analyses of the Ideal versus the Real."

Faucelme sighed. "Tonight I have no zest for philosophy. You may answer my question in terms which proximate the Real."

"In all candour, I have forgotten the question," said Cugel.

"I will re-phrase it in words of simple structure. Why have you tied me to my chair, rather than entering by the door?"

"At your urging then, I will reveal an unpleasant truth. Your reputation is that of a sly and unpredictable villain with a penchant for morbid tricks."

Faucelme gave a sad grimace. "In such a case my bare denial carries no great weight. Who are my detractors?"

Cugel smilingly shook his head. "As a gentleman of honour I must reserve this information."

"Aha indeed!" said Faucelme, and became reflectively silent.’

“I understand the gist of your speculation,' said Rhialto. 'It is most likely nuncupatory.”

in "Rhialto the Marvellous" by Jack Vance

Vance is a peerless creator of genuinely unearthly mindscapes. “The Dying Earth”, whilst wonderful and much more thoroughly developed, owes a fair amount of basic inspiration to Clark Ashton Smith's “Zothique”, (not a book so much as a setting for a number of his short stories) also set at the end of time amid feuding magicians and a red sun (if I recall correctly). Smith was a poet who wrote horror/fantasy during the depression to make ends meet, his prose is highly stylised and may be hard to take for some contemporary readers (though not to the same extent as Hodgson's “The Night Land” - I would recommend anyone interest in but unfamilar with Hodgson's trying his classic “House on the Borderland” first), but will be enjoyably different for others.

Vance was my main excuse for spending so much time, and surprisingly little money, in dusty bookshops as a teenager. I still have a dog-eared 'Cugel's Saga' (could not find it for this post though; above the picture of my 2000’s edition from the Fantasy Masterworks Series), a great delight after many re-reads and I'm glad to see Vance getting some praise in this day and age of fast food novels. “Cugel's Saga” should be compulsory just for the style and use of language.

If one wants to summarise this work, imagine that your world is dying. Without authority, valid and morally true, the human response to global environmental change will be too little, too late. And then there will be the next war. It is a social dilemma, a problem of collective action. A lack of global soul. Starting to see where we're headed...?

I hope I am not saying anything new by saying that this satirical humor classic is a true masterpiece of anti-heroic fantasy. In the last days of the world of “The Dying Earth”, people have no purpose in life, they just want to pursue pleasure and live comfortably until the sun goes out (which could happen literally any minute). Among the ruins of ancient civilizations, no one needs to be without wherewithal. And the richest in the declining world are those who possess the magical objects of the ancestors(*). Cugel's goal is no other than to acquire such a collection. As a result, he must go half way around the world. The traveler - who is usually driven to this tiring and dangerous occupation by compulsion - can come across isolated communities following grotesque customs all over the world, which are not labeled as "exotic", rather they should be called unearthly bizarre. And this is perfectly suited for the author to juxtapose the wildest ideas in a picaresque manner. It's also part of Vance's style that virtually every single one of his characters is ridiculously obnoxious. Magnificent, hypocritical characters try to deceive each other in the middle of uplifting speeches, but they get themselves into tragic situations more than once. In short, this omnibus edition should be read quite differently from either old or contemporary epic fantasy novels, but in any case it’s still much better than most of the crap being published nowadays.

Across all the worlds of Vance, from Tschai with its mix of incomers, the insectoid Chasch, the aquatic Wankh (oh how I laughed), and the feral Dirdir, and not forgetting the indigenous and antic Pnume to Maske: Thaery where Jubal Droad sought his fortune as a Thariot spy. From Cadwal with its Conservancy, its strictly controlled numbers, and its fecund and furious wildlife to Sarkoy with its steppes and its nomads, poisoners and shamans worship Godogma, who carries a flower and a flail and walks on wheels, no plant is a s strange as Old Earth, as the dying Earth.

Old Earth where Wayness sought the original Charter from the cities and manses of Europe to the windswept towns of Patagonia pursued by Benjamin a Yip with rape and murder on his mind. Od Earth where Lyonesse lay in warmer southern waters and magicians and witches and malign green pearls were found. Old Earth, a dying Earth with red and flickering sun. The home of Rhialto and lIdefonse, both magicians, of Shrue, a diabolist, of Vermoulian the Dream Walker, and Mune the Mage. But also of the Murthe, a witch, whose ensqualmation was turning men into women and boys into girls.

But there is an emergency on Old Earth! So Cugel the cliometrician, the chaotist and catastrophist, has crawled out of his slumber, woken from his coma, and taken up his trade again. He has strung his fiaps and called his cantrips, raised the dead as he is himself but a ghost. By the power of Gwydion and of Math in all his forms, computationally and cognitively, embodied and entangled. Using both strangeness and charm he will work his weird way and try and answer nature's call.

The great thing is that Vance has been so bloody prolific it takes years to read through his stuff, though happily most of it comes in bite-sized pieces. I too will never be able to afford the Vance Integral Edition, but there is a lot of pleasure to be had collecting the old 1960s pulp editions for mere pennies.

Jack Vance is one of the most influential of fantasy masters with a chilling ability to hide cruelty and horror behind an amusing or bizarre phrase. A brilliant and funny prose stylist. Wodehouse and Twain fit in there somewhere, but Vance is still unique. In a funny sort of way I am pleased that he will remain a minority interest.

NB(*): In role-playing games, the wizard of Vance, who memorizes spells and then completely forgets them after saying them, is a kind of commonplace, but this work is not primarily about that. In the Dying Earth, anyone can become a wizard if they collect enough magic items and magic books. Whether he can use these treasures wisely is another question... as Cugel will find out.

Book Review Jack Vance SF = Speculative Fiction Vance
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LibraryThing member questbird
Great fantasy, I love the Dying Earth, and its bizaare characters.
LibraryThing member dcunning11235
The book (or, series of books) has a pull. Vance is able to use description and flowing language to pull you in. He buries little jokes and jibes, e.g.
[He] plied her with all gallantry, but she failed to respond, merely looking at him in disinterested silence, until [he] wondered if she were
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slack-witted, or possibly more subtle than himself. Either case made him uncomfortable...

That, and its influence on D&D, sword and sorcery fantasy, and beyond (it is really easy to see e.g. Flash Gordon in these pages) make these "seminal" stories.

But, man, there are some... outdated... portrayals of women. Even if taken in the sense that the end era of Earth is a degenerate time. And that is the other thing. Every character is unlikable, disgusting, even just "evil." There are no protagonists anywhere.

The writing itself is 80% description. Good description (as said above), but it gets old after a while. And, granted this is after ~750 pages, it just runs on and on and on.

All in all... 2 stars, but a bonus star for the fact that this did have so much impact.
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Original publication date


Physical description

752 p.; 7.64 inches


1857989945 / 9781857989946
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