Grimdark fantasy existed long before the term; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is as grimdark as you can get and it’s decades old. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD, Jack Vance’s sequel to The Dying Earth, doesn’t initially read grimdark — it’s stylish, elegant and humorous — but it has a view of the world just as grim as Game of Thrones. The protagonist, Cugel the Clever, is an amoral antihero and rapist (I’ll come back to that last point) but most of the people he encounters are as greedy, corrupt and selfish as he is. Despite his nickname, Cugel isn’t all that clever; when he thinks he’s scamming someone, his confidence in his own cunning blinds him that he’s the one being snared.
Like the first book, this is a collection of short stories, here linked by Cugel’s quest. In the opening, someone talkes Cugel into robbing Incounou, the Laughing Magician (if he’s laughing at you, you’re in for it) which doesn’t go well. Incounou extracts a promise from Cugel to hunt for one of the eponymous eyes, contact lenses that transform whatever you’re looking at into a world of beauty. Not being an idiot, the mage puts a tiny creature inside Cugel to gnaw his vitals if the thief runs off or in some fashion tries to double-deal. Then off we and Cugel go on a picaresque, black-humored journey across the dying future Earth.
This came out 16 years after the first book and Vance’s style has improved considerably. At one point a sorcerer says he can foretell Cugel’s future but it will require wrapping Cugel in the intestines of freshly killed owls, burning his little toe and dilating his nostrils to let an explorer beetle enter his body. Cugel passes. And Vance is very good on imaginary names: “The great cities Impergos, Tharuwe, Rhaverjand — all unheard of? What of the illustrious Sembers?” Exotic names, but believable ones, I think; they sound right.
The story is cynical as hell. Cugel lies, cheats and steals, and cons people with this voice of injured reason (under the circumstances, surely you can’t suggest that I pay for this meal!); his intended marks abuse him just as much. In one story he’s marked out as the sacrifice to the local bat-creatures; in another he’s tricked into serving as the town watchman (an important post) by being promised luxury, food and the woman of his choice; instead he ends up trapped in the watchtower with no luxury, crappy food and no sex. While I’m not a big fan of antiheroes — and Cugel’s the least heroic antihero I’ve read since Flashman — the results are entertaining and often funny. But then there’s the rapey stuff.
Dying Earth was sexist, but Eyes is a lot worse. In the watchman story, Cugel picks out one of the local women to be his mistress, then slowly (very slowly) realizes she’s just part of the con the town is playing on him. When he escapes, he takes her with him, rapes her and then she’s killed by a monster at the climax. In another story, Cugel’s bid to pass himself off as a rightful king fails spectacularly and he has to flee the city alongside Derwe Coreme, the former ruler. They become lovers but when Cugel needs help from a family of vagabonds they ask for his woman in return; he hands her over to be their sex slave without hesitation, then forgets about her. He has no qualms and neither does Vance seem to care about the women.
I don’t mean that this makes Vance pro-rape; he’s writing a dark, cynical story in a corrupt world so it’s not like the rape doesn’t fit the setting. Nor does Cugel show remorse about anything else. But nothing else he does is comparably vicious; okay, his revenge on Incounou might be, but that’s revenge, where his treatment of Derwe is gratuitous cruelty. And Vance treats it as no more consequential than stealing a character’s dinner in another chapter. Much as I liked the rest of the book, I don’t think I’d recommend it.
#SFWApro. Top cover by George Barr, bottom by Jack Gaughan; all rights to covers remain with current holder.