Lyonesse, by Jack Vance

Published 1983, 1985, & 1990
Review by Tim

Long ago, before the Elder Isles sank beneath the Cantabrian Gulf, a princess was born to the royal house of the kingdom of Lyonesse, to the great displeasure of her father the king. This is the beginning of the first volume of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy, a traditional tale of love and warfare in a land of magic and fantasy, and to which the author brings his own irresistible brand of lyricism and wit.

The Elder Isles were located south of Ireland and west of France. The time period, as near as I can figure, is the middle-to-late 5th century AD, after St Patrick's mission to Ireland, but before the birth of the historical King Arthur. The main island is Hybras, roughly about the size of Ireland, surrounded by smaller islands. The island is divided into several kingdoms, the largest being Dahaut to the north, and Lyonesse to the south. The center of the island is occupied by the dark Tantravalles Forest, the abode of fairies, ogres, falloys, goblins, and sundry other halfling creatures. On the southwest quarter of the island, in the kingdom of South Ulfland, is the ancient city of Ys.

The Elder Isles are filled with grand royal courts and the drafty halls of hedge lords, magicians and mountebanks, beautiful ladies and dire witches, gallant heroes and ruthless highwaymen. Amid this setting a sad, wistful maiden, imprisoned on an isolated shore by her cruel father, rescues a shipwrecked prince. They fall in love and secretly marry, thereby setting in motion the events that propel the rest of the story.

This is a strange venue for Vance, who's stories are usually set in utterly alien environments. I surmise that the author wished to write a tale more accessible and appealing to general audiences. The books contain all of the elements of the traditional medieval romance, yet Vance's writing imbues the tale with a freshness of approach and style that sets Lyonesse apart from others in the genre. The settings are detailed, the plot elements intricate and interwoven, the motivations of the characters sensible. Even minor characters are expertly developed and wholly realized. The dialogue is intelligent, and often wry. For example:

Casmir slowly drew back. He looked down at Madouc. "Why did you throw fruit at Lady Desdea?"

Madouc said artlessly: "It was because lady Desdea came past first, before Lady Marmone."

"That is not relevant to the issue!" snapped King Casmir. "At this moment Lady Desdea believes that I pelted her with bad fruit."

Madouc nodded soberly. "It may be all for the best. She will take the reprimand more seriously than if it came mysteriously, as if from nowhere."

"Indeed? And what are her faults, that she deserves such a bitter reproach?"

Madouc looked up in wonder, her eyes wide and blue. "In the main, Sire, she is tiresome beyond endurance and drones on forever. At the same time, she is sharp as a fox, and sees around corners. Also, if you can believe it, she insists that I learn to sew a fine seam!"

Lyonesse consists of three books: Suldrun's Garden was published in 1983 (it was renamed by the publisher Lyonesse, just to confuse people), The Green Pearl in 1985, and Madouc in 1990. The seven years between the first and last volumes were long to wait, but worth it. I recommend them without reservation.

August, 1998