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As a man coming into this work having only read the Dying Earth series, the inclusion of a map surprised me. I skipped it – the Kindle reader for small Android phones is not kind to graphics – thinking that it wouldn’t be necessary. Jack’s a fine writer, and I trust him to bring me into the important parts of the geography as necessary. This assumption proved out for the first quarter of the book, anyway.
Vance really is a master at the slow lead-in. The first character on screen is a naked, hairy sacredote – a term not defined until Chapter Three, a full chapter after the first long term exposure to the odd religious/mystic hermits. It’s not until the second chapter and the history of Happy Valley and the basics that we learn this isn’t a fantasy world, but a low-tech science fiction world. Both happen at the same time as we see Vance’s gift for describing alien cultures.
The…’negotiation’ for lack of a better term…between Kergan Banbeck and the Weaponeer was delightful. As a confusingly bizarre interaction between two alien minds, it’s one of the best I’ve encountered. Kergan and his counterpart both use words that the other understands, but those words are the arms of blind men flailing for an elephant that might not even exist. The introduction of the sacredote and his observation that they are talking past each other doesn’t help matters at all. It just makes me wonder if the sacerdotes aren’t so wise after all.
The introduction of alien beings - the Basics - didn't really surprise me, despite coming into this story completely unaware. Vance has a reputation for flouting genre conventions in this manner, and hanging out with well-read nerds has prepared me for just this sort of trick out of the great man. It's still nice to read a story that so effortlessly bridges the gap between fantasy and sci-fi.
The confined nature of the setting makes it easy to see why Vance is required reading for RPG enthusiasts. You have two major factions, separated by a ridge, a few hidey-holes, a vague and repeated existential threat to the world. It’s everything you need for a tight little sandbox campaign, all tucked into the pages of a relatively short book. It would be a trivial matter to grab the map from the first page, advance the clock by four generations and have Kergan Banbeck II warring with Neddry Carcolo, and hey look, it’s a brand new campaign complete with dungeons, dragons, and political intrigue.Oddly enough, Vance’s gift for nomenclature rings off-key for me in this book. As a long-time (and sadly lapsed) college football fan, Happy Valley will always be home to the Nitanny Lions to me, and I cannot read Kergan’s name without thinking, “There can be only one.” The fault is entirely mine, but there it is.