Review: Suldrun’s Garden – Jack Vance

  • Title: Suldrun’s Garden
  • Author: Jack Vance
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Why: Because I adore Jack Vance and I’d never yet got round to reading his Lyonesse series.
  • Rating: 5 Stars

Description: The Elder Isles, located in what is now the Bay of Biscay off the the coast of Old Gaul, are made up of ten contending kingdoms, all vying with each other for control. At the centre of much of the intrigue is Casmir, the ruthless and ambitious king of Lyonnesse. His beautiful but otherworldly daughter, Suldrun, is part of his plans. He intends to cement an alliance or two by marrying her well. But Suldrun is as determined as he and defies him. Casmir coldly confines her to the overgrown garden that she loves to frequent, and it is here that meets her love and her tragedy unfolds. Political intrigue, magic, war, adventure and romance are interwoven in a rich and sweeping tale set in a brilliantly realized fabled land.

Review: This is a bit of a bittersweet review for me, in light of Vance’s passing away only a few days ago. This man’s back catalogue comprises literally hundreds of books, and the Lyonesse series is one of his most lauded works; I had simply never yet got round to reading it.

Suldrun’s Garden is the first part in this trilogy, and it’s Vance at his most classic. The book begins in the palace chambers of Queen Sollace as she is giving birth to her first child. King Casmir is nearby to keep an eye on the proceedings, but loses all interest when the child turns out to be a daughter, who is named Suldrun.

In any other book, this would set the scene for Suldrun to be the protagonist, but Vance doesn’t work that way. We follow Suldrun for a while as she grows up under the indifferent eye of her father – who is much more interested in expanding his reign beyond the borders of his own kingdom of Lyonesse – and her equally indifferent mother. Casmir only pays attention to Suldrun when she might be of use to him, ie. as a pawn to tempt rivals into a politically advantageous marriage. Suldrun herself simply wishes to be left alone, and defies him in every way she is able to.

Often, without warning, the book moves on to a completely new character in a different part of the world and follows that person for a while. This happens several times, and gradually it starts to become clear how the various storylines are interwoven. This doesn’t happen in an all-encompassing, tie-your-threads-together climax ending like you might expect in Hollywood movies, no, it simply all starts to make sense. The story is ultimately a meandering tale of ambition, betrayal, love, adversity and intrigue, encompassing kings, magicians and fairy creatures.

Vance’s writing style is unique, and will not suit everyone. His prose is intricate, with lots of obscure words which are used by the characters as easily as if they were part of everyday language. Characters and scenes are described concisely, yet all descriptions are strangely evocative. Conversations are unlike anything you would hear elsewhere, yet they are not stilted, just unusual. Things often feel a little detached, but then something happens which stirs your passion as a reader when you least expect it. Overall I would describe the book as melancholy – in me it evokes feelings of sorrow for things and times long past, which left you with nothing but fond memories.

Maybe it is best to use an example paragraph to demonstrate Vance’s style:

“Dame Maugelin trudged up the circular stone steps to Dame Boudetta’s apartments, hips rolling and thrusting under her dark brown gown. On the third floor she halted to pant, then went to an arched door of fitted timbers, bound with black iron straps. The door stood ajar. Dame Maugelin pushed it somewhat more open, with a creak of iron hinges, so that she could pass her amplitude through the gap. She advanced to stand in the doorway, eyes darting to all corners of the room at once.”

If that speaks to your fancy, give this book a go. It may not always be easy going, but if any book will take you away to far fairy shores on winds of imagination, it is this one.

Originally published on Silk Screen Views:


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