2011-08-26

The Captivation of Contrasts

Appendix S: Lyonesse (Suldrun’s Garden)

If Lord Dunsany had written Game of Thrones, the result might have been something like this often overlooked fantasy gem by F&SF legend Jack Vance. The setting is the Elder Isles, a magical realm that occupies the seas south of Dark-Ages Britain and Ireland. The story is built on a wonderfully fractious narrative that spins out between a half-dozen characters caught up in the political turmoil roiling the isles’ kingdoms.

In Lyonesse (the title of some editions; others are published as Suldrun’s Garden), the princess Suldrun rejects her father’s plans to marry her off for political gain, finding peace and solace in a lost garden. In Troicinet, the young prince Allais is comfortably out of the line of succession until his uncle dies, whereupon a jealous cousin tries to murder him and sets in motion a bittersweet tale of revenge and redemption. The people and the culture of the Elder Isles are beautifully brought to life by Vance’s almost-poetic prose, which moves seamlessly between the hard edges of epic fantasy and the winsome quality of the Elder Isles’ dark fairy-tale world. Mischievous fey, witches, trolls, and powerful sorcerers define the web of magic that weaves through the high-fantasy politics of Vance’s realm, and the result is stunning.

I know people who don’t care for this or the other books of Vance’s Lyonesse cycle (the followups are The Green Pearl and Madouc). Vance’s prose is nothing short of bewitching, but that magic demands a certain amount of like-mindedness on the reader’s part.
Something had changed. She felt as if she were seeing the garden for the first time, even though every detail, every tree and flower was familiar and dead. She looked about her in sadness for the lost vision of childhood. She saw evidence of neglect: harebells, anemones and violets growing modestly in the shadow had been challenged by insolent tufts of rank grass. Opposite, among the cypresses and olive trees, nettles had risen more proudly than the asphodel. The path she had so diligently paved with beach pebbles had been broken by rain.
Suldrun went slowly down to the old lime tree, under which she had passed many dreaming hours. The garden seemed smaller. Ordinary sunlight suffused the air, rather than the old enchantment which had gathered in this place alone, and surely the wild roses had given a richer fragrance when first she had entered the garden? At a crunch of footsteps she looked about to discover a breaming Brother Umphred. He wore a brown cassock tied with a black cord. The cowl hung down between his plump shoulders; his tonsured baldness shone pink.
Likewise, the story is dark and light by turns, and features more than a bit of medieval-style mayhem, murder, and rapine, and the presentation of such topics in an almost fairy tale-like morally neutral cadence can take some getting used to. But just as the best fairy tales walk the line between shock and beauty, dismay and hope, so too does Suldrun’s Garden captivate with its contrasts. Not all of Vance’s metaphorical garden and its counterpart fey landscape is flowers and light.

On a more mechanical level, Suldrun’s Garden is one of those books i often rail about as being less a complete story in its own right and more of a setup for the books to come. In this case, however, there’s enough story — by turns comic, tragic, and bittersweet in spades — to carry the book to a satisfying conclusion, even if that conclusion speaks less to closure for Suldrun’s story than to portents of what’s to come as a result (right down to a “What of Character X?” epilogue whose tone pushes dangerously close to tongue-in-cheek soap opera). In the end, though, Suldrun’s Garden is a great standalone introduction to Vance’s work and world, and a fascinating hybrid that shows off the power of epic tale-telling and the whimsy of fairy tale in equal measure.

Suldrun’s Garden has a permanent place on the shelves in Appendix S because Vance’s writing is never content to be one thing or the other. And by striving to be both, it manages to achieve a beauty that’s inordinately rare.