The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

Tales of the Dying Earth Omnibus by Jack Vance
Tales of the Dying Earth Omnibus by Jack Vance

The novel “The Eyes of the Overworld”, also known as “Cugel the Clever”, by Jack Vance was published for the first time as a book in 1966 after the stories that compose it were previously published in a magazine. It’s the second novel of the cycle of the Dying Earth.

On Earth, in a future so distant that the Sun is dying, Cugel is a con man who is persuaded to rob Iucounu ​​the Laughing Magician of its many charms, amulets, scrolls, and various other items pertaining to his magical activities. Cugel calls himself the Clever but when he enters Iucounu’s home ​​to accomplish the theft he’s captured by one of the Laughing Magician’s traps.

When Iucounu ​​finds Cugel, he forces him to undertake a dangerous mission: take possession of a magic lens that allows seeing the Overworld. To “encourage” Cugel, the Laughing Magician implants Firx, a small alien with barbs and hooks, into his body so that it prevents him from abandoning his mission. Through a spell, Cugel is sent to the place where he can find the magic lens and then make the long and perilous journey home.

“The Eyes of the Overworld” is set in the same fictional universe of “The Dying Earth“, the first novel of the renowned cycle by Jack Vance set in a distant future of decadence in which technology is indistinguishable from magic. It’s not a real sequel because none of the characters of the first novel appears in the second one.

“The Dying Earth” is essentially a collection of loosely connected stories, “The Eyes of the Overworld” is also composed of several stories but not only they focus on Cugel’s adventures but they form a precise sequence.

Cugel, who is introduced by Jack Vance in this novel, is basically an anti-hero, a selfish and ruthless con man who’d sell his mother if he thought he could make some money. He calls himself the Clever because he thinks he’s superior to others but he often ends up involved in mishaps because he’s the one being duped by someone else, sometimes by those who were supposed to be his victims. He’s always ready to take advantage of other people but he’s just as ready to complain when he’s the one who falls victim of a con. On other occasions, Cugel gets into trouble because he overestimates his skills and his plans go wrong.

Despite those negative qualities, but in part precisely because of them, Cugel manages to inspire sympathy, also because Jack Vance tells his adventures with a good dose of humor. In fact, during “The Eyes of the Overworld” There are many moments when the reader feels at least compassion for Cugel, constantly tormented by the little alien Firx inside his body.

Cugel constantly curses Iucounu ​​the Laughing Magician for having forced him to undertake such a dangerous mission and thinks about the possible revenge he could put in place against him. However, for him the main problem is being able to return home safe and sound and from this point of view “The Eyes of the Overworld” is a typical novel by Jack Vance. Thus there are his typical descriptions of strange lands and people with strange customs, in this case put into the landscape of the distant future dying Earth, among the relics of past civilizations and spells of all kinds.

Both those descriptions and the dialogues are peculiar for the use by Jack Vance of archaic and sophisticated terms, sometimes even made up, which evoke in the reader images of strange places and the people that inhabit them.

“The Eyes of the Overworld” is now a great classic, though of the fantasy genre because the science fiction basis of the dying Earth cycle are used only to offer a story with a totally fantasy flavor. This novel can be read independently from “The Dying Earth” because the two novels have in common only the setting, however I recommend reading the whole cycle.

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