The novel “Rhialto the Marvellous” by Jack Vance was published for the first time in 1984. It’s the fourth novel in the cycle of the Dying Earth.
In the 21st Aeon, a group of magicians formed a partnership through which they can better protect their interests. The members of this group take their inspiration from the great magicians of the past Aeons but compared to them in some ways they’re little more than amateurs. Those new wizards have enormous powers but they’re not at the level of their predecessors.
Rhialto, called the “Marvellous” for his reputation as a dandy, is one of the wizards who make up this association. He and his colleagues have to use their powers and their cunning to defend themselves against threats ancient and modern, external but also internal.
“Rhialto the Marvellous” is actually a collection containing three independent stories that have as protagonists a group of magicians and in particular Rhialto. They live in the 21st Aeon, in the Earth’s very distant future when the Sun is at the end of its life.
The science of that time are indistinguishable from magic and apart from some vague reference to the scientific basis the stories of “Rhialto the Marvellous” are definitely fantasy.
Rhialto and his fellow magicians have enormous powers but there are still potential threats against them so they formed an association to protect their interests. Rhialto generally is aloof, enough to be considered arrogant by his colleagues, enjoying life in the company of beautiful women.
Despite their enormous powers, those wizards often behave in a childish and petty way, quarreling and and praking each other. They tend to be arrogant because they have access to many spells to defend themselves and attack anyone who threatens them but if they perceive the possibility of a serious danger they can become cowards.
With the style already shown in the previous stories of the dying Earth cycle, full of sophisticated and archaic terms, sometimes even invented, Jack Vance tells some stories of Rhialto and his fellow magicians as they face external threats but also internal, because within their association there are jealousies that lead to intrigue against their colleagues.
Rhialto isn’t always the absolute protagonist of the stories included in “Rhialto the Marvellous” because he acts in association with his fellow magicians but he tends to be more proactive than them. In one story, Rhialto is the victim of the machinations of his fellow magician Hache-Moncour and must work hard not to fall into disgrace with the other wizards and avoid losing the magic stones sources of many of his powers.
Despite the dramatic basis of the stories that make up “Rhialto the Marvellous”, Jack Vance puts a lot of humor in them so they end up being quite funny and various characters seem ridiculous.
Personally, I found the stories of “Rhialto the Marvellous” overall less good than those of “The Eyes of the Overworld” and its sequel. Rhialto and his fellow magician are decently developed but in my opinion Cugel is unsurpassed, also because he’s the absolute protagonist of his stories.
The fact that Cugel’s stories form a great adventure adds a level of narrative consistency that is lacking in “Rhialto the Marvellous”, which is instead composed of three independent stories.
Obviously, it’s a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer the stories of Cugel, who basically does it all also causing his own misfortune, to those of Rhialto and his fellow magicians, who by comparison are sometimes a bit passive.
Despite some elements that I didn’t find particularly exciting, I think it’s worth reading a novel by Jack Vance, in the case of “Rhialto the Marvelloul” especially for fans of the fantasy genre. However, more than ever, my advice is to read the entire cycle of the Dying Earth.