A truly creative fantasy setting (5 stars)
Cugel the Clever is the second book in the Dying Earth series of Jack Vance, a setting in the extreme future of the Earth when the Sun is dying and so much time has passed that things went back to fantasy in a way, with wizards and monsters roaming the last days of the planet.
In a genre loaded with the usual dragons and elves, Dying Earth stands on it’s own with a stunningly creative world of truly bizarre creatures and concepts. It really is refreshing to read a book where the worldbuilding is actually new and doesn’t rely on revisiting Tolkien tropes and archetypes. The book brings different tales that could well be read as complete unrelated short stories, like in the first title of the series, but here they are cunningly woven together as a greater story.
The narrative introduces us to Cugel, a rogue of loose morals that tries to rob one Iucounu the Laughing Magician. As punishment, he is forced across the world by the wizard in a quest to retrieve an artifact and in his journey back home he meets exotic societies and characters. Peasants that work for decades for the privilege of inheriting eyes that see the world as a paradise, shell creatures that rear rumors from the sea, mages that construct strange rock formations for centuries trying to conjure a rare creature, pilgrims lost in bizarre theological discussions, indecipherable monsters, creatures and mysteries.
The character of Cugel improves the already fascinating Dying Earth setting of Vance. He is a bastard, willingly or unwillingly sowing destruction wherever he goes. Half the fun of the book is to watch this malevolent character cause trouble, the other half is reading how Cugel tries to use his wits to avoid trouble, like curses or traps, with mixed results. Cugel may be the clever, but he is not as clever as he thinks.
The book is beautifully written, Jack Vance manages to create a believable and exotic world without having to explain it completely, keeping it as a mystery for the reader. The first Dying Earth book brought a fascinating world, and Cugel the Clever only improved on it with great characters and humor.