Review: The Complete Lyonesse

Jack Vance: The Complete Lyonesse (Gollancz, 2010).

This book contains all three books in the Lyonesse trilogy. Therefore, spoilers to book 1 can be found in the review of book 2 and so forth. I’ll review each book below and then briefly summarize my thoughts about the entire series.

Suldrun’s Garden
In some ways, this is a strange book. After reading it, and thinking about the story, you’re kind of wondering why you were so caught up in this, given that it’s a rather well-known and simple story, a story that has been told so many times before about a princess who is useless because she’s a girl and then becomes useful as a pawn to ensure diplomatic ties between countries. We’ve heard about this in the real world, we’ve heard about this in fiction.
But Suldrun’s Garden, is an amazing book. It begins in Lyonesse and I was immediately drawn in to the story about the princess with an indifferent father and mother, with only her wet nurse caring about her. How she grew up in this rather hostile environment and only become interesting to her father when he realized he could marry her away and thereby ensure an ally for his kingdom.
The man, Faude Carfilhiot, he decides to marry her off to, however, is a somewhat magician, and Suldrun feels that something is off and refuses. Her father therefore banishes her to an old garden, where she must remain till she will obey his will and behave like a proper princess, for the best for her country.
One night though, a man is carried by the waves to the garden, almost drowned. Suldrun nurtures him back to life and they fall in love. The man is Prince Aillas, from Troicinet, a country that Lyoness is at war with. Suldrun and Aillas marry in an old ceremony and Suldrun becomes pregnant. The two plan to flee to ensure their and their baby’s future – this, however, is thwarted. Prince Aillas is put in a hole in the ground to die.
Suldrun gives the child, a baby boy, to her old wet nurse who hides it away. But the child is discovered and Suldrun’s father wants to bring it home.
But the child he brings home, is a girl, Madouc, a fairy changeling.
For the rest of the book, we follow Aillas trying to rescue their son Dhrun from the fairies as well as see the relationships between the various countries strain or prosper. We also follow several magicians since this is a time of magic, of unicorns and fairies, of ogres and trolls.
All these various story lines come together come together beautifully in the end and it’s a marvelous story, a fairy tale for adults.
There are definitely some harsh scenes – some very nasty torture scene, a suicide and more. These are however written so sparingly that for the most part I had to go back and re-read them to make sure that what I thought had happened, really did happen. People were not kind to each other back then!
But the most of the book is just captivating, engrossing and beautiful. I hadn’t expected to enjoy this so much and I’m looking forward to continue with the next two books in the series.
Here is a quote from the book to try and show what makes it so special: “What are dreams? Ordinary experience is a dream. The eyes, the ears, the nose: they present pictures on the brain, and these pictures are called “reality”. At night, when we dream, other pictures, of source unknown, are impinged. Sometimes the dream-images are more real than “reality”. Which is solid, which illusion? Why trouble to make the distinction?” (p. 262) – as a philosopher, having read Descartes, I love this! No need to bother with trying to discover which is ‘real’, they both are.
Here’s an example of a conversation (between Suldrun and Carfilhiot): ‘You do not enjoy the admiration of men?’ ‘I have done nothing admirable.’ ‘Nor has a rose, nor a sapphire of many facets.’ ‘They are ornaments; they have no life of their own.’ (p. 61).
I didn’t know of Lyonesse before reading this book but Lyonesse is a part of Arthurian legend and is especially known to be the home of Tristan and Iseult. It’s part of celtic myth along with countries such as Ys (also mentioned in this book) and is said to have sunken beneath the waves at one point, which is why some have compared it to Atlantis.
4 stars.

The Green Pearl
The main focus in this book is actually two story lines. First of, it’s king Aillas’ attempt to establish himsefs as king of all of Ulfland. Second, it’s king Casmir’s attempt to find out who princess Suldrun’s child really is.
Aillas as a new king has several challenges – one of them is dealing with the barons of Ulfland who fights with each other, captures and tortures and kills. Another is dealing with the Ska who has invaded parts of Ulfland.
King Casmir had a magicial mirror tell him a prediction about princess Suldrun’s son which confuses him since he thought the princess Madouc was Suldrun’s child. So he starts to investigate and hires the magician Visbhume to investigate. Visbhume spares nothing to figure out the truth and soon he’s on the trail of prince Dhrun and princess Gwyneth. But since no one wants to really tell him, he ends up tricking Gwyneth into another world, another reality.
Of course, there are several smaller story lines in this epic book as well. We follow the green pearl which was released when Faude Carfilhiot was killed in the first book in the series. It brings some luck – but the luck is short lived and the pearl always end up turning on it’s owner.
Tied into the story of the green pearl, is always the story of the magicians. I love how one of the magicians, Murgen, has decreed that no magician should intervene in events because then they would get out of hand and the magicians would end up facing off against each other. Of course – they don’t hold true to this and the two best magicians, Murgen and Tamarello, have smaller magicians they can get to do work for them so they don’t necessarily come face to face.
Another side story is the story of how king Casmir’s wife, queen Sollace, tries to bring Christianity to Lyonesse with the aid of the (very annoying) monk Father Umphred who played a key role when princess Suldrun and Aillas were discovered and then torn apart in the first book and who now wants king Casmir to build a cathedral – and maybe have a secret that the king will pay to learn. This is interesting, not only for it’s place in the bigger story but also because of the conflict between christianity and the old beliefs, the pagan, celtic and magicial beliefs. King Casmir has his room filled with magic elements, he has contact to the magician Tamarello and he doesn’t want to see any of the Lyonesse wealth sent to Rome and he dislikes Father Umphred.
This is another great story. So many of the classical fairytale elements in the story alongside myth, romance and war and it’s just beautifully written and very engaging. Even though this book feels like the classic 2 which basically is a bridge between volume 1 and 3, this is still a really great book. So far, I’m just in love with this entire series.
4 stars.

Madouc
I had high hopes for this final volume in what so far had been an amazing series – and it didn’t disappoint. This is such a great trilogy, truly a fantastic read.
The main character in this volume, is the princess Madouc. The fairy changeling who was raised by King Casmir and Queen Sollace in the belief that she was princess Suldrun’s daughter. In this book, Madouc really come to life and she’s a very interesting character to read about. She is a lot like Suldrun, not very princess-like but a bit more tomboy in her ways, and Casmir and Sollace have learned nothing by their failure with Suldrun. The only complaint I have about these books, is the lack of love and affection that Casmir and Sollace had for Suldrun – and now for Madouc. Of course, Casmir learns that she is not his grandchild rather early in this volume – but still, after raising her for so many years, just a bit of affection would be realistic. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel out of character. He seems like a man driven by his affection only and as we saw with Suldrun, he only starts to think about Madouc seriously, when he thinks he can use her to further his political interests.
Sollace, on the other hand, is a very non-caring mother. She only cares about her faith and building a cathedral that can make her a saint. When she is involved with Madouc, it’s only because others complain so much about her that she can’t ignore it.
They try to mold Madouc into being a proper princess – but just as Suldrun did, Madouc rejects it. Suldrun got tucked away in a garden, Madouc takes it upon herself to find her pedigree, that is her father, after she quite by chance discovers that her mother is a fairy. She ventures out on a quest for this – a quest that also involves the holy grail.
Meanwhile, king Casmir discovers who Suldrun’s child really is and starts plotting to get prince Dhrun to fulfill a prophecy so he can afterwards be killed off and King Casmir can fulfill his dream of ruling over all of the Elder Isles.
Much happens in this book – and Vance masterly keeps it all together and creates a stunning finale to this compelling and engaging series. I was sad to see it all end and immediately searched to see if there wasn’t further novels in this series – alas, no.
5 stars.

This is one of the best series I’ve read in a long while – and three of the best books. It reminds me a lot of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell which I also loved. Besides these fascinating people you live with and love, it has all the best fairytale elements. I’m fascinated by faeries – these beautiful creatures that are wicked or generous, depending on their moods. And there’s a lot of faeries in this book. But despite all these fantastical elements – faeries, trolls, ogres – the book feels real, the people in it feels real – and how I wish, I could read more about them. You care for the characters and feel for them when they suffer and their plights feel real – even though, of course, it’s not in the everyday for most people (!) to fight trolls, search for your fairy mother or quest for the holy grail. But Vance still makes this feel real – maybe because we know of these stories from our childhood fairytales. This is definitely a fairytale – and it’s definitely not for children with sex, violence, torture – but it’s an amazing trilogy and I can’t recommend it enough.

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