Wednesday, 6 February 2002

Jack Vance: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden (1983)

Edition: Grafton, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1059

Fairy stories are generally associated with quite early childhood, yet even in the bowdlerised versions presented for the young there can be quite unpleasant elements. This is even more the case with the originals of many of the common stories, the work of Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. In Lyonesse, Vance has chosen to emphasise this aspect of this kind of tale, and has written a fantasy novel (first of a trilogy) which is distinctly an adult fairy tale.

The setting is a group of islands in what is now the Bay of Biscay - Lyonesse is often in Arthurian legends made into a Celtic equivalent of Atlantis. Once united, the islands are now divided into small kingdoms, the rulers of which are continually jockeying for an advantage which will allow them to dominate their neighbours. There are also magicians, a group very like those in The Dying Earth, and a variety of fairy folk, mischievous and frequently quite malicious.

The king of the small kingdom which has retained the name of Lyonesse, Casmir, has a daughter, Suldrun. She objects to being used as a pawn in his political scheming, promised first to one man and then another as a prospective bride, and he punishes her by shutting her up in a small area in the palace grounds leading down to the sea that she has turned into a garden to use as a retreat from palace life. Then a young man is washed ashore, a prince from the kingdom of Troicnet thrown overboard from a ship, and the two of them fall in love. Betrayed to Casmir, Aillas is thrown into an oubliette while Suldrun's confinement is made more secure, hiding for the time being the fact that she is pregnant.

Lyonesse tells the start of an interesting story, with a fascinating background and characters who transcend the limitations of fairy tale stereotypes. It is a wonderful classic of the fantasy genre, demonstrating how basic source material is capable of re-interpretation in new and exciting ways.

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