Saturday, January 28, 2023

Suldrun’s Garden

Jack Vance
Completed 1/28/2023, Reviewed 1/28/2023
4 stars

This was a tough book to like, but in the end, I did like it.  It’s the first book in a sprawling fantasy trilogy that takes place on an imaginary isle south of the British Isles, west of France, and north of Spain.  The isle is made up of about ten kingdoms, all vying for a return to a single kingdom.  It has many plotlines and characters, making it occasionally a little difficult to keep up with.  I’d say it’s somewhere between “Lord of the Rings” and “A Game of Thrones” in its hugeness.  I read this book because the third book in the trilogy won the WFA, of which I am reading all the winners.  It took me a while to get through its denseness, but I think it paid off in the end.

The book opens in the kingdom of Lyonesse, ruled by Casmir.  He has a daughter, Suldrun, whom he wants to use to forge an alliance with another kingdom.  She wants none of it, preferring solitude.  So he exiles her to her beloved garden where she often hid from her teachers and minders.  She meets a castaway young man, a prince, who was nearly killed by his cousin, and they fall in love.  She becomes pregnant, much to the consternation of her father, but her son is the subject of a prophesy.  Casmir throws the prince in a pit.  When Suldrun’s son is born, he is hidden away and later swapped with changeling.  And this is just one of the many plotlines, but it lies at the core of the book.  

There are many different storylines in this book.  Vance changes the focus of the narration between all the major players in this book to develop each character.  I found it a difficult form to follow.  Once I got comfortable with a character and his/her plight, the POV changes, making the reader get used to a new character, often in a different part of the isle.  All the characters do come together at various points in the book, culminating in an exciting climax, but the process of getting there bothered me.

Nonetheless, the book is well written, with lovely prose for the most part.  The dialogue is a little medieval, but not boring.  The world-building is fascinating.  It is one of the most well-thought-out fantasies I’ve read in a while.  The complexity of ten kingdoms and its geography, castles, and rivers is superb.  It is a sausage fest, though.  There are only a few women in the book.  The book was first published in 1983, so I can forgive this for the time frame in which it was written.  

I really liked Suldrun.  The plight of the introspective and subversive girl tore at my heartstrings.  When the POV shifts to another character, I was frustrated.  I wanted to story to go back to her perspective.  However, the thoroughness of Vance’s establishing of characters was well done and I did find myself having a lot of empathy for many of the characters, even some of the bad guys.  

The one thing that bothered me the most though was the LGBTQ+ content.  One of the bad rulers has a sexual relationship with a wizard.  I felt like Vance was using a gay relationship as a way to further the evilness of the character.  And often in the story, Vance uses the term sexual perversions, which simply gets under my skin.  Again, I had to step back and say to myself this was the early ‘80s and it was written by an old, straight, white guy.  It didn’t make it better, just a bit more tolerable.

Despite my dislikes of the book, I give it a four star out of five rating.  I think it’s an underappreciated fantasy epic that should have lasted with a little more prominence than it has.  I would recommend this book to fantasy lovers, as it has everything from kings to faeries, wars and magic.  Sometimes the political intrigue gets a little overbearing, but it’s not all politics.  I’ll be picking up the next book in about a month or so, so we’ll see how that one holds up.

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