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‘Lyonesse’ by Jack Vance

More serious fantasy readers among us surely remember this book – a story about ancient, long forgotten islands on the Atlantic, consumed by its waters and about people who inhabited them. The Elder Isles – once home to magical creatures like elves, trolls and goblins; once home to human kingdoms of the 5th century A.D., with their politics, wars, passions and troubles; islands that have long submerged under the oceanic waves. In fact, Vance tells us this fact nearly at the beginning of the story, adding to his writing an aura of a long-lost heritage and nostalgia for something that will never return.

‘Lyonesse’ is a novel with several main characters – one of them is a young prince called Aillas. His fate is intertwined with stories of other characters, but Aillas can still be considered the leading one. He is a young prince of an island realm called Troicinet, located more or less 20 miles away from Gaul. Aillas is to succeed his father as king and he receives his education as the future monarch during an important diplomatic mission. Things get complicated, however, when he is mysteriously thrown over his ship’s board…

Aillas’ fate is linked to the fate of Suldrun, a young princess of another kingdom called Lyonesse. Her father, powerful king Casmir, wants to arrange a political marriage to boost his own diplomatic and military stance. But Suldrun does not want any of this – she seems to be interested only in the magical garden on the palace grounds. That is, until she meets Aillas…

The plot offers interesting twists, as one would expect to happen when mixing magic, wizardry, politics and military conquest. Jack Vance created his world while using rich references to our history, mythology and culture. In fact, the realm of Lyonesse is based on ancient chronicles of Phoenician, Greek, Roman and early Christian merchants. Different races and nations like Vikings or Celts also exist in the novel, depicted as declining or evolving into great powers that our history recorded them as.

‘Lyonesse’ portrays the magical reality of the early Dark Ages in a credible and riveting way – the seas are busy with cogs and boats, the battlefields are filled with roars of mighty armies, the highroads teem with merchants, missionaries, pilgrims and adventurers, both from fictitious kingdoms and real places like Gaul, Ireland, Wales or Cornwall. Vance’s world is abundant in historical allusions, although the author himself admitted that he treated historical accuracy with a pinch of salt. So we have the late Middle Ages traditions like jousting and chivalry combined with the political nuances of the collapsing Roman Empire; we have medieval dances, music and architecture existing in contrast with the pre-Christian, semi-barbaric culture saturated with magic.

In short, Vance’s ‘Lyonesse’ is a great read. It is linked to the myths of King Arthur and it artfully combines history and magic. I believe ‘Lyonesse’ is a classical historical fantasy novel, having achieved respect and acknowledgement of international critics of the genre.

Therefore, strongly recommended!

Have you read it? What do you think?