My holiday in Turkey was enjoyable in almost every way. One small flaw, however, was that none of the books I took with me as holiday reading fully satisfied. When I came back, then, I was desperate to read a book I knew I was going to love, and this took me to the realm of re-reading. Even this approach isn't foolproof. My latest reading of The Lord of the Rings may very well be the last, so much has the book changed. But of the course, the book is the same as ever, so what's changed is me.
Nonetheless I felt I was on a pretty safe bet when I picked up Jack Vance's Suldrun's Garden, the first in his Lyonesse fantasy trilogy. This is a book I have read and loved for over twenty years, and from the first paragraph the rhythm of Vance's prose sucked me in again.
On a dreary winter’s day, with rain sweeping across
, Queen Sollace went into labor. She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch. Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic. Lyonesse Town
King Casmir made an appearance. Sollace’s whimpers became moans and she clawed at her thick blonde hair with clenched fingers. Casmir watched from across the room. He wore a simple scarlet robe with a purple sash; a gold coronet confined his ruddy blond hair. He spoke to Balhamel. “What are the signs?”
“Sire, there are none as yet.”
“There is no way to divine the sex?”
“To my knowledge, none.”
Standing in the doorway, legs somewhat apart, hands behind his back, Casmir seemed the very embodiment of stern and kingly majesty, and indeed, this was an attitude which accompanied him everywhere, so that kitchen-maids, tittering and giggling, often wondered if Casmir wore his crown to the nuptial bed. He inspected Sollace from under frowning eyebrows. “It would seem that she feels pain.”
If I had to pick a single favourite book, this would be it: a compelling multi-layered narrative which comprehends both mediaeval-style realpolitik and whimsical fairy-tale, all retailed behind the straightest of faces. He even manages to slip in a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. The emotional range Vance displays in this series makes the work all but inexhaustible. Every time I read the book I discover fresh delights. This exchange between Aillas, the nominal protagonist, and Persilian, the magic mirror who must answer three questions, and fourth earn his freedom, is a tiny slice of perfection:
On the way back to the village Glymwode he turned aside and approached a half-decayed stump. From the wrapping he took Persilian and propped it upright on the stump. For an instant he saw himself in the glass, comely despite the harsh structure of jaw, chin and cheekbone, with eyes bright as blue lights. Then Persilian, from perversity, altered the image, and Aillas found himself looking into the face of a hedgehog.
Aillas spoke: “Persilian, I need your help.”
“Do you wish to put a question?”
“It will be your third.”
“I know. Therefore, I want to describe the sense of my question, so that you will not return a glib evasion. I am seeking my son Dhrun, who was taken by the fairies of Thripsey Shee. I will ask you: ‘How may I bring my son alive and well into my own custody?’ I want to know exactly how to locate my son, release him from Thripsey Shee in possession of his health, youth and mental faculties, without incurring penalty. I want to locate and free my son now and not in a program involving weeks, months or years, nor do I want to be fooled or frustrated in some way I haven’t considered. Therefore, Persilian—”
“Has it occurred to you,” asked Persilian, “that your manner is most arrogant? That you demand my help as if it were a duty I owed you, and you, like all the others, jealously refuse to free me by asking a fourth question? Do you wonder that I regard your problems with detachment? Have you reflected an instant upon my yearnings? No, you exploit me and my power as you might use a horse to draw a load; you chide and domineer as if by some heroic deed you had earned the right to command me, when in fact, you stole me in the most furtive manner from King Casmir; do you still choose to hector me?”
After a confused moment Aillas spoke in a subdued voice: “Your complaints for the most part are fair. Still, at this moment, I am driven to find my son to the exclusion of all else.
“Therefore, Persilian, I must repeat my charge: give me in full detail a response to this question: ‘How may I bring my son into my care and custody?’”
Persilian spoke in a heavy voice: “Ask Murgen.”
Aillas jumped back from the stump in a fury. With great effort he kept his voice even: “That is not a proper response.”
“It is good enough,” said Persilian airily. “Our urgencies drive us in different directions. Should you choose to ask another question, by all means, do so.”
Whenever I need cheering up--or, more exactly, when I need mental refreshment of a particular kind--I reach Suldrun's Garden down from the shelf. Does anyone else have a "tonic book" like this?