This was my reading choice to commemorate the upcoming end of the world on Friday, December 21, 2012, the so-called end of the Mayan calendar according to conspiracy theorists and gullible fools. What better choice than one of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series of stories, in this case the second volume of the series, The Eyes of the Overworld.
According to Wikipedia, “The stories of the Dying Earth series are set in the distant future, at a point when the sun is almost exhausted and magic has reasserted itself as a dominant force. The Moon has disappeared and the Sun is in danger of burning out at any time, often flickering as if about to go out, before shining again. The various civilizations of Earth have collapsed for the most part into decadence and its inhabitants overcome with a fatalistic outlook. The Earth is mostly barren and cold, and has become infested with various predatory monsters (possibly created by a magician in a former age).”
Cugel the Clever is our hero, who finds himself in deep trouble when he is trapped by Iucounu the Laughing Magician attempting to burgle his manse. He is sent to find a certain magical eye cusp in a distant land to complete a matched set. To ensure Cugel’s cooperation, Iucounu uses magic to wrap a creature named Firx around his liver to prod it with sharp barbs whenever its bearer appears dilatory about returning to Azenomei and Iucounu.
The Eyes of the Overworld is a record of Cugel’s travels to return to Azenomei and use his cleverness to avoid being felled by magical spells and to use the people he encounters along the way.
Vance goes out of his way to imagine interesting peoples and situations:
The spell known as the Inside Out and Over was of derivation so remote as to be forgotten. An unknown Cloud-rider of the Twenty-first Eon had construed an archaic version; the half-legendary Basile Blackweb had refined its contours, a process continued by Veronifer the Bland, who had added a reinforcing resonance. Archemand of Glaere had annotated fourteen of its provulsions; Phandaal had listed it in the ‘A,’ as ‘Perfected,’ category of his monumental catalogue. In this fashion it had reached the workbook of Zaraides the Sage, where Cugel, immured under a hillock, had found it and spoken it forth.
While no one can truly admire Cugel’s selfish, immoral ways unless to his extreme social detriment, the book is an incredibly humorous introduction to the end of days and worthy of being read.
The volumes in the series are The Dying Earth (1950), The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel’s Saga (1983), and Rhialto the Marvelous (1984). If you like fantasy, this is highly recommended.