Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review - Madouc

Lyonesse: Madouc
by Jack Vance
1990 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

It's so much easier to talk about a terrible book than a good book; with a good book I don't want to spoil the experience for anyone and with the terrible I desperately want to warn people away. So take this review as a warning.

The eponymous protagonist is a half-fairy changeling who was substituted for the grandson of an evil king. Why is he an evil king? Well he's the one who doesn't treat medieval politics like it was negotiations between Cold War superpowers. The evil king has a problem because his grandson, who would also be second in line to the throne, has been prophesied to rule all of the collection of kingdoms that he wants to conquer. So naturally the evil king has no choice but to hunt down his grandson and kill him.

Can you spot the flaw in the logic there? I'll give you a few moments.

The person he's hunting to stop from "beating" him is one who could easily fulfill the prophecy because the evil king won. Admittedly this would not be something that the person who is first in line for the throne would want but it's the evil king who is trying to stop the prophecy. This isn't something like Orpheus where the grandson is destined to kill him, just rule everything at some unspecified point in the future. If I were the evil king I'd take it as a sign of my eventual victory and let my offspring sort out the prophecy if they wanted.

And that's the level of plotting in the book. People are idiots who do thing because the plot requires it of them, not because their choices make sense in context.

Getting back to the plot Madouc is looking for her parentage but can't do anything on her own so gets the solutions to all of her problems handed to her with magic from her fairy mother. There's also a subplot regarding an evil witch's ghost that never connects to any of the other events in the book and made me wonder why it was even there.

Madouc being a princess in a poorly plotted fantasy novel is a brash, adventurous girl who defies authority and is free thinking. She is despised beyond reason by everyone who behaves like they're in a medieval setting and is naturally beloved by everyone who behaves like they live in the late twentieth century only with horses and castles. She's a stock character who suffers for her lack of initiative; rather than have the character overcome difficulties on her own Vance has her beg, whine, and cry to have solutions handed to her.

As noted all of the characters are paper thin. The evil king is evil and crafty; the reader knows this because the author has characters comment on it rather than actually demonstrating it. In terms of ruthlessness and scheming that reader observes he's an incompetent buffoon (just because a country is neutral doesn't mean that they're pacifists; if you march an army through their territory and insult them on the way then you're leaving an angry, hostile army behind you). The good characters are all perfect and nice and talk about peace and love while the bad characters don't have a drop of humanity in them.

And then there's what I can only generously describe as "prose". It gets so purple in the novel that it shifts to ultraviolet. The dialog is amazingly clunky as it switches wildly between common dialog and peppering it liberally with archaic terms. It's all heavily overwritten and made me groan at how painful it was.

Not only is Madouc a fantasy novel that features everything I hate in fantasy novels, it is a bad novel on every level. There is not a redeeming feature in it. I can only take its selection for the World Fantasy Award as a tribute to Jack Vance's career rather than a statement on the quality of the work.