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Literature / Lyonesse

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Lyonesse is a sprawling fantasy trilogy by Jack Vance, comprising three volumes:

  • Lyonesse (aka Suldrun's Garden or Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden),
  • The Green Pearl (aka Lyonesse: The Green Pearl), and
  • Madouc (aka Lyonesse: Madouc), winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1990.

The series is set on the mythical lost great isle of Hybras, located off the coast of France, between Britain and Spain. The isle is divided into several kingdoms, and three kings want to rule it all. Aillas, the youthful king of Troicinet is shipwrecked on the coast of Lyonesse, where he meets and falls in love with Princess Suldrun, the daughter of his rival, King Casmir. Things don't go well for the couple, and their child, Prince Dhrun, ends up stolen by fairies, while the changeling, Madouc, left in its place, gets adopted by King Casmir, who believes she's his granddaughter. Then the story branches off into a complex web of interlocking tales, involving Royal ambition, nefarious wizards, tricksy fairies, and northern barbarians.

The Design Mechanism released a role-playing game, Lyonesse using the Mythras system in 2020.

Tropes in this series:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Other than the obvious case of King Casimirs plan for conquest, this is a theme that appears often. Pimfet goes from a loveable, dependable stick-in-the-mud to avaricious and perverted when he realizes he has a shot at knighthood and nobility. And Torqual turns out to be a sort of Ska vanguard, hoping to wipe out or enslave all the natives of the Elder Isles and Europe in the name of the Ska just so he can shed his title of exile and be respected again
  • And I Must Scream: wizards love inflicting these kind of punishments on other people. One executioner kills a wizard's lover in a needlessly gory and sadistic way and is forced to experience every second of his flesh rotting away and bones crumbling after his death. A different wizard traps another in a jar where he can do nothing but stare out in hatred.
  • Another Dimension: There is a long section set in Tanjecterly. It's a strange place where trees are different colors, and the heroine is menaced by grotesque, slime-eating creatures called Progressive Eels.
  • Atlantis: The beginning of the book explains that Hybras will sink into the ocean some time after the current story. The name Lyonesse comes from a legend of a land near Cornwall that sank beneath the waves. Likewise, the City of Ys also comes from a legend of a city near Brittany that also sank into the sea. Finally, the name Hybras itself is reminiscent of Hy-Brasil, a legendary disappearing island near Ireland.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Aillas is born to a royal line and is the best swordsman in the series.
  • Bad Luck Charm: The Green Pearl features the eponymous item which will turn anyone who owns it to evil, until somebody else murders them to possess it. At one point the chain is broken when the owner is rendered helpless by somebody who's only interested in punishing him, and the pearl is temporarily forgotten.
  • Big Bad: King Casmir is Aillas's chef adversary for rule of the Elder Isles.
  • Big Good: Murgen—something of an Expy to Merlin—is a powerful magician who provides advice and acts to counterbalance the actions of the more villainous magicians.
  • Bumbling Sidekick: Pimfet to Madouc. Heís easily fooled, hardly reliable, and yet dangerously ambitious.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Fairies simply donít get why humans would want to know the specifics of unpleasant events. Why make yourself unhappy like that? Twisk has to be forced by the king of fairies to see why Madouc just might be a little upset that Twisk wonít tell her own daughter who her father might be.
  • The Caligula: Duke Carfilhiot. Unrepentant rapist, murderer, and warlock. All the god complex of a wizard without any of the restraint.
  • Changeling Tale: Princess Madouc is a relatively innocuous example.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: The green pearl is so beautiful that it fills the hearts of everyone who sees it with greed. Unfortunately, the pearl is cursed: no-one will buy it, and if thrown away or given away it will always return to the current owner (even if it has to animate a corpse to carry it back). It can however be transferred by being stolen, which half the time involves the murder of the current owner.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The trilogy begins with the birth and upbringing of the spirited Princess Suldrun. At about the halfway point of book one, however, she dies. The rest of the series divides its focus amongst a number of other characters, including her lover, son and father.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Tamurello and Faude Carfilhiot are explicitly stated to be lovers, however both have had dalliances with women, and both are rotten to the core. Carfilhiot's relationship with Melancthe is noteworthy for having incestuous overtones as well.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Melancthe to Shimrod, literally. He's so distracted he utterly forgets to keep track of the very dangerous people he's supposed to be keeping an eye on, with interesting consequences.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him:
    • Melancthe's death is cruelly abrupt and painful.
    • The Five-Man Band Casimir forms and Shrimrod infiltrates goes from villains to corpse chariot off screen.
  • Emotionless Girl: Melancthe has emotions, but no sense of self, which makes it impossible for her to interpret or control them.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Joald. Waking him up is sufficent to submerge the land of Ys.
  • The Fair Folk: While mostly the pure "fairies" aren't downright malicious (instead they tend towards the whimsical in a negligent or destructive fashion) they aren't the only supernatural spirits in the woods. Ogres regularly rape and eat people who are unfortunate enough to get caught by them, Hags disguise themselves as humans (or at least mostly do, they cannot hide their chicken feet) and try to murder travelers, Redcaps will kill anyone who goes over a bridge alone, etc. And this is only the smallest fraction of the things that infest the land in and around the Forest of Tantrevalles.
  • Fairy in a Bottle: Casmir keeps one in his secret magic collection. It's not one of the nice ones.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Ska, while human, are genetically different enough through ten thousand or so years of reproductive isolation that they are often considered a separate race. They hate everyone else as they consider non Ska subhuman, and are hated by everyone in return for their vicious behavior towards non Ska.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The aristocracy of Lyonesse seems to be vaguely Germanic, Dahaut is pre-Revolutionary France, and the Ska are based on the Vikings. Troicinet represents Britain. All of these are based not so much on modern images of these cultures as on representations from the 19th century or earlier (Troicinet is a sea power and balances the other nations; the Ska aren't noble warriors but fearsome and heartless raiders, similar to portrayals of Vikings in medieval English sources.)
  • Food Chains: Allias and co happen upon a manse filled with beautiful people on the edge of the forest, which is in the middle of a high class party. They are granted a room by the host, but are warned against eating anything. whatever the Eldrich Location of a manse was, the magic was potent. A member of Allias' party kisses a maiden, ingests a single drop of wine that was her lips, and shrivels up and dies when he tries to leave. The host did warn them.
  • Forced Transformation: happens to Tamurello, who is turned into a weasel. Another magician, who defied Murgen's rule of non-interference, is said to have been compressed into an iron pillar nine feet high and one foot square.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: King Casmir imprisons Prince Aillas at the bottom of an oubliette, he finds the skeletons of the previous prisoners, with a message scrawled by one of them reading, "Welcome to our brotherhood." Indeed, Aillas gradually loses his sanity and starts thinking of the skeletons as comrades in adversity. He gets better after escaping.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Madouc's hair is vivid red-gold. She ends up marrying Dhrun.
  • Literal Genie: Downplayed. Sandestins resent that they are forced by pact to follow the will of the mage they belong to, but cannot usually use loopholes to harm the pact maker. They can, and gleefully do, instead use loopholes to do as little work as possible while being technically in line with their orders. In some cases, unless explicitly forbidden, they can even take orders from enemy mages as long as they donít technically prevent the original orders from being executed.
  • Little Miss Snarker: Princess Madouc, much to the consternation of Queen Sollace
  • Loveable Rogue: Shimrod. He is perhaps the most sympathetic unrepentant snake oil salesman in fiction, thanks in no small part to his otherwise strong moral compass.
  • Loving a Shadow: Aillas falls in love with the haughty viking-like maiden Tatzel while being a slave at her father's castle. He escapes, comes back as a warrior king, kidnaps her and undergoes many adventures together with her, saving her life several times. Throughout he acts as the perfect gentleman, not taking advantage of his power over her. At one moment she actually offers him sexual favors in exchange for her liberty - but Aillas, wanting a love she is unwilling and unable to give him, declines the offer and sets her free anyway. Finally, when Aillas brings his army to assault the castle, Tatzel takes up a bow and arrow and dies among the last-ditch defenders. The victorious Aillas sadly refuses to look for "the body of the valiant maiden" among the scorched bodies in the ruins of the castle, and goes on to find another and more rewarding love.
  • Made of Evil: Carfilhiot. He was supposed to simply be the male half to Melancthe, but when his creator purged all evil out of her body... it went directly into him. Even after he has died, his soul gem, the green pearl, is so soaked in evil it actually corrupts those who own it.
  • Magic Feather: The boy Dhrun is given a talisman that he's told will avert fear. Whenever he feels afraid, he wonders what emotion it might be, since it certainly couldn't be fear, eventually deciding that it's anger. While doing heroic things, he frequently notes how fortunate it is that he can't feel fear, because he certainly would be terrified right about now. The talisman eventually gets broken and replaced with a regular stone, but it continues to work until he realizes the replacement.
  • Magic Is Evil: Murgen and Shimrod are pretty much the only magicians met for the first half of the series who are decent people (though they have vices of their own: Murgen enjoys cruel pranks at the expense of his followers such as making Shimrod climb a mountain pursued by a chicken hag, and Shimrod himself is a shamelessly pushy manwhore) and magic is considered a sign of a wicked or avaricious person by the inhabitants of the isles. The vast majority of magicians are amoral with a soft spot for a handful of people at best, and outright monsters at worst. This is why Murgen created his non interference clause in the first place. The good that would be gained from him interfering would be totally offset by the evil the rest of the mages would do.
  • Magic Mirror: Casmir has one that will answer three questions to any one person, with a fourth question allowed but breaking the spell and freeing the spirit in it. Casmir has been refraining from the fourth question for many years.
  • Master Swordsman: Aillas reveals himself to be a "demon with a sword." This is only slightly foreshadowed by his similar high level of skill at knife-throwing.
  • Medieval European Fantasy: Lyonesse has a style similar to classic Arthurian romance, full of deliberate anachronisms.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The epilogue of the first book offers teasers of things to come, including several completely non-existent events, locations, and characters.
  • Nightmare Fuel: In-universe—what Faud Carfilhiot has done to the people in his dungeons is never revealed. Considering that some of the things we do know that he did included raping his "sister" note , trying to rape Glynneth, who was a child at the time and amputating the arms and legs of King Quilcy and his courtiers and hang them from perches like birds...
  • Pśdo Hunt: Blink and you'll miss it, but King Casmir notes that he restricts himself to one boy a month, which he believes makes him practically an ascetic. Carfilhiot also at one point tries to rape Glynneth.
  • Plucky Girl: Glynneth is a plucky orphan girl who has adventures and saves the day by keeping her wits about her; Madouc is a tomboy princess who embarks on a quest to discover her real father, defying her grandfather (the Big Bad) in the process.
  • Precision F-Strike: A mild example during Dame Maugelin's fairly lengthy instructions to Suldrun on proper behavior at a banquet for visiting royalty: "If someone breaks wind, do not stare or point or attempt to place the blame. Naturally you will control yourself as well; nothing is more conspicuous than a farting princess."
  • Public Domain Artifact: Several, since Lyonesse is the origin point of most later European legends. The most notable is the holy grail, the quest for which becomes a plot in the third book as King Casimir tries to use it for politics.
  • Put on a Bus: Glynneth is a major character in the first and second books. In the third, she's pregnant, and Madouc is the main heroine.
  • Really Gets Around: Shimrod is an infamous womanizer, which is why his feelings for Melancthe surprise him.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Alias and Murgen. Also surprisingly, the king of Fairies, who seems to be the only who lacks sadism and has common sense in his court.
  • Royally Screwed Up: The king of South Ulfland's single son, Prince Quilcy, is feeble-minded and spends his days playing with fanciful doll-houses. Duke Carfilhiot is also pretty messed up.
  • Sex Slave: Twisk was surprised by the troll Mangeon - she used magic to defend herself against the attempted rape. In response, Mangeon put her into a pillory which would only release her when three passerbys had their way with her.
  • Someday This Will Come in Handy: The first time we meet Aillas, the castle bailiff, Tauncy, waxes poetic about the beauty and utility of knife-throwing during their weapons practice. It comes in handy later.
  • Stealth Prequel: The existence of Sandestins and several spells from Dying Earth imply that the alternate version of Earth depicted here is the exact same one that will, millions of years later, be the one that Cugel and Rhialto have their various adventures in.
  • The Spymaster: Casimir is this as well as being a king. He even conducts quite a lot of his espionage himself.
  • The Stoic: the Ska's Hat. They show no emotion to any but their closest family—even in the face of death.
  • Thrown Down a Well: In Suldrun's Garden, Aillas is lowered into an Oubliette ("a bell-shaped cell fourteen feet in diameter and seventy feet underground"). He finds the previous occupants still down there as skeletons. One of them has written "Welcome to our brotherhood" on the wall.
  • Villains Never Lie: Inverted with Casimir, who lies in almost every single interaction he has with other characters who aren't on his side, and almost as often when dealing with his own allies. The only part of him that can be depended upon is that he will lie to you.
    • The lord of the manor from the Food Chains incident detailed above was perfectly honest with Allias and his friends.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Melancthe is referred to as this by name.