Yes, there are supposed to be two Ls in the “Marvellous” of the title. Says so right there on the title page and on the cover of the Baen edition. Rhialto is a “novel” composed of three shorter works all about the eponymous character, who is one of the few remaining powerful magicians in the Twenty-First Aeon of the Dying Earth. Rhialto serves as the fourth and final canonical Dying Earth novel. Two of the three stories — “The Murthe” and “Fader’s Waft” are original to this collection — while the third “Morreion” first appeared in Lin Carter’s edited collection Flashing Swords! 1, first published in 1973. Rhialto the Marvellous was first published in a limited edition hardback by Brandywyne Books in August 1984, and was published by Baen Books in a wider release hardback two months later.
Please note that spoilers for the book’s plot follow.
A brief “Foreword” sketches out Rhialto and his fellow magicians, setting the stage for their adventures as the sun slowly burns out. While all know spells, they also command various sandestins, who are fabulously powerful, capricious beings bound to the magicians who perform any number of tasks for them in order that they may be eventually set free.
“The Murthe” is the first short story of the collection. A visitor from the past comes to warn the magicians that a literal war of the sexes is upon them. A powerful female witch from the past has decided to transform the all-male magicians into women so that they will become female witches under her control. All but two of these eccentric magicians — Rhialto and his friend Ildefonse — are transformed into women and these last two male holdouts must stop the plot. Some fun commentary on gender relations here.
“Fader’s Waft” is a novella, and takes up most of the word count of the collection. Rhialto has most of his magical powers taken from him by his fellow scheming magicians and must travel to the past to recover an artifact that will aid him in restoring his power, aided only by his own native cunning and an extremely unreliable sandestin. Time travel plays an extremely important role in this story, as each of the magicians has the ability to stop time (for everyone but himself) — now think about how complicated that makes debates and votes between the men! — and, of course, both Rhialto and his rivals and servants can all travel to the distant past, so there are many time-related schemes going on here. It is also extremely amusing reading Rhialto’s frustrations in dealing with his sandestin servant who is doing its best to follow Rhialto’s orders to the letter and nothing more.
“Morreion” is the final short story of the collection. Here, the magicians travel to the end of the universe — an actual wall, as it turns out — to find one of their long-missing fellow magicians. Of course, none of them actually care about this poor fellow, but they suspect that he may know the location of the mysterious IOUN stones, which they all prize. Lots of fun and scheming by rival, extremely powerful wizards.
Rhialto’s personality is sparsely sketched: we know he is extremely powerful, cunning, and a bit of a rogue. That’s probably all we need. Suffice it to say that the power level and concerns are ramped up considerably over those in previous Dying Earth tales. While we don’t see any of the previous characters from the other Dying Earth books appear here, the setting of the Dying Earth is extremely important to the tone and plot of the stories. In some ways, I get the impression that the Rhialto stories are set much later in time than, say, the Cugel stories, though it’s unclear if that’s actually the case. I also suspect that the three tales here may be set temporally some distance apart, as Rhialto has different servants in each, and his relationship with his fellow magicians clearly changes between the stories.
I had read this collection once or twice before re-reading it recently and I had forgotten how truly funny Rhialto is. Vance has a real talent for clever, understated humor that relies on witty dialogue, schemes and counter-schemes, and ridiculous/absurd situations. This is Vance almost at his very finest, despite the relatively thin characterization of the protagonist (this is a weakness of Vance I have come to realize), and I give Rhialto the Marvellous 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers