I’ve lately been reading some Jack Vance. In particular, two of his “Dying Earth” novels: The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld. Thoughts:
1. This man is one of the best prose stylists I’ve hit upon in a long time. If for nothing else, his fiction is worth reading for his way with words along. He’s got a very ornate and sinuous style, which I suppose could be off-putting to some who like their prose more terse, but I can’t help but love it. Take the opening sentence of Eyes, for instance:
On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors. (Tales of the Dying Earth. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1998. Pg. 133)
2. Everyone always talks in an overly formal, baroque manner, which both gives things a very heady, high-fantasy feel and gives certain moments a comic underlining.
3. The characters are, for the most part, anti-heroes who are cruel to the point of being sociopathic, or otherwise grotesque/pitiable (one of the characters in The Dying Earth, for example, is a woman who, due to a brain defect, finds all beautiful things to be ugly and upsetting). This made it a bit difficult to get into. But there’s more going on in these stories than a cheap, cynical thrill (I think), and what Vance does with SF/Fantasy is interesting enough to make their nihilistic tendencies bearable.
4. Cugel, the protagonist of Eyes, is alternately horrifying and hilarious. He’s a twisted man, but his over-the-top arrogance and tendency to get himself into ridiculous situations is amusing. Actually, the whole novel is a textbook picaresque.
5. I came to Vance via Gene Wolfe, whose own Book of the New Sun series is a sort of riff on the concept of Vance’s “Dying Earth”: extremely distant future where the sun is dimming, Earth has gradually transmogriphied into a sword-and-sorcery world populated with Eldritch Horrors, etc. The effect is a sort of reverse Deja Vu. Although Wolfe isn’t quite the stylist that Vance is, Book is still overall the better of the two, for the characters, story, themes and all the intricate mind-games (though readers looking for a more straightforward read should head in Vance’s direction).
6. Worldbuilding! I don’t know how well it all hangs together, but there’s some seriously spectacular and weird sightseeing in this stuff.