2: Opening to The Eyes of the Overworld (1966)
Our first visit to the the art of Jack Vance looked at the opening of The Dying Earth, his first book (1950). By the 1960s Vance, while still capable of spectacular prose, had added a new restraint and control to his work. The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), a fix-up of a series of stories from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The book revisits the Dying Earth milieu, but introduces the darkly comic anti-hero, Cugel 'the Clever', a rogue who is cunning enough to stay alive in a hostile environment, but not clever enough to profit for any length of time. Here's how the book starts:
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.
Behind the manse and across the valley, low hills rolled away like dunes to the limit of vision. The sun projected shifting crescents of black shadow; otherwise the hills were unmarked, empty, solitary. The Xzan, rising in the
to the east of Almery, passed below, then three leagues to the west made junction with the Scaum. Here was Azenomei, a town old beyond memory, notable now only for its fair, which attracted folk from all the region. At Azenomei Fair Cugel had established a booth for the sale of talismans. Old Forest
The second paragraph leads us into the sombre surroundings of an Earth where the sun is slowly going out. There is an unimaginable antiquity, a tiredness beyond age, in the landscape. There are only hills, because mountains have been abraded over the aeons, the town of Azenomei (how pitch-perfect are Vance's proper nouns) is 'old beyond memory'. And then, in the final sentence, the protagonist Cugel is introduced: not in a void, but at one with his environment.
As an opening, it's a masterpiece at once understated and rococo: a fusion of two of the finest elements of Vance's voice.