While most writers of Sword & Sorcery have looked back to Robert E. Howard either as model to work upon or against, relatively few have followed Clark Ashton Smith. But to a degree that is what Jack Vance did with his Dying Earth cycle.
Vance however avoids Smith’s poetics and instead riffs on magical quests across doomed dreamscapes inhabited by an off-kilter assortment of rogues, mountebanks, and suckers. Perhaps in that respect Vance’s fantasy more resembles the absurdist heroics of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.
Tales of the Dying Earth collects all four of Vance’s Dying Earth novels into a single omnibus (The Dying Earth, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, Rhialto the Marvellous). The first novel is a series of loosely connected short stories of various characters facing the sorts of dilemmas one faces in a world where sorcery has supplanted science and the sun is dimming like a cheap light bulb. There’s a romantic element to the struggles of Vance’s characters, not sentimental, but with a kind of tragic heroism.
Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga firmly center on Cugel the Clever, a thief whose impudent cunning gets him into more hot water than Wiley Coyote. Trickster tales merge with merchant marine anecdotes (Vance served in the Marine in WWII) in the Cugel stories.
Rhialto is a different sort of hero from Cugel. Where Cugel thinks he’s clever, Rhialto is smart. Cugel’s constant efforts to get the best of any situation generally end in his comedic comeuppance. Rhialto on the other hand is the fellow who others try to best in a battle of wits, not realizing they’ve met the Conan of cleverness. Rhialto is less of a trickster than an elegant and determined wizard in a corrupt world.
For readers who are interested in fantasy that is neither a re-tread of cliches borrowed from Lord of the Rings or the Conan stories, the Dying Earth is worth an extended visit.