Jack Vance is not only a great sf writer, but a great American writer. He started out writing fairly standard pulp adventure sf (albeit very clever and well-written pulp), but over the years, his eccentric writing style, biting view of human nature, humor, and skill at building strange new worlds became more and more important, although they are still allied closely with pulp adventure and tons of plot in a small space. He never loves his sentences more than the whole. He’s a lot like Cabell, if Cabell had written better women and had had more interest in sf and sense of wonder.
Cabell would never have written a character saying, “I would offer congratulations were it not for this tentacle gripping my leg.”
The thing about Jack Vance is that not everybody likes his work right away, or in certain moods. He’s not a cynic, per se, but he really is biting. I never got into his great fantasy novel, Lyonesse, because I’m prepared to take certain things in sf that I don’t like in fantasy. I also rather resented the reversal of terms in his linguistics sf novel, The Languages of Pao, because it came to mind rather than the actual terminology on a linguistics test. So all in all, it took me till I was thirty to appreciate Vance;, and then I gulped down most of his books in less than a year. I had the honor to meet him once in person, and he was kindly and gracious despite the indignities that old age had brought upon him. (His vision went, which is a problem for a working writer. After that, his wife typed his dictation, as she had used to type his longhand. But his wife died, so he has written no more.) He is 95 now.
Anyway, his friends and relatives have made an ebook of The Chasch (aka City of the Chasch) available for free, till the end of August. What a deal! It is part of the thrilling ‘Tschai’ or ‘Planet of Adventure’ series, in which an interstellar scout investigating an old distress call shipwrecks in the middle of an undeveloped planet full of alien (and alien human) cultures, and has to get to the spaceport. It turns out that all of the planet’s alien species (native and not) have variously enslaved or formed odd relationships with the descendants of humans that landed on the planet, so it’s not easy to get around. The weird societies which have resulted, and how the main character disrupts them by his actions, are pretty much the star of the show. There are four books in the series.
Other good books to start with are The Grey Prince (a stand-alone novel about an native-alien uprising on a planet colonized by humans, which takes a view of matters which is somewhat libertarian or contrarian), The Five Princes series (a sort of Monte Cristo story, where a man seeks revenge on five sf supervillains who live in impossibly-protected lairs and who have done him wrong), and The Night Lamp, the story of a space orphan’s quest to discover his roots. His fantasy/sf story/novel series, The Dying Earth, has been a big influence on Dungeons & Dragons’ spell system and other things. He started it on his Navy clipboard while serving in WWII. The Last Castle and The Dragon Masters have the virtue of being short intros, so you might like them, too.
PS – He also wrote mysteries, both as John Holbrook Vance, and as a house name writer for “Ellery Queen.” So you may have read him already. Here’s a very good article about him, albeit written by a huge Cugel/Dying Earth fan.