Few would disagree that Jack Vance is one of the most influential, widely respected novelists in science fiction and fantasy. The "Lyonesse" series, of which "The Green Pearl" is the second volume, has clearly been envisioned by author and publisher as a magnum opus, the culmination of a career of extraordinary distinction. By and large it gives Vance's fans everything they have come to expect and love, and in abundant -- even overabundant -- measure.
Perhaps the most obvious distinguishing feature of Vance's work is his language. Often hauntingly evocative (and also at times self-consciously contrary), it has a glittering, alien beauty that hints at archaism without mimicking any particular archaic style. Some may consider it an acquired taste, but a paragraph of Vance can seldom be mistaken for one by any other writer.
In earlier works such as "The Languages of Pao," Vance revealed a fascination with the way language can be manipulated in order to manipulate. This novel, like its predecessor "Lyonesse," shows Vance at the peak of his verbal artistry. It is language rich in formal cadence, replete with learning and always spiced with whimsy. Here is some Vance at its most wayward and magical:
"Throbius wore a crown worked from sceleone, that fragile metal forged from water-reflected gleams of moonlight. Slender cusps surrounding the crown terminated in pale blue sapphires. The robes of Throbius were blue velvet woven from the bloom of willow catkins; they trailed ten feet behind him and were carried by six round-faced skew-eyed implings, smirking sidelong with noses wrinkled."
Second only to Vance's language is his plotting. We have grown used to a swift, dexterous Vance, full of sudden twists, each more outrageous than the last. But this is a much roomier book than before, and while the wild inventiveness is still there, "The Green Pearl" doesn't have the tightly controlled structure of his earlier books. Plots and counterplots weave constantly, yet there is a certain stasis behind the illusion of movement.
The Elder Isles are the setting for the story of King Aillas' expansionist ambitions. We begin with a story of war, heroism and invaders and are then diverted into a love-hate story as well as the tale of the synthetic woman Melancthe and the magician Shimrod. Events don't really lead inexorably from one to the other as one might expect. Instead, the various plot threads are presented with a persistent, militant obliqueness that renders most of the book wonderfully dreamlike but at times seems merely precious. This lack of unity exists because the various plots really are not the point of the novel; creation of the Lyonesse universe is a universe inseparable from the language in all its artifice and exquisitely ironic detachment. And what a universe it is!
Yet I am uncertain whether this and the earlier "Lyonesse" are indeed the touted magnum opus. I must confess a certain nostalgia for earlier works such as the Demon Princes series or the astonishing novella "The Moon Moth." These works have a certain frantic fire that the leisureliness of "The Green Pearl" can't permit.
But once you are drawn in, ensorcelled by the irresistible music of "The Green Pearl," you will be clamoring for more. As I understand it, more is promised.