Before I get into the list, a few honorable mentions. I love the Durdane series. It's perhaps the closest Vance came to writing a serial, 1920's, pulp sf adventure, but in his vivid style. Spanning multiple planets and featuring space ship fights, blasters, aliens, etc., it's fast-paced fun that really keeps the pages turning. I have a soft spot in my heart for the duology Lurulu/Ports of Call. Written when Vance was in his eighties and nineties (his last published fiction, in fact), the books have less action than a lot of his other works but star a young man who longs to see the universe, and eventually does in a series of fun yet relatable planets and cultures. Paralleling Vance's own life as a newlywed, father, and writer, I can't help but see him in the duology, reflecting back in old age with a glint in his eye, proud to have seen the globe we live on and express that experience as he can in sf adventure. And finally Wyst: Alastor 1716. The best of the three Alastor novels, in Wyst Vance takes the piss out of Bohemian socialism, interestingly through the experience of an off-world artist. Vance's sharp eye to human nature the guiding light, indeed, the communist collective has some dark spots to address, but under Vance's hand are addressed in a humorous, almost satirical way. And there are other books I greatly enjoy, Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, The Dying Earth, and others, but on to the top 10.
10. Night Lamp - If there were an archetypal Vance story, it would be: young man enters the wilds of the universe, there to find adventure, himself, and right some wrong in the process. Night Lamp is the epitome of that story. Emphyrio and Maske: Thaery likewise have a similar mold, but Night Lamp has a density that I think gives it an edge in satisfaction.
9. “The Last Castle” - I understand many Vance readers would be likely to name “The Dragon Masters” as Vance's best novella. But for as much as that novella may be the ultimate boy-dreaming-in-a-sandbox, “The Last Castle” possesses a few things that make it a touch better. Plot exists with more rigor and the story's underlying substance (oppressed vs. oppressors) is developed with a stronger eye to relevancy. The main character Xanten is a very atypical Vance 'hero'. Surly and aggressive, his transformative arc likewise allows the story to achieve something more.
8. Lyonesse - This list simply would not be complete without the Lyonesse trilogy. While I know the trilogy holds more weight than a #7 with a lot of Vance aficionados, never fear, this is indeed some of the best Vance produced. Likely the author's most “Arthurian” fantasy, this tale of Aillias and Suldrun puts a colorful, engaging spin on the concept of epic fantasy, with a light dabbling in sf (?).
7. “The Moon Moth” - Vance wrote dozens and dozens of short stories, many of which capture his magic in smaller size (e.g. “The New Prime” (aka “Brain of the Galaxy”), “The Men Return”, “Green Magic”, and “The Secret”). But none as well as “The Moon Moth”. And it's the BIZARRO setting of this story which delights. Musical instruments that could exist but don't, language that parallels music, and men in masks to confound a would-be mystery solver—what better Vance-ian playing field could the reader ask for? I dare anyone to read this without cracking an appreciative smile.
6. The Face – While I would guess a lot of Vance fans would put The Killing Machine (or possibly The Palace of Love) as their top Demon Princes' novel, mine is The Face. The most poised, tightly constructed of the five novels, it likewise finds Vance delving into self-identity more than he usually does, resulting in a novel that possesses more than a layer of fine plotting and nice climax.
5. The Chasch/Planet of Adventure – I wanted to focus on City of Chasch and The Pnume for the purposes of this list, as they are the best of the series, but in the end the quality of the four books is similar enough, not to mention they tell one long continuous story (unlike several other Vance series), that I decided just to put the whole shebang up here. As the publisher's title indicates, this is adventure capital 'P', and in Vance's oeuvre this is some of the most dynamic. A classic premise, it tells of Adam Reith's attempts to escape the planet Tschai after crash-landing, and the guantlet of trickery, strange culture, double-crossing, and outright attacks he must traverse in order to make his way back to Earth.
4. Rhialto the Marvellous – Containing Vance's most subtly thematic writing, the three stories featuring the eccentric but practical magician address the concept of 'dying Earth' in ways the more famous short story collection of the same name does not. In Daoist fashion, Vance indirectly presents the roots of the human condition, even at the end of time. Vance being Vance, this is of course clothed in delightful stories of magicians playing tricks on one another, and being tricked, nevertheless the gravitas can still be felt
3. Blue World – An unintentional precursor to Terry Pratchett's Going Postal, Blue World is likely the most unique setting in all of Vance's oeuvre: a lily-pad archipelago. Rebellion forming in the scattering of floating habitations , the hero of the story must use all of his wits to eliminate the threat of an oppressive regime—an oppression the group of colonists were seeking to escape when they left their previous world. Vance's plots are very often highly satisfying, but this is one of the best.
2. Araminta Station – I hate to start commentary on a negative note (this book is #2 on the list, after all), but it is with the deepest regret I cannot include all three books of Cadwal Chronicles here. I sometimes wonder if Vance did not hire out Throy, the third, to another writer considering the massive difference in quality between it and Araminta Station and Ecce and Old Earth. Point blank: Araminta Station contains every ounce of wit and charm of Cugel, but with long-form, sustained quality. If you love the Dying Earth stories, you'll do yourself a favor to read Araminta Station. Just be warned Vance, who to be fair was in his eighties, didn't have the gumption to maintain the effort through three novels. But Araminta, oh Araminta... and the Big Stink.
1. The Cugel duology – While numbers 10-8 took some thought, I knew before beginning this list how it would end. Cugel is the epitome of Vance and the peak of what delightful reading can be. Cugel's Saga is one of the great reading experiences of my life. A likable rogue whose luck, for ill and better, transpires through the lens of Vance's truly singular prose, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Cugel captures the sheer joy of storytelling and language in unpredictable, colorful adventures that set the imagination and heart soaring with pure joy. There are a few books I semi-regularly re-read, and Cugel's tale—rather tales—is one. If you love dynamic language and scenes, a sometimes loveable, sometimes hateable main character, and adventure through exotic lands and cultures, this is the tip-top best. Vance's play with altruism/egoism in unpredictable fashion is just the cherry on top.
And there you have it: the best of Vance. I know the man has a strong and very loyal following—a following who likely disagree with my list on some points, maybe all. But I think the thing that unites us all is the sheer joy we get in reading Vance's works. There simply is nothing else like it, and anything that is would have to be some form of tribute or imitation—if possible. When you pick up a Vance story, you just know it's a Vance story. If you haven't read the author, give one of these books or stories a try. I can say they truly lighten the mood and make a person feel good, something beyond the normal satisfaction of reading. Isn't that the ultimate goal of reading?