He is best known, perhaps unfairly, for his comical and dolorous DYING EARTH sequence, where learned mages expend recondite mystic effects upon each other, and haunted cities crumble in the faint rose light of a dying sun: peevish monsters skulk in the perfumed jungles, and erudite footpads will explain the metaphysical principle of detachment from worldly goods as they make off with yours. No one's language matches Vance's for richness, strangeness, sheer music, eloquent dry irony.
And yet I honestly call Jack Vance's science fiction better than his fantasy, and there is nothing in the whole life of Cugel the Clever as moving and insightful as, for example, one afternoon on Dinkum's Heights of the young Ghyl Tarvoke of Ambroy, staring in hunger at the space yatchs on the field below, or up at the aeries of the Lords. EMPHYRIO is perhaps his best. it is quite simply a grand theme, masterfully understated: one man's search for the truth. The legend of Emphyrio, who was slain for truth, haunts him.
I am not sure if it counts as 'Space Opera' or 'Planetary Romance' but I strongly recommend and urge anyone who has not read it to pick up the 'Planet of Adventure' series by Jack Vance: the titles are CITY OF THE CHASCH, SERVANTS OF THE WANKH, THE DIRDIR, THE PNUME. It concerns the adventures of a downed space pilot on a world where the human serfs have imitated the cultures and psychologies of their non-human high-tech masters, four alien races locked in a stalemated war. The text is rich with all the inventiveness Jack Vance can bring to bear on societies intricate and delicate as a Faberige egg--there is a strong theme of self-reliance and a yearning for liberty typical of Vance.
Something more space-ish is 'The Demon Princes' series. The Demon Princes are five master criminals-- easily the most memorable villains in spaceoperadom -- who cooperated to raid, enslave and destroy the now-dead world Mount Pleasant. The one survivor of the raid has been raised and trained his whole life to be an instrument of vengeance.
Part detective novel, part romance, part tour de force, all wonder, Vance paints a unique picture of galactic society. He postulates that, no matter how lawful the core stars are, in space there must always be a frontier, a 'Beyond the Pale' beyond which no law and order exists, and whole planets devoted to piracy and slavery will always linger. Expanding the sphere of civilization merely moves 'The Pale' a little further away.
The five books are THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHINE, THE PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE and THE BOOK OF DREAMS.
You life will be missing something if you do not drink rose wine with Navarth, the Mad Poet, or listen in horror as the Sarkoy venefices explain the intricacies of their art to you, or discover why the henchmen of Howard Alan Treesong are more fearsome when dressed in white.