One of the classics of the fantasy genre. It's a story about war, magic and intrigue set on the Elder Isles, a long-lost group of islands south of Britain. Chronologically the events happen about the same time as the Arthurian legend. The references and medieval vibe imbue the tale with an authentic sense of history.
The overarching storyline is that of Aillas who is a young prince when we first meet him. He is third in line for the throne of Troicinet, a nation of seafarers and able fighters in the south of the Isles. Although Aillas is not ambitious, treachery and tragedies force him to gradually engage with all his enemies until, at the end of the series, he unites all the nations of the Elder Isles and becomes King.
It is a rousing tale of charm and whimsy punctuated with violence and tragedy. I don't think anyone reading the story for the first time would fail to be moved by the sad plight of Princess Suldrun. Or the lost Prince Dhrun blinded by bees. Reading it again so many years later I am still fascinated by the evil intrigues of King Casmir, the proselytizing Priest Umphred, the quarrelsome and aloof magicians, and the menacing Ska. As well as the uncertain future of the changeling Madouc.
The settings and characters are vividly brought to life by Vance's beautiful prose. The seaways are full of cogs, dhows and warships, the towns are bustling with merchants, peasants, laborers and adventurers, and the battles are victories of good over evil. Overlying all of this are the sometimes harmless, sometimes wicked creatures of Faerie, mythology and magic. Through it all Aillas and his comrades, including the good magician Shimrod, demonstrate valour and constancy.
I adore maps in fantasy novels and the best map I've found of the Elder Isles is this one from the French translation: http://lyonesse.free.fr/lyonesse.jpg
Originally book 1 was just titled 'Lyonesse' but now it has been renamed 'Suldrun's Garden'. I read my original paperback which is this 1984 version and has the best cover by far: