Figures of Earth - James Branch Cabell Mundus vult decipi - the world wants to be deceived - and the happier man is one whose desires remain unfulfilled inform all of Cabell's writing. As the chroniclers write of Poictesme's redemption:

"For although this was a very heroic war, with a parade of every sort of high moral principle, and with the most sonorous language employed upon both sides, it somehow failed to bring about either the reformation or the ruin of humankind: and after the conclusion of the murdering and general breakage, the world went on pretty much as it has done after all other wars, with a vague notion that a deal of time and effort had been unprofitably invested, and a conviction that it would be inglorious to say so." (p. 183)


And as Manuel tells Sesphra:

The devil of it was that these proud aims did not stay unattained! Instead, I was cursed by getting my will, and always my reward was nothing marvelous and rare, but that quite ordinary figure of earth, a human woman. And always in some dripping dawn I turned with abhorrence from myself and from the sated folly that had hankered for such prizes, which, when possessed showed as not wonderful in any thing, and which possession left likable enough, but stripped of dear bewitchments." (p. 210)


What saves Cabell's work from sinking into the unrelieved and brutal cynicism of more recent works like Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself The First Law: Book One or Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule Sword of Truth Book 1 is the author's sharp wit and humor. And, above all, Cabell's acceptance that things aren't all that bleak despite people's foolishness and the futility of desire:

So you waste time, my friend, in trying to convince me of all human life's failure and unimportance, for I am not in sympathy with this modern morbid pessimistic way of talking. It has a very ill sound, and nothing whatever is to be gained by it." (p. 283)


This is the most enjoyable of Cabell's work I've read so far, but I hesitate to recommend him only because he's such an idiosyncratic writer - I've never read anyone quite like Cabell, though I would encourage anyone to try him. Figures of Earth is a good place to start, but Jurgen or The Silver Stallion are also representative and readable examples of his work. And, though they're all linked by theme and many common characters, they're also standalone novels; you can read them in no particular order (Jurgen was my first Cabell novel).