I have just completed re-reading the second of the five Demon Princes novels. It was first published by Berkley Books in 1964, the same year Berkley published the first in the series.
Please note that spoilers for the book’s plot follow.
Kirth Gersen, having previously destroyed one of the five greatest criminals in the Oikumene (the “Demon Princes”), finds himself tracking down a second of the fiends. This time around he stalks Kokor Hekkus, who has changed his M.O. a bit and has embarked on a campaign of audacious kidnappings. The victims are all deposited at Interchange, a kind of interplanetary escrow service where kidnap victims are held for ransom safely and securely and where they may be ransomed without dealing directly with the kidnappers. It’s an ingenious concept, though I’m not sure I want to live in a place where kidnappings are so ubiquitous that such a service is both necessary and, clearly, highly profitable.
Gersen discovers that a young woman, Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, is the object of Kokor Hekkus’ desires. She has sent herself to Interchange and has set the ransom at 10 billon SVU (the Oikumene’s unit of currency). This is why Hekkus is kidnapping so many people of late — he needs the money to ransom her. Gersen ends up at Interchange himself as a prisoner, but cleverly manages to defraud Interchange with counterfeit currency and so buys his way out, along with Alusz. This annoys Hekkus to annoy end, we may be sure. Gersen also assists an engineer who has been hired to construct a giant centipede-like vehicle (the titular killing machine? or is that Hekkus? or Gersen himself?) for Hekkus, who wants to use it to trounce some native warriors who have been annoying him of late. Gersen and his current love interest end up back on Thamber, a fabled planet where the human inhabitants have lost contact with the rest of human civilization. This also happens to be where Alusz is from, and the location of Hekkus’ secret fortress. Rest assured that Kirth Gersen eventually manages to locate — keep in mind, he doesn’t actually now what the ever-disguised Hekkus looks like — and kill Kokor Hekkus, the second of the Demon Princes. Gersen ends up fabulously wealthy, having gotten the girl and destroying a second of his enemies.
So how does this one compare with the first of the series? Generally, it stacks up well, though I liked it slightly less than The Star King. My criticisms are few and did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. The Killing Machine, like all the Demon Princes novels, is somewhat formulaic (in that they all share the same basic plot structure), and we probably see a trifle less characterization of Gersen here than in the first. I also found the romantic interest, Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, less enjoyable a character than Pallis Atwrode from The Star King. Pallis was a delight; Alusz is a cipher. There is clearly something about her that made both Kokor Hekkus and Kirth Gersen fall head over heels for her, but I’ll be darned if I can see what that might be. Interchange as a concept and a locale within the story is highly entertaining, and I did find it more interesting and fully realized than any of the settings in The Star King, so that makes up for some of these negative aspects.
If you enjoyed the first of the Demon Princes novels, The Star King, I suggest you give this one a try, as it’s more of the same. I give The Killing Machine 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers