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As mentioned previously on my blog, I plan to work my way through the Complete Jack Vance I now have in my possession and review each work as I complete it.  First up is The Star King (also published as Star King, but The Star King is Vance’s preferred title), originally published in two parts in the December 1963 and February 1964 issues of Galaxy magazine.  It was first published in novel format by Berkley Books in 1964 and won the 1963 Hugo award.  The Star King is the first of the five-volume Demon Princes series.

Please note that spoilers for the book’s plot follow.

As is characteristic of all the Demon Princes books, each chapter of The Star King begins with an interesting epigraph drawn from various sources within the setting (books, speeches, court transcripts, etc.), most of which offer some insight relevant to the unusual cultural practices, characters, or locales mentioned in the chapter at hand.  (I have to admit that the significance or relevance of a few slipped over my head and were just a little bizarre.)

The setting for all the Demon Princes books is the Oikumene, a more or less standard kind of space opera setting that Vance later came to call the Gaean Reach (which also appears in the three Alastor books, the Cadwal Chronicles, Emphyrio, Night Lamp, Ports of Call, Lurulu, and possibly The Gray Prince), in the year (approximately) 3500 AD.  Our protagonist is a young man named Kirth Gersen.  Gersen and his grandfather are the sole survivors of the “Mount Pleasant Massacre” in which their small colony was destroyed by a temporary alliance of five master criminals, the so-called “Demon Princes,” who killed or enslaved everyone but the two Gersens.  Kirth’s grandfather takes him to Old Earth and other places around the Oikumene training him in all the skills he may need to seek out and destroy the five Demon Princes in turn.  By the start of The Star King, Gerson’s lifetime of training is complete and he has begun to track the first of the Demon Princes, one Attel Malagate.  Unlike the other four, this Demon Prince is a nonhuman, a member of an enigmatic species known as the Star Kings, who can craft careful disguises to appear as a human.

At the start of the novel, Gersen finds himself in the Beyond, a lawless area outside civilized space where he encounters a man who has discovered an unusual, pristine wilderness world.  The man refuses to surrender its location to Malagate and his henchmen, and Gersen ends up with the coordinates, though he lacks the encryption key to unlock them.  Gersen begins backtracking Malagate’s location, managing to evade the Star King’s assassins, finally narrowing his search of Malagate to three possible candidates in a university department.  (I know several university officials I suspect may be renegade Star Kings, so I understand Kirth Gersen’s suspicions.)

He convinces the three to accompany him on a journey to find the utopian world, though he doesn’t know which of them is the Star King.  Gersen is an honorable fellow and along the way must also undertake a side mission to rescue a university receptionist he had gone on a first date with, the delightful Pallis Atwrode, who has been kidnapped and abused by one of Malagate’s lieutenants.  He succeeds, but I’m not sure the woman will ever be the same after her misadventure.  In the end, Gersen manages to emerge victorious due to his own cleverness and planning.  One down and four to go.

Gersen is an extremely clever, competent adversary to these fiends, and he has a one-track mind.  Interestingly, as Gersen explores the planet Alphanor, meeting various inhabitants, we see him wistfully desire a “normal” life, rather than his path of vengeance.  Ultimately Gersen lets nothing deter him from his vengeance and he puts aside these feelings, but it is nice to see these natural, very human feelings appear in a committed avenger like Kirth Gersen.  Plus, Gersen is an intensely good, chivalric individual, who temporarily delays his quest and risks his own life to rescue a woman who he hardly knew, simply because she was threatened because of her brief association with him.

This is a short, entirely straightforward tale, though it is entertainingly told, and is archetypically Vance, though it is not by any means his best or most complex work.  It would serve as a decent introduction to Vance, though I’m not sure that there aren’t better first Vances for the novice reader.  I give The Star King 4 out of 5 stars.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

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