The Book of Dreams is the fifth and final book of Vance’s Demon Princes series.  It was first published by DAW Books in 1981, two years after the fourth novel of the series.  Like all the Demon Princes books, it is set in the Oikumene (later called the Gaean Reach), though to my knowledge, Vance never returned to any of the characters

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

Kirth Gersen is tracking the fifth and final of the criminal masterminds collectively known as the Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong a.k.a. Lord of the Overmen.  Recall that Gersen now owns a business empire, including a magazine, and comes across a recent photograph of a group that contains Treesong in the magazine’s archives.  Gersen doesn’t know which individual in the group photo is Treesong, nor does he know when or where the photo was taken, so he cleverly sponsors a magazine contest to have readers help him track down Treesong.  It is in the course of this phase of the investigation that Gersen first encounters Alice Wroke, a young woman who has been badly used by Treesong but who is acting as his agent.  Gersen also learns that Treesong has been attempting to control the Institute, a powerful philosophical and social organization, by assassinating its leadership.  Gersen was himself once a low-ranking member of this organization in his youth, which we learned in The Killing Machine, though he has since left the Institute because of philosophical differences.  Gersen manages to thwart Treesong’s plan and wounds him, but Treesong manages to escape.

As with Gersen’s efforts to track down Viole Falushe (The Face), Treesong’s connections with his childhood home are what ultimately lead to his undoing.  Gersen learns of Treesong’s origins through his sponsored magazine contest and travels to the dour, religiously-strict Maundish region of the planet Mouderveldt.  There, he meets Treesong’s family and gains possession of Treesong’s “Book of Dreams,” a teenage journal where Treesong laid out many of his hopes, dreams, fears, hatreds, etc. in thinly veiled fiction, using his Seven Paladins as protagonists.  There are lengthy passages from Treesong’s Book of Dreams included in the novel, and it is through this that we learn much about Treesong’s troubled past and personal psychology.  Gersen attends Treesong’s twenty-fifth high school reunion, which Treesong has chosen as the time to gain revenge against all his high school acquaintances who tormented him in his youth.  These petty revenges are extremely amusing, though Gersen ultimately foils much of Treesong’s revenge fantasy and manages to wound him again.  Throughout, Gersen’s clever investigations and stratagems are detailed, and it is in the course of these that we really see Vance’s artistry shine.

Gersen then comes into contact with the parents of Treesong’s one high school friend, who was murdered long ago by Treesong.  They assist Gersen in his schemes to entrap Treesong using the Book of Dreams as bait, though Gersen eventually learns that their plans for revenge interfere with his own.  The final scene with Treesong getting his comeuppance is especially poignant, and it is here that we truly see how fractured Treesong’s personality is: his mind is made up of seven parts/personalities, each symbolized by one of the Paladins from his childhood writings.

I did not find Gersen’s romantic interest here, Alice Wroke, to be particularly interesting (I am, as I have mentioned previously, partial to poor Pallis Atwrode from The Star King).  Likewise, we don’t see a tremendous amount of characterization of Gersen’s motives and hopes for the future in this one, and I have often wondered what Gersen went on to do now that he’s defeated the five Demon Princes.  Think about it: from childhood, he was created by his grandfather as a living tool of vengeance.  He has spent his entire life training to destroy these criminal masterminds.  Now, around the age of thirty or so, he is fabulously wealthy and has completed his life’s work.  What now?  I always imagined that he went on to be an anonymous philanthropist and set up an agency to very discreetly provide extra-legal justice/vengeance for others wronged by criminals who cannot, for whatever reason, be brought to justice.  That’s as plausible as anything else, as Vance gives us no clue as to what’s next.  I suppose that’s because Gersen also has no idea what he’s going to do with himself.

This is Vance almost at his very finest, despite the relatively thin characterization of the protagonist and his love interest, and I give The Book of Dreams 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers