The Magnificent Showboats was originally published as Showboat World in 1975 and is set in the same locale as Vance’s novel Big Planet – a vast planet in another solar system in which a number of strange cultures live in small towns along an intricate river network. These rivers are plied by a number of showboats who bring entertainment and culture to the strange inhabitants of Big Planet. While this is nominally a work of science fiction, there is no real evidence of advanced technology, though we do have the sense that it is set in a far future where Earth (and the play Macbeth) have been almost entirely forgotten.
Please note that some plot spoilers follow.
The novel follows the misadventures of showboat captain Apollon Zamp as he struggles to take a crew of acrobats, actors, and magicians far upriver to participate in a contest sponsored by an enigmatic and eccentric king. Zamp is a rogue, though a lovable one, and he fairly quickly loses both his showboat and accumulated fortune. He must ally himself with the parsimonious Throdorus Gassoon, a rival showboat captain who vies with Zamp for the attentions of Damsel Blanche-Aster, who also desperately wants to travel upriver. The two captains continually quarrel over what play to perform (they eventually settle on a reenactment of the classic Macbeth, though Zamp edits the play to offer a more entertaining spectacle), production expenses, and how best to deal with the savage and unpredictable customers they encounter along the way. The finale (which I will not spoil here) offers a dramatic and unexpected reversal that caught me off guard. I had thought all along as I read that I knew how the story would end but I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case.
This was a delightful and comedic tale. Not a vast amount of characterization (Zamp, after all, could have just as easily been Cugel), but it was certainly fun. I give it 4 stars out of 5.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers