The Star King is the first of five novels in Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series. The first two books in the series have been translated to Swedish (Stjärnfursten (1974) and Dödsmaskinen (1975), both from Askild & Kärnekull), while the remaining are rare to find in original print in our god forsaken SF land. Much to my surprise I struck gold last week and found all five volumes at a modest price second hand. Three of them were DAW paperbacks from the early 1970s, with that dusty not-read-in-a-long-time smell that tickles your nostrils. I am a paperback man, and love the pulp, so clearly this was a winning deal.
I also have a thing with Jack Vance. I have always enjoyed both fantasy and SF, but haven’t been aware – or been ignorant, perhaps – of Jack Vance until quite recently. Now I binge-read all the Vance stories I manage to lay my hands on, including the Planet of Adventure which I have blogged about here, here, here and here. Thus it was with a fair bit of anticipation I started to read The Star King.
The plot is seemingly simple. The series follows Keith Gersen on his quest to avenge the atrocities that destroyed his home village and killed his parents. Raised by his grand-father, Gersen’s only goal is to track down and kill the five demon princes responsible for the terrible attack. The demon princes are high ranked Star Kings, an alien race similar to humans in appearance. Advanced Star Kings are more or less impossible to separate from humans without close physical inspection (hint: no genitalia and offspring reared in armpit are good features of a Star King). The Star King race are driven by an urge to excel, to become better than all competitors. Vance gives a biological explanation to how the they evolved to be humanoids that includes transfer of neanderthals to their home planet by a third alien race. Regardless, the Star Kings have evolved the appearance of humans and the most successful have infiltrated human societies in the interstellar Oikumene (the civilized worlds) and the lawless Beyond.
In the beginning of the book, Gersen is taking a short holiday at Smade’s Tavern, a remote settlement on an isolated planet in the Beyond. Brooding over his supper he is approached by the locator Lugo Teehalt. The fellow is an explorer, and a very much troubled one to that. Teehalt’s job is to locate potentially prosperous worlds, but he does no longer trust his employer’s motives to be altruistic. This poses a problem as Teehalt have just found a beautiful and unknown world filled with wondrous species. Somehow, he has learned that his employer is Attel Malagate, or Malagate the Woe, a notorious criminal and one of the five Demon princes Gersen so desperately wants to put down.
Teehalt is murded by two of Malagate’s minions, but by chance Gersen gets hold of his space ship and the filament that contains the road map to the world Teehalt wanted to protect. This sparks a race where Gersen is both hunted and the hunter, and where only trickery and smartness can help Gersen navigate the story to completion. Which, of course, is to kill Malagate the Woe.
The beauty of the book lies in Vance’s storytelling and his rapid and intelligent prose, where the otherworldly is odd but believable. He begins every chapter with excerpts from scholarly documents, documentaries, novels and letter, which help to bring flesh to the imaginary Oikumene where the story is set. It bears some resemblance to the Planet of Adventure series, especially the personality and intelligence of the main character.
One book read, one prince down – four to go. Ain’t I a lucky boy?