Note: This essay discusses physical and sexual assault and was written with a cavalier attitude toward spoilers.
Jack Vance's Demon Princes series follows the far-future exploits of Kirth Gersen on a quest for revenge that spans a huge swath of our galaxy. Along the way, the reader will encounter thrilling adventure, ornate worldbuilding, and logical deduction befitting Doyle but will also at times struggle to make it through to the better parts. The series consists of the novels The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face, and The Book of Dreams.
In a tale that mirrors spaghetti western Death Rides a Horse, Gersen is one of only a few survivors of a raid known as the Mt. Pleasant Massacre. The episode leaves him in the care of his grandfather, and the perpetrators are the Demon Princes, five notorious outlaws. Gersen spends his adolescence in dedicated training to become the deadliest man in the known universe.
Each novel follows a similar formula. Gersen picks up the trail of one of the Demon Princes, narrows down the outlaw's identity, embarks on a doomed love affair, and sets in motion the circumstances for his quarry's demise. All are plotted like detective stories, of which Vance was a prodigious writer under the name John Holbrook Vance. The narrator shifts from worldbuilding to sleuthing and back again, and in these modes the novels excel. Scenes where characters interact are more awkward and melodramatic. The reader may expect and excuse these blemishes in works of this genre, but even the action scenes occasionally fail. Fights and chases often end before they can really get going, and the final encounters with the Princes tend toward anticlimax.
While Gersen succeeds in engineering the final punishment for each of his charges, he rarely delivers their just desserts directly, often frustrating him and possibly the reader as well. The latter depends on the reader's tolerance for the sacrifice of catharsis for purposes of theme. Vance reaches for loftier heights than his subject matter would normally allow for. He strains to answer some nagging existential questions, but in the end this isn't that kind of series.
The reader can see further evidence of Vance's aspirations in his use of language. He pays far more attention to the way he writes than the typical genre writer. Despite this, the language in Vance's work is of mixed quality. At his best, Vance's prose is lyrical and moving, at his worst pedantic and purple. The narration in The Star King in particular suffers from an almost pathological dedication to the thesaurus. In any case, reading through the Demon Princes saga offers a rare glimpse into the evolution of an author.
This is partly due to one important peculiarity regarding the release of the series. The first three novels came out within a span of three years, but there is a twelve-year gap before the fourth. Between these two sets of novels is a stark difference in style. Vance's later prose is comparatively lean, the work of a grandmaster. Depending on your tastes he may not compare with the great prose stylists, but weighed against most science fiction of the era, the language is a treat. He uses his way with words to tell us much about Gersen's world but surprisingly little about the man himself.
Jack Rawlins calls Kirth Gersen Vance's "best developed character." In a way, he may be right, but this isn't much cause for praise. Gersen grows slowly over the passage of time, and his characterization is largely static. The man has no dreams, aspirations, or interests beyond revenge and the art of killing. Explications of attributes become rote: Gersen is logical and determined, the word fanatic is used; he has an occasional moment of ennui and lapses in dedication due to lust at least once per novel. In his wooing of lovers the reader sees some evolution. He goes from being relatively inexperienced to a regular lothario. Women are drawn to his air of mystery and danger, naturally. This aspect of the character largely serves male wish-fulfillment, though that's to be expected in this kind of story.
What may surprise the reader is the repeated reference to sexual assault, in one form or another, again and again throughout the series. What should be clear about Vance's treatment of adult themes is that it is rarely graphic. The violence is rather subdued, with quick flashes of brutality, and sex is only alluded to, never described. Sexual assault, however, appears in each novel, though again only referenced.
This tendency goes back to The Dying Earth, and in the Demon Princes it manifests in every possible cliché, including Gersen rescuing his paramour from being raped only to quickly consummate their relationship. Not all of the women in his life are so lucky. His treatment of this subject dates the novels, but it is the frequency of its occurrence that is most tiring. One might suspect the device's intention is to vilify the Demon Princes, yet in reality they never directly partake in such base acts. In fact, despite their obvious faults, they remain the most interesting characters, certainly far more intriguing than the stolid Gersen or his paper-thin and disposable lovers.
It is not merely the allure of the villain that makes the Princes enthralling. Neither is it the palpable mystery that surrounds them, though this certainly helps. The reader is offered snatches of information as Gersen probes deeper into what makes these malicious marauders tick. The least fascinating example are the first two: Malagate the Woe and Kokor Hekkus.
Malagate has a fascinating origin and motivation: a criminal mastermind from a race of lawful aliens who is dedicated to proving his species superior to humanity. Unfortunately, his inner workings are never delved, leaving him a flat character. His true name isn't even discovered. Likewise, the Star King race is absent from later novels.
The next prince is Kokar Hekkus, an immortal shapeshifter. Hekkus is mercurial, ruthless, and devoted to the capture of one woman. He plays elaborate and deadly games with the humans of a primitive world. His true motivations and origin are never explored.
Vance doesn't really get going until the third prince, Viole Falushe, and his Palace of Love. The truth behind him is more terrible and better developed than those previous. While a teenager, a girl spurns his advances, so he kidnaps her. She continues to scorn him and dies, but he clones her several times. Every girl is raised in a different environment, each designed to engender devotion to him.
Despite the fourth novels' other virtues, the villain in The Face is not terribly complex. In some ways, he is the reverse of the Star King. Human but of offshoot genetic stock, he's an outcast, too corrupt for a planet known for its lax morals. The true villain here is classism, and here we see Gersen develop a bit in reaction to it as well as find common ground with a Demon Prince.
It is in the final novel's Howard Alan Treesong, however, that we come upon a creature most inventive and dangerous, and certainly with the grandest designs. Howard has a similar history to Viole Falushe, an unpopular but sensitive boy twisted to depravity. Obsessed with his own fantasy word, written in his Book of Dreams, he might have the most in common with the author of all his characters.
Overall, the reader learns more about and becomes more interested in the Demon Princes than our protagonist and his cohorts. In general, what is most worthwhile in Vance's novels is often the opposite of what is expected.
Beyond the villains, it is Vance's rich and evocative worldbuilding that primarily keeps the reader's interest, and his effortless skill in this domain sets him apart from most writers working even today. Indeed, when the plot lags or the seams of its formula show, it is always the epigraphs and footnotes that reclaim the reader's attention. For one novel Vance works out enough culture and geography to fill ten by an average author. Each snippet is crafted with as much verve and imagination as the last, and not once does it seem contrived.
One possible exception is the composition of planetary bodies. Here he occasionally falls into genericity: the desert planet, the marsh planet, the water planet, the jungle planet. And yet, he ameliorates this with enough convincing technobabble and history that the reader can accept the conceit. As such his skill in worldbuilding overshadows his other talents.
"The Oikumene", Vance's borrowing of an ancient Greek term, refers to the civilized parts of the galaxy. Earth is a rarely visited part of it. Instead, the hub of this series is Alphanor, though that world is basically Earth by another name. The planets vary more, for example Sarkoy, famous for its poisons which are feared on every planet, and one unnamed Earthlike world populated by strange alien dryads. Much of the narrative takes place outside the relatively safe confines of the Oikumene, in the untamed frontier known as the Beyond.
Intrigue occurs between the two major organizations of the Oikumene: the Interworld Police Coordinating Company and the Institute. Gersen is involved with both. The philosophy of the latter in particular is intriguing, and the reader may be frustrated by the many lacunae in its description. We learn as much about the attitudes of the people in this future society through excerpts from books on a variety of subjects, including one book titled "The Demon Princes." A literary figure that appears with frequency is Unspiek, whose views are varied and controversial.
Even geography is rigorously developed. Detailed descriptions of locations and their layout betray no hint of artificiality. When examined closely, they prove to be accurate and consistent, an impressive feat considering the number of areas described. Likewise, the histories of these worlds is developed through anecdote, though this at times betrays Vance's biases. In one case, a colony of vegetarians devolves into pale imbeciles, essentially grazing animals. In general, the reader gets the sense that while Vance may not relish in violence, he acclaims the strong over the weak, and considers conflict and struggle necessary and beneficent attributes of the human condition.
The Demon Princes is not Vance's best work, but in the scope of these novels we see him both at his best and his worst. In addition to them being capable stories of their type, they offer a rare chronicle of a writer's journey.