Visions of Paradise

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Star King

I was hesitant to reread The Star King since it was the first Jack Vance story I ever read in Galaxy Magazine in 1963 in the midst of my personal Golden Age. I had discovered prozines six months earlier, and I was totally enthralled by sense of wonder for the first time. How could a story possibly live up to that chain of memories and resonances?

The Star King is the first of five novels detailing Kirth Gersen’s vengeance against a group of “Demon Princes,” interstellar pirates who staged a raid on the world Mount Pleasant, destroying the settlement and most of its inhabitants, kidnapping the rest into slavery. The only survivors were a young Gersen and his grandfather, who subsequently trained his grandson, turning him into a sfnal Batman with a single goal in mind: killing the five “Demon Princes”.

Gersen is neither a heartless killer, nor a noir type assassin. Part of his attraction to the reader lies in the fact that he is a normal person forced to perform a series of actions with seemingly little emotional stake. There is one brief sequence in which Gersen shows an ability to grieve for the innocent wife and son of a man he is forced to kill to protect himself. It is this empathy which enabled me to care for Gersen’s mission, and gave the novel more strength than a mere “killer on a mission of vengeance” novel normally would.

Like most Vance sf novels, The Star King is primarily a mystery. However, in some of his works such as Trullion, the mystery is merely a framework on which to hang a sense-of-wonder adventure. In others, such as The Grey Prince, the mystery and the world-building hold equal priority.

The Star King is a true mystery, with the entire plot and all the characters pointed towards the solution, which is Gersen’s attempt to uncover the true identity of Malagate the Woe, the first of the five “Demon Princes”. Malagate is not a human, but a star king, which is an alien race of chameleons who have take on human form and identity. The mystery is a good one, with sufficient clues scattered throughout as Gersen seeks his enemy. He successfully narrows his search down to three employees of a college, one of whom has hired a planetary locator who has discovered an idyllic world which Malagate hopes to use for his own unknown purposes. The locator tries to conceal the location of the world though, which causes Malagate’s accomplice Haldimer Dasce–one of the most hideous villains in science fiction history–to kill the locator. But Malagate is still unable to find the location of the world, which falls instead into Gersen’s hands. With this information, Gersen tries to smoke out the true identity of Malagate the Woe.

The climax comes in the last few dozen pages as Gersen and the three university employees travel to the new world. Gersen has evidence which he hopes will uncover Malagate’s identity, including his true nature as a star king. All the clues and Gersen’s detection were done fairly, so much so that I was able to figure out Malagate’s identity myself, but not easily, and never for certain.

The Star King is one of the better science fiction mysteries I have read. Combined with Vance’s worldbuilding and sense of wonder, this was a satisfying sf adventure which I recommend to all readers.


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