Friday, May 9, 2014

Review of The Durdane Chronicles by Jack Vance



The Demon Princes was the first major series Jack Vance wrote—or at least started.  Begun in 1964 with The Star King, the effort proved difficult, as the final book, The Book of Dreams, was not published until nearly twenty years later in 1981.  The Planet of Adventure, or as Vance preferred to call it Tschai, was his second major series.  The outline proving more coherent, the four books were quickly rolled out over a span of three years.  It should come as no surprise then, when Vance begun a third series his confidence in delivering a three-volume story was innate.  Three books written in the course of two years, the Durdane Chronicles show the writer in fluid and creative form, the story of Gastel Etzwane springing to life in strong Vance fashion.

Published in three volumes, the Durdane Chronicles is a story that continually evolves, and at one point, very surprisingly.  Where the five Demon Prince books can be read in any order, Durdane, like The Tschai, must read in published order: The Anome (aka The Faceless Man), The Brave Free Men, and The Asutra.  Durdane Vance’s entry into the world of dystopian/utopian fiction, the story is set in a land where citizens must wear a torc around their neck.  In essence a radio-controlled bomb, the people’s leader, the Faceless Man, and his faithful protectors, the Discriminators, are free to kill anyone who does not adhere to society’s laws, the torc beheading them explosively should they disobey.  The imminence of the threat effective, the humans of Durdance live in relative, albeit heavily restricted, peace.  The problem is, another species on the planet, the Rogushkoi, are becoming ever more aggressive to humanity.  The vaguely humanoid, mindless aliens steal women, burn farms, and kill.  But when the Faceless Man appears to take no action to mitigate the threat, something must be done. Enter Gastel Etzwane.

The Anome is the story of Etzwane’s youth, his desire to break away from the traditions of his home canton, and find a place for himself in the world.  Part of a society which separates men and women, his only hope when becoming an adult is to be one of the Pure Ones: a monk living in the local temple and serving the lord Osso.  His mother an unconventional woman, however, when Etzwane learns his real father was a wandering musician, strange thoughts begin to spread through his mind, and when he is brought to the temple to begin his servitude, openly rebels.  Musical instrument in hand, he flees for the capital to start a new life as a musician like his father.  Trouble is, the Rogushkoi, the Faceless Man, and the obstacles of society he faces along the way have different plans for the young man. 

The Brave Free Men continues precisely where The Anome left off, and is the story of the defense of Etwane’s homeland against the mindless evil, the Rogushkoi.  Certain unexplainable things happening in the capital Garwiy in the meantime, Etzwane has his work cut out for him defending the land and avoiding assassination at the hands of shortsighted locals.  The culture and philosophy of the torcs called into open question, their lives depend on a breath of fresh air.  The ending a major plot twist that ties up the novel, another door is opened wide, the story not done.

The Asutra is the closing volume of the Durdane Chronicles, and is the most different of the three books given the resolution the events which closed out The Brave Free Men require.  Etwane finding himself in ever stranger situations, places, and planets, the joy of adventure is upon him, but may take his life in the process as he gets to the bottom of the grand mystery.  One of Vance’s more space operatic conclusions, the final third of the book features a variety of space fireworks one could never have thought possible given the bucolic opening of The Anome.  A deft conclusion, it wraps up everything nicely, that is, save one important matter—which makes Durdane bittersweet.

One of the most striking elements of Durdane is its steampunkery.  The sub-genre unrecognized at the time Vance was writing, its elements are nevertheless evident.  Life having reverted to rusticism after mankind mastered the stars, among the few technical advances of Etwane’s people are horse drawn carts, basic radio technology, and primitive weaponry.  Thus what sets Durdane apart as an exemplary steampunk text are the dirigibles.  Vance known for his odd transportation devices, the balloon-ways of Durdane are among his most unique.  Essentially hot air balloons linked via wheeled tracks, the floating devices transport passengers to major urban areas of Durdane along a grid much like a rail and ticket system.  Adding character to the plot, Vance’ imagination once again proves a delight.

In the end, the Durdane Chronicles is more quality work from Vance that, in many ways, may be an unintended magnum opus.  Containing elements of his coming of age books (e.g. Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, or Night Lamp), alien aggression (The Dragon Masters or The Last Castle), frontier exploration (the two Cugel novels, Big Planet, or Tschai), the novel is very much a mix of everything Vance is as a writer.  His peculiar style, the economic plotting, and artful building of suspense are all present.  A subtly adept look into the ideas of subjugation and peace, the three novels also have an additional layer of human/cultural perspective which round out the reading experience.

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