I will start with a bald fact: Jack Vance’s 1976 The Gray Prince (or The Domains of Koryphon as Vance’s preferred title) sticks out from the author’s oeuvre like a sore thumb. The idiom poor, it does not refer to the quality of the story, rather how the telling, structure, and aim are different from the majority of Vance’s fiction.
Vance is best known for writing planetary adventure, e.g. The Tchai, The Blue World, or the Cugel stories and coming-of-age tales, e.g. Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, or Night Lamp. The Domains of Koryphon possesses the attributes of each, but there is more; underpinning all of the above is a soft science fiction story examining first/aboriginal rights.
Koryphon is a planet populated by a few different sentient species. Humans have control, however, they remain divided. Some live in the wilds while others in more civilized areas, some of which enslave one of the local alien species, the Erjin. Certain areas of Koryphon wilder than others, it’s in these regions that Schaine and Jerd agree to meet their father who is doing research into the Erjin who live there. A horrible thing happens when they arrange to meet him, however, and it isn’t long before the two are caught up in the fight for control of Koryphon.
Not a Le Guinian-esque anthropological text, The Domains of Koryphon remains all Vance. But just barely. Dialogue and plotting are unmistakably the author’s, but a lighter, less intense version of his classic lines and entirely mysterious and unpredictable storylines are used. More present than in any other Vance book is emphasis on the inter-relationship of the varying groups of humans and the two major alien species who also live on the planet. Resolving who owns Koryphon requires several iterations (that unpredictable storyline!) that move in directions very uncommon to Vance. This is not to say he is insensitive to non-human cultures in his works, rather that the focus this time around seems to precisely be aboriginal rights issues. I will leave the conclusion for the reader to discover.
The milieu of species and races constantly unfurling in unexpected directions, The Domains of Koryphon moves at a quick pace. As such, the novel deserves to be a longer. With the variety of cultures and regions, human and alien, there needed to be solid background for the reader’s mind to quickly reference when one or the other is mentioned. Vance instead plows straight ahead. While the narrative remains fully cohesive, giving the varying groups more page time would certainly have given the plot, and as a result agenda, more impact, as well as made the overall story experience richer for the reader. There’s no doubt Vance’s fertile imagination could have filled what is a limited background with the same amazingly colorful details of his other works.
In the end, however, The Domains of Koryphon is one of, if not the novel in Vance’s oeuvre which best represents the author’s global travels in and amongst third to first world peoples. A milieu of cultures, at stake is rights to land and power, occupation, first rights, and technology the tools leveraging one’s claim over the other—just like in the real world. Overall a unique Vance text.