Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review of The Demon Princes by Jack Vance

For those familiar with the works of Jack Vance, the five short novels which comprise The Demon Princes series are a notable deviation in style.  Embedded within the trademark storytelling, imagination, and comically over-formal dialogue is a noticeable attempt to produce a work more serious in subject.  The result, while perhaps not a Nobel-worthy masterpiece, remains a multi-layered if not entertaining story having a continuous theme threading the five novels which comprise the series: The Star Prince, The Killing Machine, and The Palace of Love in Vol. 1 and The Face and The Book of Dreams in Vol. 2.  

The theme is vengeance.  When just a child, Kirth Gersen watched his family and city destroyed by an alliance of the five evil men later called the “demon princes”.  His grandfather, the only other survivor, trained Kirth to be an assassin, and before dying, instructed his grandson to get revenge.  One by one, crossing names off the list he carries in his pocket, Kirth now makes his way through the galaxy, hunting the princes, luring them into the open, and killing when the opportunity arises.  His five targets in hiding, Kirth uses not only his physical skills, but his wits to see through the social camouflage they’ve spread over their lives since their terrible deed.  The most evil of men often lurking in the most open of places, things are not always what the seem, and trust is rarely an option.  Part detective noir and part spy thriller, Kirth exercises all of his abilities in tracking down the five.  But, after traversing the width and breadth of the universe, what he finds in the end is not what he expected.

While Cugel is Cugel in Tales of the Dying Earth and Reith remains Reith throughout Planet of Adventure, Gersen’s character subtlety changes through The Demon Prince series. The drastic steps Gersen is willing to take and the sacrifices he makes toward achieving his goal have him paralleling, in a most interesting of fashions, the last prince standing.  It is this development of character which sets the series apart from Vance’s other work and moves it toward the more serious end of his oeuvre.  Recommended for anyone who enjoys adventure, mystery, far-fetched but interesting views on culture, brilliant wordplay, and above all a healthy examination of the idea of revenge.  Space opera just doesn’t get any more colorful and fun. 


  1. Everything above, but I reread these books especially in Vance's canon because of the extraordinary world-building he achieves on this bigger canvas.Like all good world-building, so much is implied as well as described, but in Vance's case because of his imagination and stylistic flair it is so rich. Take the hotel Penwipers, as one example.

  2. A favorite of mine, as well, especially the final two books. I like the way Gersen questions his acts, even as he takes vengeance on the Princes, and the colorful footnotes fit Vances Byzantine style perfectly. Note that the five books were written over a period of some 17 years, yet they maintain continuity and remain unusually coherent as a sequence.