Jack Vance’s Demon Prince series is one of the more remarkable projects in Vance’s oeuvre. The five books were not written in relative succession, rather spread out over a period of sixteen years among other writing projects. But what makes them most notable is their human nature. Where most of Vance’s books tend to feature static heroes adventuring across the galaxy, in the Demon Prince books the revenge motif is taken seriously - something aking to a sci-fi version of The Count of Monte Christo. Vance gets deeper inside his main character, letting the man reflect on his loneliness and mission to kill than he does with most of his other such heroes. Setting the stage for the series is its first novel, The Star King (1964).
When just a child, Kirth Gersen watched his family and city destroyed by an alliance of 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. Carrying the list of names 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. The opening of The Star King finds Gersen on a sparse, remote planet chasing information on one of the demon princes, one Attel Malagate. At a bar he meets a man employed by Malagate, but before he can extract enough info, a gang of thugs enter and put an end to his interview in decisive fashion. Kirth having a few tricks up his own sleeve, he learns the identity of the thugs and begins tracking them, hoping to be led to Malagate himself. His methods take him in the right direction but getting to the bottom of exactly which of his suspects is Malagate will require special cunning.
The mode of The Star King is predominantly mystery thriller. Kirth spends his time tracking down clues, sneaking into places or manipulating systems to gain information, and slowly narrowing in on his prey. Malevolent powers on the wings, he must be careful with his every move lest he expose himself. More mystery than thriller, Vance does not imbue the narrative with heaps of tension.
To this mix, Vance adds a degree of introspection. While his tragic back story, Kirth is likewise cognizant of the fact his life’s mission of revenge leaves him alone without girlfriend or wife or family, something he laments, and subsequently questions. Not the classic noir detective with world-weary comments, whiskey, and a cigarette, Kirth approaches his situation more rationally. Voicing his situation out loud, the reader learns directly what he thinks. For a Vance novel, this is downright literary.
In the end, The Star King is a straight-forward opening to the Demon Prince series. It introduces Gersen, gives a taste for the type of story readers can expect going forward, and properly sets the stage for revenge on the remaining four princes. It has moments of color, a couple of the villains are singular, and the climactic scene has a degree of tension. Its pages turn quickly. But being a little dry, it is the weakest of the five books. Vance’s signature prose is occasionally on display, but it lacks the true panache of later books. The plot, while intriguing at times, could have been lifted from an ordinary crime thriller (save, of course, the occasional bit of the fantastic). It should be taken as a taste, and readers looking for more a meal will get it the further they go into the series.