The Demon Princes: The Killing Machine – Jack Vance

5 out of 5

As I ramp up my Jack Vance readings, though it’s thus far limited to two series – Hollow Earth and the start of The Demon Princes – I’ve found the writer’s tone to be generally mirthful, with the details and focus of each story dictating how serious or silly he veers off of that. But in general: he loves language in a showy but fun way, and he uses this to paint fascinating worlds that he can then stock with amusingly human aliens. That is, while we have our heroes and villains and knaves, their surface may present one-liner types, but there’s the same sense of world-building beneath each character that goes into the structure of his universes and fantastical sciences and magics. Skin-tinted, multi-nosed or whatever, there’s an exciting sense of logic operating behind every face you meet.

I really enjoyed the first entry in the Princes cycle, as lead Kirth Gersen is one of my favorite general types of protagonists – mostly single-focused, but with understandable moments of doubt in that focus – as Vance lays out an agenda that clearly helps to guide us from start to finish. It was clear that each of the books in the series would concern one such Demon Prince, whom Gersen is hunting down for having destroyed his home town and family. But blend that with the aforementioned mirth, and humanity: Gersen was born into this vengeance, essentially, and so it’s part of his daily life; he’s stuck to the path, but it’s not a path of strict tunnel vision, motivated by a ticking clock: he can afford to take some enjoyments, and is surprised by his appreciation of those on occasion, and can also take time to effectively plot his maneuvers. What makes his planning more challenging for Jack to script – and then more fun for us as a reader – is that Kirth really has zero clues as to the whereabouts or even looks of this Demons, as they’re infamous, but also rather mythical. He just has a name.

For The Killing Machine, that name is Kokor Hekkus, a charming and vicious – as the tales go, anyway – entry on his list. I was curious about the name of the novella, given the generally playful way Vance writes: would this be a darker novel? Not that there isn’t darkness in Jack’s works (that I’ve read), but I was pleased how easily this extended from The Star King – we do tip into some frightening and brutal moments, not sparing us Kokor’s reputation, but the POV of Gersen is consistent: accepting of his circumstances; logical. And with an adventure populated by Jack’s creativity, often backhandedly funny, as well, with beings on planets far and wide always proving their similarities to our flawed selves.

The Killing Machine is, as might be assumed, a device constructed by Kokor, and Kirth uses this – along with an arcane kidnapping plot with which Hekkus is involved – as the seed for his investigation. There’s some minor trickery as there was with The Star King, but it’s done in a much smoother and uncheap way, here, withholding info in a manner that fits with the story, as Kirth has to be secretive about it at the time as well. Every step of the story is, in addition, an absolute adventure – another piece of the puzzle leading to a discovery or the next conflict. It’s a blend of coincidence and hard work, seamlessly fit together and then forced into conclusions by Gersen’s patience; the ways in which he beats the obtuse clues into order is immensely satisfying, and I am unbelievably jealous at how well Vance shifts between all modes here – the internal thoughts of Gersen, occasionally stumbling in limiting nature of his pursuits; the pseudo-hard science descriptions of ships and machines; the universe-building of laws and governments; the offhand humor found frequently in dialogue; and even some intense flashes of action, choreographed expertly. Not only is all this stuff convincing and immersive in the moment, it’s all linked without missing a beat – pure escapist fun, with an intelligentsia edge that makes you feel smart just by being dragged along for the ride.