The Demon Princes: The Palace of Love – Jack Vance

3 out of 5

After Kirth Gersen’s first two Demon Prince hunts – part of a list of five beings who killed off his family and ransacked his home, now the subjects of a long-running vendetta – it’s understandable that writer Jack Vance would want to mix up the formula a bit, throwing Gersen’s hunt for #3, Viole Falushe, into more wandering, comedic territory, but it’s still a tonal change for the series, and makes The Palace of Love the least engaging of the books thus far.

While there hasn’t exactly been a ticking clock on the previous pursuits, Kirth’s single-mindedness gives them a sense of drive, and he normally does find himself in a place where needing to make on-the-spot decisions fills in for that ticking clock in terms of tension; he’s also constantly roving for clues and leads in lieu of them, giving the stories momentum. The changeup here is that everything feels like it’s on the backfoot, not really clueing the reader into how his trace on Falushe starts – he gets a whiff of something off of a news article, but it’s not really clear how – and there’s something very passive about the way he proceeds thereafter. I do think it’s interesting the way Vance writes how Gersen sheds the relationship he’d started in the previous book – this seems partially responsible for the way the character hangs back, as he’s waiting for this to peter out – but this ultimately feels like a narrative necessity than something truly character motivated: it just clears the way for another girl. When the wandering way leads to Earth, this is also indicative of how Vance is appreciably trying to change things up, but ends up dulling it down in the process; we’ve been to Earth, it’s not very exciting in a sci-fi book to be there, and his investigation hits a big ol’ stop sign there, just waiting around with cracked poet Navarth to make contact with Viole. Navarth is funny, though another symptom of the tonal change, turning Gersen into an odd-couple partner, and reminding of the kind of silly back-and-forths of a Cugel-like character.

None of this is bad exactly, and once Gersen finally finagles an invite to Falushe’s “Palace of Love,” the book starts to resemble the structure and feel of the other Demon Princes novels, but the initially slower, more open-ended, and slightly more jocular vibe feel somewhat out of place if you’re reading it in close sequence to what came before, especially lacking the stakes of those entries.