4 out of 5
My first exposure to Jack Vance – The Dying Earth cycle of stories – was like learning the writer’s style as he figured out what kind of tales he was telling within his setting. It made sense, as a fixup set of novels, but it was maybe a questionable starting point, as I had to go through the stories own ambiguities to “discover” Jack’s voice. I did, eventually, and started to love it. But had I started with the first tale in The Demon Princes cycle – The Star King – I would’ve fallen in love right away.
The eventual universe that emerged in Dying Earth is immediately intact in The Star King, but it’s admittedly more accessible thanks to its structure: a central character, Kirth Gersen, and a clear pursuit – revenge. A list of beings blew up Gersen’s home world, and he’s dedicated himself to tracking them down, with the first on his list – Malagate the Woe – the focus of this novella.
But we still have Jack’s incredible imagination and intelligence working around this basic premise, propping it up in a universe that feels rich and realized. And though we still have the footnotes that serves as Dying Earth’s lore fill-ins, Vance uses fictional, in-universe texts preceding each chapter to add to that, and these are delivered in my favorite variant of “extras”: they are enhancing additions, and not necessary. You can read The Star King wholly skipping over these things and still be fully in on the ride; you can also add these in and find extra bonuses that give different perspectives on the worlds’ histories or its characters, or even add a bit of social commentary and humor to matters. They’re fun, and provided in just the right amount to not overwhelm the main story.
…Which essentially rolls out as sci-fi noir, with Malagate’s existence requiring a bit of hardcore detective work on Gersen’s behalf, criminal flunky-types getting involved, and a romantic interest, and a whole bunch of double-crossing. Gersen is focused but human, keeping us on target while also allowing the reader some empathy with him; and Jack sits all of this on an exact crossing point between light- and hard-sci-fi, in which ships and blasters will be understandable to any Star Wars fan, but the world-building of skin-tints and body mods and details on how some of the technologies work and the background on the races and etcetera lends itself to pages of character stats and universe maps.
Vance does cheat a bit as we head into the conclusion, though, having Gersen figure out Malagate’s identity but remaining cagey about it with the reader in order to drum up some tension. We’re not strung along in this fashion unbearably, but it’s still a cheap narrative move, and kind of makes the denouncement a bit underwhelming. However, the strong characters and focused concept make up for this dip, and the story’s epilogue reminds us that Jack doesn’t just make fantastic ideas up for their own sake, but also has a heart and soul to his stories as well.