Friday 30 December 2022

Star King and The Blue World by Jack Vance


Jack Vance (1916-2013) hardly needs any introduction to fans of classic SF, having produced a substantial body of work between about 1950 and 2004. While some of Vance's  work is famous (The Hugo Award-winning The Dragon Masters and The Languages of Pao being my personal favourites - both previously reviewed on this blog) others are a lot more obscure. When I picked them off my shelf, I recalled nothing about either of the two I'm examining this time - an increasing tendency as I've noted before. I will soon reach the stage of being satisfied with reading nothing but old books, which will save me a lot of money on new ones.  

First, Star King (published 1964). To begin with the blurb: 

Star Kings are a race of non-humans who disguise themselves as humans with a difference. Power alone is their goal, a goal they seek regardless of the price in human life. Kireth Gersen was not a Star King but he was looking for one - a very special Star King who had murdered his parents many years before. 

The action starts on Smade's World, which is uninhabited apart from Smade and his family, who run a tavern with a lurid reputation. Gersen has just arrived, on the hunt for the evil Star King called Malagate the Woe (great name for a villain!). Gersen is pretending to be a "locator", basically an explorer who hunts for planets with useful resources or other marketable qualities. One of the other guests is Teehalt, a genuine locator working for Malagate, who has discovered a planet which is of great value as it resembles a pristine Earth. Teehalt regards his find as too beautiful to hand over to Malagate and tries to conceal its location, which is encoded in a memory filament. Gersen is focused on acquiring the filament to act as bait to catch Malagate, involving a journey to the planet (which proves to have some distinctive wildlife) before the real Malagate is revealed.

The book has an interesting structure, with a copious use of inserts such as quotations from books, articles and interviews, a convenient way of providing a lot of background information. Vance has a lot of fun with descriptions of a variety of inhabited planets, how humanity has evolved on them and their political and social structures. The overall mood of the story is rather dark, but leavened with dry humour. I read the book without making notes, so skimmed it again before writing this review and found myself drawn in to reading most of it again - it repays a careful reading as it is rather better than I first realised.

I see from Wiki that this was the first of five volumes in The Demon Princes series, but I have never come across any of the others.

Next up: The Blue World (published 1966).

Sklar Hast lives in the Blue World. A water paradise of floating islands big enough to support houses and sea gardens and communication towers so the People of the Floats can wink messages to each other. All is harmony and perfection. Except for the sea monsters.

King Kragen is the ruler of the deep, a great beast who subdues others of his kind in exchange for certain things. Like food. And reverence. The submissive People of the Floats pay up, they know King Kragen is indestructible. Sklar Hast knows it too but he doesn't care - he's going to to try and kill him anyway.

As with Star King, there is a lot more going on in this story than the blurb suggests. In particlar, the intricacies of the social structure which has developed on the Floats are fascinating and, I suspect, provided Vance with much enjoyment to devise. The battle of the generations is played out against an exotic background.

The "floating islands" setting for this book seemed familiar to me - can anyone think of any other novels with a similar feature? Two which occur to me are James Schmitz's Nandy-Cline stories, Trouble Tide and The Demon Breed; but while Nandy-Cline has floating islands it is not an entirely water world. 

Anyway, these two novels make for agreeable light entertainment, being only around 200 pages each, with just enough meat to provide worthwhile sustenance.


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