Tschai, whose original inhabitants are the mysterious Pnume, has been invaded three times. Several waves of the harsh and opportunistic Chasch, then the Dirdir, and finally, the distant Wankh. Somehow, in the midst of this, humanity was imported and is considered under-men, servants to the alien races. When a help beacon is received on Earth an investigation is sent, only to be shot out if space. The sole survivor is Adam Reith, marooned on an unpredictable planet, on an odyssey to find a way to acquire another ship and return home.
In the first two volumes of this series, Reith survives encounters with the Chasch and Wankh, falls in and out of love, and accumulates several good friends. Most important, he has come to realize that the only way back to space is through the Sivishe space yards that serve the Dirdir. In addition, the only way to have a ship is to build it at an incredible price. Insurmountable problems to anyone but Reith, who always seems to greet adversity with a stylish equanimity.
To gain the money, Reith must gain the upper hand over the Dirdir, who regard the fields where the gems are found as a sacred hunting ground. Not for jewels, but for the humans who seek them. Predator chases predator across the fields of the Carabas. One seeks wealth, the other seeking dinner. Reith, of course, gets his sequins in an unorthodox manner, and earns the enmity of the Dirdir in the process.
Under cover, Reith, Anacho and Traz make their way to Sivishe and commission the spaceship. Of course, the cost is extravagant and they must deal with Aila Woudiver, a merchant. Woudiver has two character flaws - he is infinitely corrupt and venal, and he desperately wants to be a Dirdir. The latter may be impossible, but that detail has escaped the merchant's psychotic thinking. For Reith, complication mounts on complication, and his ability to cope will be severely taxed.
While none of this series lacks for action, 'The Dirdir' probably has the most ornate and exciting plot. Reith may not have the flair of the dashing hero of a medieval romance, but he is surprisingly loyal and chivalrous. His flaw in this book is a bit too much optimism, which leads him to become his own worst enemy on several occasions. Considerable time is spent on the Dirdir and their culture, revealing Vance's unique ability to fabricate worlds and peoples out of whole cloth. This series and the Demon Princes represent the best of Vance's early science fiction in what was to be a long and fruitful career.