Jack Vance, one of the greatest writers of SF, created one of his masterpieces with the "Demon Princes" cycle. The hero, Kirth Gersen, is clearly and annoyingly superhuman, but that is finally a minor flaw - those books are much more about the atmosphere, the surrounding world, the dialogues and the (sometimes very dark) humour.
The story is quite dark - I had the impression that the entire universe is at the best a little shadowy, and for most time looks like a big version of dark, corrupted city from "Blade Runner", even when the action takes us to the jungle or a farmer's green world.
The villains (Demon Princes) are REALLY horrible people - that helps us to identify a little with the upsettingly perfect Kirth Gersen. I often have a soft spot for the "badguys" in SF books and movies - here they are simply despicable and very quickly I forgot my instinctive dislike of "supermen good guys" because I really wanted Gersen to get those @#%$!!
Also, the female characters are much better that the average SF babe or feminist scientist usually described in science-fiction - this talent in creating female characters (when concentrating on males as main heroes) always was Jack Vance strong point.
All in all, this is a must for every SF fan. They are amongst my most favourite books and I must confess that I read every one of the volumes of Demon Princes in one go. I simply couldn't sleep without knowing how it will end - and there are not so many books around that did that to me.
This is a collection of the first three "Demon Princes" novels, written in the 1960's, before Vance put aside the 70's to work on Alastor, Durdane and other novels. The last two were published in 1979 and 1981 - a 12 year gap. It will be interesting to see how seamless "The Face" and "The Book of Dreams" are when I get there. But that's a problem for another time.
How are these first three stories? Damn good. Our hero is Kirth Gersen, and his goal is to kill the five "Demon Princes" who raided his planet and killed his family when he was a boy. His Grandfather saved him that day, and then had him trained as an assassin - and by the end of the third story, he is starting to question his raison d etre, noting it has cost him the female company of the lovely Alusz Iphegenia, and likely that of others as well.
Each of the three novels here is actually quite formulaic, a mixture of space opera adventure across the Oikumene and Beyond, and detective story to flush out the elusive, hidden - yet always in plain sight - demon prince now the current subject of the list of names he has kept since boyhood. But you hardly notice that when you read, and you have so much fun with the adventures and adventurers you are travelling with that its just a case of enjoy the ride. The lost planet sought by Attel Malagate the Woe, the crazy Sarkoy poisoners, the deweaseling corps, the IPCC, the aforesaid Alusz Iphegenia, the mad poet Navarth - its all faintly ridiculous fun, while sparking with dialogue and very wry humour. There may be the odd plot hole here and there if you dig around and peer too closely, but even then its all explicable from the point of view of the demon prince who is acting in that particular fashion.
Its interesting to note that while the first two demon princes are non-human, the third is all too human indeed, and that this is perhaps something of a catalyst for Kirth Gersen to rethink his own goals. I can't wait to read volume two and finish this off, for all it means I am a little closer to finishing off reading the Vancian ouvre: how sad to think that nearly 60 years of writing can be read in just a few short years.
on 19 April 1997
I was much younger when The Star King first appeared in Galaxy. I think the last of the five books (not included in this volume) appeared within the last ten years. John Holbrook Vance's style of writing is oddly stilted, but charming in these five books; the best of them, The Killing Machine, is included here, and the worst of them is no worse than very good. The Killing Machine includes fighting, killing, counterfeiting, kidnapping, theft by misdirection, and deliberate insult by the protagonist of long-established institutions (at least long-established in the future depicted), and is a story I told my children on a camping trip. Vance is now in his late 70's or 80's, and I'm not sure how many more of these treasures we may expect out of him; this makes the current volume all the more valuable. It is a collection of old friends, finally back in print; I will send the book to my fifteen-year-old daughter, who heard the story before she was ten from her father.
The Demon Princes series is a set of five novels about Kirth Gersen, whose home planet was invaded and whose inhabitants were massacred remorselessly by five arch-criminals known as the Demon Princes. His grandfather sees to his training as an assassin, and then turns him loose to find and kill each of the five. Each novel is the story of his action against one of the five.
I haven't yet laid my hands on a copy of this new volume, yet I am already looing forward to its successor.
on 30 August 2001
I love most Jack Vance but the Demon Princes were among works from his most fertile period. He is so good with characters, I tend to look on his stories not so much as science fiction as lively adventures with marvellously shaped characters, good and bad, and landscapes from the ravishing to the frightening, so vivid you are as good as there. I might as well have travelled with Vance to Dar Sai and Methel and sat in "Tintle's Shade" (The Face, probably volume 2). His ability to paint atmospheres rather than just scenes, is a rare gift. I'm pleased that the denizens of his worlds have not surrendered to hi-tech for its own sake. For that reason, the tales simply don't seem to date. These stories bear repeated readings after an interval because there's always more to experience.
Roll-on, volume 2
on 26 April 2006
I would agree with many others that ,taken as a whole, the Demon Prince series of books is Vance's best body of work & hardly a day goes by without me mentally thanking him for producing it. I consider the books to be old friends & revisit them regularly without ever tiring of their virtues. If you want to nitpick then fine,there are minor flaws, but if you want whimsical, thought-provoking stories packed with great ideas & told with considerable literary skill & no little wit then look no further. This volume of the 1st three stories is excellent value, although the stories themselves are of variable quality. Star King is the 1st but not the best of the stories. I gather that it grew from 2 or 3 short stories & it shows, but at least it gets the show on the road & has some great individual episodes. The best of the 3 is the 2nd, The Killing Machine, not as grisly a tale as the title might suggest & with possibly Vance's cleverest idea 'Interchange', a galactic centre for holding & ransoming kidnap victims - brilliant ! It also contains possibly the best description of single hand-to-hand combat that I have ever read, up there with stuff in Van Lustbader's 'Ninja'. The 3rd book starts very well, electrifying in places, with it's evocation of 'old Earth' & some tantalising & strange episodes. However, it does seem to run out of ideas towards the end, almost unheard of where Vance is concerned, & it's easy to see why he took a 10 year break before continuing the series. He clearly benefited from the break as you will see in Vol 2, which contains 2 of my all-time favourite stories of any genre. If you enjoy Vol 1 then you'll love Vol 2 & I would suggest reading that one with as little foreknowledge as possible.
on 26 April 2009
In the Demon Princes series jack Vance perfects his ability to describe how people interact with one another under the most extraordinary circumstances. A master of capturing human emotion, this is the series in which he excels and rises even above his usual brilliant standard.
The quest for vengeance that the Demon Princes ultimately is, is truly fascinating.
One of the top three books/series that Jack Vance has ever written, and that is saying something about someone who has written dozens.
(The other two in my opinion are Lyonesse and Planet of Adventure)
A must read for any self respecting science fiction fan!
on 25 February 2008
The Demon Princes stories have been around for a long time, and are the best stories that you will ever read. It's not just the stories (which are superb), though -- it's the universe in which they take place. Vance created it to be extraordinary, and it is this that makes the stories set in it so worth revisiting. I've been reading and re-reading them ever since they were first published, and I keep returning to them.
All that's left to say is "buy them" -- you won't be disappointed, and will be mesmerised by the worlds that are "only" background.
on 1 May 2006
Jack Vance is an ironic creator of worlds. His plots are not very subtle, the characters are sketched. Why then the enthusiasm? Because he writes beautifully, full of irony and detail. He takes for granted that this is only a story, a tale, and goes ahead!
As usual with Vance, the plot is simple: a hero is tried and sworn to get revenge on those who destroyed his planet and enslaved his family. He starts at it when he is a child, and trains for years until he's a fit killing machine. The problem is that The Demon Princes, a coalition of villains who committed those crimes live undercover among normal society, and have their headquarters in the Beyond, that part of the Universe not controlled by civilisation, but by villains and criminals.
Howeve, as is usual with Vance, the hero has faults, and even shortcomings: he is clearly obsessive and a misfit. But the worlds are beautifully depicted. His love for detail and coherence is comparable to that of Tolkien. There's not very much "science" and very much fiction. There's interplanetary travel, air cars and so on, but on the other side they are not the key to the narrative. Beside them lie beautifully naive details: envelopes, the post, keyboards (one would think that in centuries to come they would become useless), wads of notes...
And best of all, the hero has doubts.
Go to it and have a good time.
on 14 May 2012
This is not the first time I buy this book.
This is simply one of the best from the best SF writer.
Just love Jack Vance.
on 13 July 2013
These are the first Jack Vance stories I have read. I prefer 'space opera' to hard SF and this is what drew me to them. You can even see them as rather old fashioned mystery novels set in space, with the same tough (even indestructible) evil-battling hero, and the dames he picks up and discards along the way. The galaxy that Vance creates is very appealing, with its multitude of planets and the races of a fifteen-hundred-year human diaspora (and a few aliens) who inhabit them. However, the plots are rather dull and I wasn't terribly gripped by them. It was hard to care for or about any of the characters. It's true the characterization is better than in much of SF, but that isn't saying very much. There is also very little suspense. In fact, he seems actively to avoid it -- very odd. So many edge-of-your seat, can't put it down, chances missed! Woman in danger of Fate Worse than Death? Ah well, better rescue her, I suppose, if convenient, and move on to the next scene. In the end, you really only read on to see what strange world or character he'll come up with next. He also has an annoying habit of introducing people, places etc., all at once, as if pouring them out of a bucket. Terribly hard to assimilate. In fact, in the end the amount of sheer detail becomes mind-numbingly counterproductive.
Altogether, I suppose, not bad. But for someone who knows how to do this sort of thing and tell a story too, try Frank Herbert.