Now this is more like it!
The superiority of this third installment in the Demon Princes series provides a perfect illustration of what was defective in the first two.
It struck me in the first two novels that our hero plays an oddly passive role. He’s an interplanetary avenger who is hunting down five bad guys, which is two more than the three villains targeted for vengeance by the Count of Monte Christo—an ambitious project indeed. But strangely, Kirth Gerson isn’t actively hunting his enemies at all in these first two novels; he just seems to wander through the Beyond in his 9B spaceship until he randomly runs into one. In the first book, he accidentally finds a Demon Prince on Smeade’s planet (it takes him a hundred pages to realize this, although it is patently obvious to the reader); in the second, he is given an assignment by the IPCC that randomly brings him into contact with another Demon Prince.
It’s as if the Count of Monte Christo went on a leisurely and scenic tour of Europe, randomly ran into one of the dudes he swore vengeance against, and then was like, “Oh yeah, there’s that guy that I’ve dedicated my life to destroying. Guess I should get on that.”
In the Palace of Love, however, Gerson’s situation has changed dramatically. Like the Count of Monte Christo, he is now fabulously wealthy. Thanks to a counterfeiting scheme he pulled off in the last novel, Gerson may possibly be the richest man in the entire Oikumene. And from the very beginning, he is actively using his vast wealth to track down the villain: Viole Falushe.
He buys a fancy new spaceship that allows him to travel through the Beyond at will without arousing the suspicion of the Deweaselers (Weasels are always issued the standard 9B model). If he finds a victim of Viole Falushe’s depredations, perhaps sold into slavery, he can easily buy their freedom in order to get their story. He spends millions to purchase a failing interplanetary newspaper, simply so he can use press credentials as an aid in his investigation (the paper’s archives are also useful, and the threat of publicizing unflattering articles on Viole Falushe, possibly the most secretive of the Demon Princes, becomes an effective tool of extortion as well). In short, Gerson is now able to actively pursue his goal with energy and intelligence, unlike before.
And the bad guy is much better this time around. Malagate the Woe got a brief little monologue at the end of Star King, explaining his motives. Kokor Hekkus, aka the Killing Machine, built a giant mechanical centipede to terrorize the citizen of Thamber. We got a few brief quotes from Vance’s imaginary citations that explain Hekkus’s philosophy of terror somewhat, but he is swiftly dispatched at the climax, sans expository speech. Neither one is provided a back story.
How much different in this third volume! We hear about Viole Falushe’s personal philosophy frequently and in length, from the imaginary citations, but also in the dialogue of the novel itself. Also, in the course of Gerson’s investigation, we learn all about Falushe’s origins on Old Earth, where he grew up a disaffected teenager, eventually driven by disappointments in love to commit a terrible crime: the kidnapping of a dozen Earth girls who were subsequently sold into the slavery. It all leads very logically to the Palace of Love, Falushe’s hidden lair on an uncharted planet in the Beyond. And about at the halfway mark of the novel, Gerson is on his way to the Palace for the inevitable confrontation. No rushed endings here.
The first two novels suffered primarily from three flaws: poorly drawn characters, poorly designed plots, and bad tech. Here the characters are much better. The dramatic change in Kirth Gerson’s situation makes him much more compelling and believable, and the bad guy is fully fleshed out for a change. There’s also a notable side character, Navarth the mad poet, who was a school chum of Viole Falushe back on Old Earth. His “mad” poetry and eccentric ideas inspired Falushe’s criminal enterprises—now he is Gerson’s sometimes reluctant but always amusing sidekick. As to the plot, it is well paced and involves no overt stupidities.
Even the tech is a little better. Check out the following excerpt from an exchange between Gerson and Navarth, as they are traveling to the Palace of Love on Gerson’s new Distis Pharaon spaceship. Navarth, who has never left Earth and is ignorant of space travel, is inquiring about the intersplit mechanism, and Gerson answers: “Space-foam is whorled into a spindle; the pointed ends crack and split the foam, which has no inertia; the ship inside the foam is insulated from the effects of the universe; the slightest force propels it through it at an unthinkable rate. Light curls through the whorl, we have the illusion of seeing the passing universe.”
This makes no scientific sense, but doesn’t it sound cool? And ultimately, isn’t that what every reader of science fiction is looking for? After all, if the author really understood this stuff, then they would be building spaceships, not writing space operas (I don’t mean to imply that Jack Vance has improved in the tech area all that much—they still use “energy weapons” that are basically like the ray guns on Star Trek, they still read newspapers, they still have phone booths, etc.).
Not only has Vance improved in areas where he was failing before, but in the areas where he was already doing well, he continues to do well.
He continues to evoke the different societies of the Oikumene in an effective and fascinating way. In this installment, we visit the planet Sarkovy, populated by nomadic tribes of poisoners. Then there is Old Earth, which has undergone a few changes after fifteen hundred years of interplanetary colonization. Finally there is Sogdian, where Viole Falushe has not only constructed his Palace of Love, but an entire society to support it—the capital city is dominated by huge towers, which serve as both brothels and centers of tax collection.
All in all, an excellent read. I’m starting to realize why Jack Vance is so revered among fans of science fiction. The next novel, the Face, is a little fatter than the previous three, but that’s a good thing, as long as he continues at the level set in the Palace of Love.