Contemporaneous fans of the series may have been somewhat miffed that there was a twelve year gap between the last installment (The Palace of Love, 1967) and this one (1979). However, their patience would’ve been rewarded by a nifty little potboiler in what I am rapidly coming to see is the typical Jack Vance style.
The villain this time around, Lens Larque, is excellent. It’s not so much that he is well drawn as a unique individual—he isn’t. He has a strong personality, a short temper, a predilection for flogging his enemies, and a talent for treachery and homicidal “tricks”, but these are characteristics common to all the men of his race. In fact, he is the perfect distillation of his culture, an outstanding representative of the Darsh people in every particular.
Even his smell is typical. On his home world, Dar Sai, all the men reek. They call it fust. A footnote explains that fust is “an odor exuded by Darsh men”. Lens Larque’s fust has its own identifiable pungency, which one character informs us smells of “meriander and fine kolruna and red-oil ahagaree”. This is a good stink on Dar Sai, and marks him as a prestigious citizen. Our informant explains: “He is high, I am low... I reek of the sump.”
A few complaints. Jack Vance seems to have expanded his use of footnotes, which sometimes number two or three to a single page, and the imaginary citations at the start of every chapter are longer as well. If you count newspaper articles and other texts that are quoted in dialogue or read by a character, then it sometimes seems like half of The Face isn’t the novel itself at all, but is actually quotations from some other imaginary source.
In general I like this technique, but Vance possibly went just a little far with it this time. Sometimes a quote from one imaginary source will repeat information already provided in another imaginary source, and then the information is repeated in the narrative of the novel itself yet a third time. For example, the national pastime of the Darsh is called hadaul—a pretty violent “sport”, if that is the right word, and the moment we first hear about it, you know Kirth Gerson is going to end up in one. Vance builds up the suspense well, and all the information provided in the imaginary citations makes it very easy to visualize the action when Kirth Gerson finally steps into the ring, at roughly the two-thirds mark. The voice of the novel itself is in standard third person, and when it’s finally almost action-time in chapter 11, the narrator gives us this information:
“The hadaul was about to start: the most characteristic of all Darsh spectacles, an activity somewhere between a game and a gang fight, given savor by tricks, broken faith and opportunism: in short, a microcosm of Darsh society.”
Very interesting of course, but we’ve already been told this on multiple occasions, including a citation at the start of this very chapter, and another earlier quotation that used the exact phrase “microcosm of Darsh society”. Vance could’ve done with just a little tighter editing here.
But, it is a fascinating little game that he has invented; the rules are simple (hence no need to go on at such length in the citations), and it really is a “microcosm of Darsh society”. In the course of the novel, we learn all about this fictional society—how they live, and why they live that way. And everything is organic; it all fits together in a certain logical way—their mating rituals, which horrify the rest of the Oikumene, how they rear their young and how that leads to their adult characteristics (also pretty horrifying), their political, economic and judicial systems (pretty primitive, but they take a perverse pride in that), the disgusting food they eat, you name it.
One more complaint about the imaginary citations. They’re almost all about Dar Sai and Darth society, and they usually relate directly to the action—you get citations on hadaul, then a chapter on hadaul; citations on mating rituals, then a chapter on mating rituals (a very funny and entertaining chapter, by the way). In the earlier books it was more random; the chapter might begin with a quotation having nothing to do the action of the novel. It might be a televised debate featuring a high ranking member of the Institute, explaining their philosophy, or a newspaper article about some world we don’t even visit in the course of the series, or a weird religious text like the Scroll from the Ninth Dimension (we do get one of these in The Face, in the next to last chapter). Just a little something to flesh out the portrait of this vast interstellar society, the Oikumene.
But in this novel, the focus is on the Darsh. Even the bad guy, Lens Larque, is like an afterthought, a macguffin of sorts—just an excuse for the hero to go on adventures on Dar Sai, to participate in hadaul, to eat their terrible food, to witness their mating rituals, etc. But it works, and makes for a fun read.
In general the Darsh seem to be a weird take on the Fremen of Dune: a harsh society borne from a harsh desert planet, brave and fiercely independent—they even use a similar technology in the giant umbrellas they live under, called shades, which recycle and circulate water, similar to the principle of the Fremen stillsuit.
But the Darsh are more fun—not all dour and noble religionists, like Herbert’s Fremen. Dune was entertaining, but I don’t remember laughing very much when reading it. These Darsh people really cut lose with some humorous pranks and hi-jinks. A very entertaining novel. I thought the bad guy was better in the last book, more believable as an individual character, and that the prose was a little slicker, more tightly edited—but The Face was probably a funnier and more entertaining read, overall. Neither is by far better or worse than the other, but I understand how one could rate The Face as their favorite of the series so far. I liked it a lot myself.