Ringworld and Rendezvous With Rama could certainly be considered classics of science fiction. And Jack Vance is certainly a classic sf author, and has written a couple of classic sf novels. But Star King is not one of them. However, Vance has always been a singular voice in sf, and I've always liked his books. So sticking one of his titles on the list for my 2009 Reading Challenge was a no-brainer. And I decided to choose one I'd not read for many years - for a couple of decades, even.
Star King is the first book of the Demon Princes quintet. The series' story follows Kirth Gersen as he wreaks his revenge on five interstellar criminals who were responsible for enslaving his town when he was a child. Each novel details his revenge on one of the criminals. The first criminal is Attel Malagate the Woe, a member of an alien race known as Star Kings.
Star Kings are actually humanoid amphibians, but appear entirely human. They are also intensely competitive and driven to excel. The fact that Malagate is a member of this race does help Gersen eventually identify him...
Gersen has been brought to be an instrument of revenge by his grandfather. He has all the necessary skills, and is especially effective at unarmed combat. His grandfather dies and leaves him with a single name, a pirate captain he recognised who was present when the town was enslaved. In a flashback, Gersen visits the pirate, tortures him until he gives up the names of the five criminals - the demon princes of the series' title - and then kills him.
While meditating on this information at Smade's Tavern on Smade's World, Gersen meets Lugo Teehalt, a locator who has discovered an Edenic world ripe for settlement. However, Teehalt has learnt that his sponsor is Malagate, and he doesn't want to hand over the location of the world to the criminal. Teehalt is then murdered by three other guests of the tavern - who admit they work for Malagate. They take Gersen's ship, assuming it is Teehalt's.
Gersen finds Teehalt's ship, and there are enough clues in it to indicate that Malagate is one of three administrators at Sea Province University on the world of Alphanor... But which one?
I read Star King in a day. There's not much in it. My edition, the 1988 Grafton paperback, has only 208 pages. And even then, there's not that much plot. Gersen fortuitously meets Teehalt. Gersen stumbles on a clue to Malagate's real identity. Gersen puts into effect plan to identify Malagate. Plan works - albeit with one or two minor hurdles to overcome.
Vance has fleshed this out by having Gersen questioning everything he learns and everything he does. It makes the story somewhat... conditional. It's bad enough that the plot starts with a coincidence, but the continual second-guessing only makes it seem as if Gersen is being driven by the plot rather than vice versa. Even the resolution relies on events Gersen could not have foreseen or planned for. He has his plan, yes; but the final clues which reveal which of the three administrators is Malagate are not part of it.
Still, this is a novel by Jack Vance. And you read his books as much for his voice as for the story. In that respect, Star King does not disappoint. It might be a thin work, but it could never be mistaken for another writer's novel. Perhaps it's more lightweight than I'd remembered, but it's still a fun read. There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, and certainly worse books available in any book shop.
I'm tempted to read the other four books of the Demon Princes series, but... the to-be-read pile is big enough already. Another day perhaps.