One thing that has always bothered me about science fiction as literary genre is that so very few of its authors seem to have any awareness of their medium, i.e. language. Of course there are exceptions (Cordwainer Smith and Samuel Delany come to mind, not coincidentally my two favourite science fiction authors) but for the vast majority of science fiction literature out there, the language it is written in is serviceable at best and all too often merely clunky and stilted. Jack Vance is another of the rare exceptions – due to his very own unique style, a kind of wry, detached attitude that views the events and characters in his works like ants through a microscope.
That kind of distancing tone is not likely to get the reader much involved in the narrative, though, or sympathizing with its protagonists, and consequently lack of plot and character are often pointed out as weaknesses prevalent in Vance’s oeuvre. But Vance seems not really interested in those, it’s like he condescends to make grudging use of them since the form and the market required it, but his real interests lie elsewhere. To fully enjoy his works, a shift in focus is required, like with Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit – and once you are aware that Vance is really all about voice and style, plot and character tend to become nothing but minor factors that (in his weaker works) distract or (in his better ones) enhance what is essential, namely Vance’s prose and a prolific imagination that comes up with the most incredibly bizarre invententions.
In consequence, some of the best parts in Vance’s Demon Prince series (the first three installments of which this omnibus collects) are not found in the main narrative body of the novels at all, but in the epigraphs to individual chapters, purporting to be quotations from a multidude of sources as varied as newspapers, biographies, philosophical tractates and poems, and which often do not even pretend to bear any connection but their placement to the chapters they introduce. Free of context, not bound to the strictures of plot or character coherence, they often read like intriguing miniatures of their own where Vance sketches an insanely bizarre society or a totally ludicrious religious belief system in just a couple of sentences.
As for the novels themselves, they stand in a fascinating relationship to each other – while The Demon Princes is definitely a series, revolving around the main protagonist Kirth Gersen and his campaign of revenge against the five crime overlords who destroyed his home village and killed or enslaved its population. But it does not proceed so much in a linear fashion, the general structure seems to rather be a serial one (as in serial music) – i.e., each of the individual is not so much a continuation of where the previous one left off but rather repeats the previous ones, tells what is basically the same story but in a different way.
Or maybe a better way to describe the shift between novels is as a fractal progression, where each consecutive installment reveals a greater level of ever more intricate detail within the identical framework of the basic revenge plot: The Star King is a straightforward adventure story with a minimum of frills, The Killing Machine is the same story with a few more turns and twists, while The Palace of Love is one of the highlights of Vance’s oeuvre – it is much the same story as before, with much the same ingredients, but with such a wealth of intricate bizarreness, such a vast amount of finely crafted narrative ornament clicking and whirring away that the reader would get quite dizzy if it was not so squee-inducing enjoyable. And of course it is quite impossible to talk about The Palace of Love without at least a passing mention of Navarth who is not so much a character as rather the archetype of the l’art pour l’art poet taken to its larger-than-life, in equal measure fascinating and terrifying extreme – he is like the literary equivalent of every Mad Scientist and as such quite the fitting emblem for a novel that is bursting with odd details and bizarre inventions that serve no conceivable purpose at all, but are a wonder and delight to behold.