What I’m Reading: Jack Vance – The Demon Princes, Vol. 2 (The Face * The Book of Dreams)

I’m not very familiar with Vance’s biography and hence have no clue as to the reason behind it, but there is a twelve year hiatus between the publication of volumes three (1964) and four (1979) in his Demon Princes series. I might have noticed something of that gap even if I wasn’t a compulsive reader of imprints, as the writing style seems markedly smoother and more self-assured than in the three novels that were contained in the first omnibus. The final two novels in the series also appear not quite as pulpy as the first three – although I would be hard-pressed if I had to define what exactly “pulpiness” consists of, so that might be a merely subjective impression.

https://i2.wp.com/resources.macmillanusa.com/jackets/258H/9780312853167.jpgAnd those two novels certainly do not present any kind of radical departure from the ones that went before; as far as basic story mechanics are concerned, things continue very much in the same vein as before. Both The Face and The Book of Dreams once again repeat and vary the same story with all the same elements as the previous novels, as Kirth Gersen’s search for the hidden identity of his antagonists, his investigation into their origins, his involvement with a female, etc. etc. While they lack the exuberantly bizarre imagination that distinguished Palace of Love (which remains my favorite of the series), they place a different emphasis in the way the vary the series’ fundamental pattern. The Face is not only the funniest volume in the series (mostly due to the Darsh and their customs that vacillate between disgusting and hilarious) but also presents almost something like a character study of Kirth Gersen – in previous volumes, all the glimpses into his psyche offered to the reader were of him plotting his hunt of the current Demon Prince, but this time we are shown a much more reflexive, at times even melancholy and self-doubting Gersen – he even seriously considers settling down and becoming domestic instead of pursuing his vengeance.

Of course this does not happen, and in a nice touch of symmetry, the character study of Kirth Gersen is counterbalanced with one of Howard Allen Treesong, the final Demon Prince, in The Book of Dreams. Of course the previous volumes were all about figuring out the villain, but the other Demon Princes all proved to be very elusive and only fully materialised for the showdown, in order to find a quick end at the hands of Kirth Gersen. In contrast to this, Treesong is present as Gersen’s antagonist right from the start, and their paths cross several times in the course of the novel until Treesong meets his deserved end. This makes for a more dynamic plot (one might even go so far to say that this is the first volume in the series to actually have one), but on the flipside, the frequent appearances of the villain make him lose most, if not all of his enigma and mystique – Treesong comes across not so much as a ruthless arch-criminal mastermind, but rather as a mean-spirited petulant schoolboy with a penchant for cruel pranks. Which, of course, might be exactly what Vance had in mind – it is very possible that he intended to show here, at the end of the series, that the Demon Princes Gersen has devoted his life to bringing down are at heart nothing but pathetic creatures, given a semblance of greatness only by their own megalomania and Gersen’s fanatic pursuit of his vengeance against them.

All of which would make Gersen’s crusade appear in a very dim and doubtful light, and give the question what he is going to do with his life now that all of his enemies are vanquished added urgency. And here I’ll have to say that I just adore the way Vance does not answer that question but ends this series of five novels with brusque abruptness, almost in mid-sentence (and do note the bit about being “deserted by my enemies” which is a truly splendid touch, if you consider that he killed them all):

“You’re so quiet and subdued! Your worry me. Are you well?”
“Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. the affair is over. I am done.”

And that’s it.



  1. I can’t stop myself from wondering what Gersen and Alice will do next. I imagine that there is an interesting story in how Alice’s father ranked so high in the Institute hierarchy and how Alice became the tool of Howard.

  2. Well, the way I see it, it is one of the purposes of an open ending, to give a push to the readers’ imagination, to propel them beyond the confines of the text and make them think about even after they have turned the final page. And I agree that the ending of The Book of Dreams works quite well in that respect.

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