Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Review: The Book of Dreams by Jack Vance

Kirth Gersen faces the most dangerous and mercurial of his adversaries in the finale to the Demon Princes series

Through the first four volumes of Vance’s Demon Princes series, we have followed the career and evolution of Kirth Gersen, from a bit of a hardscrabble searcher of the men who destroyed his world, through becoming rich, powerful, wealthy and facing ever more dangerous opposition in the more dangerous of the Demon Princes¹. Now, in The Book of Dreams, he faces Howard Alan Treesong. Like his compatriots, Treesong is a driven individual, and his past is the key to understanding him and defeating him.

That past turns out to be the titular Book of Dreams. In the course of the book, even with his money and power and influence, Gersen has a difficult time in pinning down Treesong, who proves in the course of this novel to be the most elusive of the Demon Princes.  Treesong survives more attempts for Gersen to confront and finish him than any of his other opposition. It is not until Gersen gets a hold of the Book that he finally has a lever to finally draw Treesong into a vulnerable position.  Treesong is perhaps this series’ Joker, unpredictable yet methodical, inconsistent, and yet having wide range plans and the will and ability to carry them out, forceful and yet vulnerable in certain spots. He is more complicated than any of the other Demon Princes and that makes him a fascinating antagonist, all the way to the final confrontation.

The details of that final confrontation are something that I go back and forth on discussing, because it is amazingly spoilery on the one hand, and on the other hand, there is a lot to unpack in it. I will come at parts of this obliquely. In the course of the novel, Gersen does meet another woman associated with the Demon Prince whom he makes his ally--Alice Wroke. Alice is at first working at purposes with the Demon Prince, for good reasons, which Kirth manages to alleviate in the course of his pursuit of Howard. She is of a like bird and mind to Kirth, and joins in on the quest to defeat Howard, culminating in their final showdown. That final showdown is a far more complicated affair than even the convoluted endings these books sometimes have, but Alice’s passion for revenge is a match for Kirth’s². And both are left with a sense of loss at the end once that vengeance, that product is done. Unlike the other women of the series, Alice is very much in the same position as Kirth by the end of the book and series. 

But let me talk about The Book of Dreams, which is one of the most fascinating creations of the entire Demon Princes saga, and what it says about Treesong, Vance and his oeuvre. The book cold opens with an excerpt from the Book of Dreams, even before introducing the customary opening where we get a bit about the newest Demon Prince opposition of the novel. We get these excerpts, mysteriously, until it becomes clear that the author of this book is none other than Treesong himself. And Kirth’s acquisition of it is absolutely vital to understanding Treesong and then moving him into defeat.

So what does it say about him? 

The Book of Dreams is a sort of fantasy dream world that Treesong has created, and, it is clear, is a part of his fractured and broken psyche. Treesong, it turns out, inhabits this inner world of the book in a way that really becomes clear in retrospect looking over the novel, but the hints of the book give clues to it. The color coded paladin knights, with different aspects, personalities and abilities, are not quite different personalities within Treesong, but they are much like those writers who can have conversations with their created characters in their head and interrogate them. For all being Treesong’s companions in arms, they really do range in what they are like and perhaps can be thought to cover a wide range of what such paladin knights might be like in a fantasy setting, all the basic types arranged here. This gives a kaleidoscope-like feel to the Book of Dreams, and thus to Treesong. 

It is an extension and a larger version of one of the themes throughout the Demon Princes series, and that is, for Gersen to defeat each one, he has to “understand who is going to kill”. This is not something he starts the series with in The Star King, he is frustrated at having to go through “the process” with Malagate. Gersen has to understand his motivations (however inhuman) in order to get into a position to defeat him. Kokor Hekkus was faced down by completing the machine he himself craved to have on his home planet of Thamber, fulfilling his ambition to put him in a position to corner him. Viole Faluche, Gersen has to range from Earth all the way to the titular Palace of Love and confront Faluche’s own passions and desires in a place of his making in order to be able to overcome him. The titular The Face, Lens Larque, is a chameleon trickster character that Gersen has a devil of a time pinning him down, but it’s a more straightforward result than the other novels. We don’t get quite into Larque’s head as much as the other novels, although we do see the culture he is from and how that shaped him as a person and as a  Demon Prince.

But, again, for all of these master criminals, Treesong is definitely the most dangerous even if not quite the most directly ambitious. That honor would go to Larque of The Face, in light of his schemes for political and social power within the human Oikumene. In the end, the five Demon Princes and their meeting (as described across the volumes) feels a bit like the Adam West Batman movie, where a bunch of Gotham supervillains get together to plot evil (in this case the Mount Pleasant raid) but they are a motley lot.  Treesong is the Joker, as previously described. Larque is probably the Penguin, interested in power.  Faluche is a genderflipped Catwoman, full of passion. This means that the Riddler, the last of the Batman villains in that movie is either Malagate or Hekkus, and given the gadgetry and engineering and design aspects of Hekkus and his schemes, the wheels within wheels, I think Hekkus is the Riddler. This leaves poor Attel Malagate out in the cold. If I had to pick a Batman villain for him that was not in the movie, then, I am going to go with Clayface.The mimicking of DNA by the Star Kings, a power Clayface often has in the comics and other media, make him a good matchup. 

 And what of Scroll from the Ninth Dimension, the serial contained with the volumes of the Demon Princes?  I can say that Marmaduke, too, comes to a conclusion and a satisfactory one at that. This novel, more than the others has a particular resonance between the Scroll and the main text, as the Book of Dreams inner landscape has a resonance and similarity, world to world. The fantastic worlds of Jack Vance, the fantasy magical side of his writing, has always been a seed within the science fiction of the Demon Princes verse, showing that space opera, too, can contain magic.  But the aforedescribed Book of Dreams is itself a fantasy verse, and so in the novel, we have in effect, two fantasy verses in conversation with each other, across the space opera verse of the novel. You can see it is this sort of thing that writers like Gene Wolfe would pick up and run with. The shadow of Vance is long and deep within the SFF community.  

The Demon Princes is a series that Vance abandoned for many years, only to finally to return to it and with this volume, complete it. Is it the highest form of Vance’s writing? No, frankly he has more mythic and epic work in his oeuvre. But it is in the way his most wide ranging in terms of geography, giving us culture after culture, planet after planet. In reading this, long ago and now, I dreamed of visiting endless worlds and societies unfamiliar with my own, the experiences Gersen has in running down the Demon Princes gives him a wide range of human experiences, and for the readers, we see many ways of *being* human. It thus remains one of *my* favorite series and I hope the new audio editions entice more readers into Vance’s worlds.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for effective use of try-fail cycles as Gersen faces his last, strongest opponent.

+1 for very clever use of the titular book as a psychological tool to deepen the main antagonist, more than any of the other Demon Princes

Penalties: -1 The actual denouement is a bit disappointing. To say more would be very spoilery

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Vance, Jack The Book of Dreams [Spatterlight Press Audio Edition 2022]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin. 

¹It is interesting and says a lot about Vance that the first of the Demon Princes Gersen faces,Attel Malagate , in The Star King, is the only inhuman one, and in the end, the least challenging opponent. Gersen as constituted in the first novel would not have stood much chance against the later Demon Princes, and I am pretty sure Treesong would have defeated the earlier version of Gersen quite easily. 

² Does this make Alice, in fact, Harley Quinn?  The Harley Quinn of the animated series, who has definitively thrown over "Mister J" would approve of Alice's revenge on Treesong, I am sure.