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Literature / The Demon Princes

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A Science Fiction pentalogy by Jack Vance, comprising these volumes:
  1. Star King (1964)
  2. The Killing Machine (1964)
  3. The Palace of Love (1967)
  4. The Face (1979)
  5. The Book of Dreams (1981)

Re-released in a two volume omnibus edition in 1997, simply titled The Demon Princes: Volume 1 and The Demon Princes: Volume 2.

Set in the Oikumene, a loose federation of planets, they chronicle the adventures of one Kirth Gersen as he exacts his revenge on five supercriminals — the "Demon Princes" — for their raid on his hometown, causing the death or enslavement of every inhabitant except himself and his grandfather.

Tropes in this series

  • Abhorrent Admirer: The Darsh of The Face seem to feel this way about each other, even (or especially) if they're married. One Darsh tradition is a chase for desirable sexual partners on the night of the full moon. Some of the women use younger, cuter (pre-mustache) women as bait. Rape in Darsh society appears to be part of the deal in courtship, and cuts both ways for both genders.
    • Typically Darsh marriage is based on male earning and female homemaking, with no romantic attraction on either side and both partners affecting contempt for the other. Husband and wife will both be far more interested in forcing younger (but sexually mature) members of the opposite sex to accommodate their desires than in actual marital intimacy.
  • Aerith and Bob: Names in all five books range from slightly odd-sounding (Kirth Gersen) to fanciful (Kakarsis Asm) to... Myron Patch and Howard Alan Treesong.
  • Affably Evil: While Sivij Suthiro is happy to call himself evil ("I am a man; I am a Sarkoy"), he is pleasant enough to Pallis Atwrode when he meets her while not "on duty", warns Gersen that Tristano (whom Gersen savagely beat a chapter or two previously) is going to be coming after him for revenge, and points out that he kills "only when I must, or when it profits me" — and when he points out that Hildemar Dasce "surpasses me as grandly as I surpass you", he isn't kidding. He even passes off a mild jibe from Gersen as not worth rising to, and bears no grudge at having been tricked by Gersen earlier in the story.
    • Part of this comes from Gersen having studied poisons on Suthiro's home world and having an appreciation of his culture; it ironically gives the two men common ground.
  • Alliterative Name: Such as Silas Sparkhammer, Caril Carphen, and others.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Jerdian Chanseth.
  • All-Powerful Bystander: Gersen muses that the Institute could destroy the Demon Princes if it wanted to. The Triune informs him later that it could easily control all of humanity if it wished, and that the Dexad (its highest council) will often sabotage the lower ranks' efforts at critical moments in order to prevent this from happening. This is the reason why Treesong wanted to become Triune so badly; he had the ambition to become the first Emperor of Human Space, and he came perilously close to doing so.
  • Alternative Calendar: The calendar was recalibrated starting from A.D. 2000.
    • Retconned in the post-Apollo books to A.D. 1969, First Man on the Moon.
  • Always Save the Girl - The Palace of Love. This is Navarth's primary motivation for visiting the titular building.
    • Star King - When Pallis Atwrode is kidnapped, Gersen immediately factors a rescue mission into his revenge plan.
    • The Killing Machine - Overnighting with the Tadusko-Oi, Gersen realizes why Alusz Iphegenia is so despondent: according to their customs, all of the men that so wish are entitled to sleep with the only available woman, meaning her. He promptly challenges their leader to combat, earning himself a severe beating but managing to win and so officially reserve her use to himself but in fact give her sanctuary in his tent.
  • Ancient Conspiracy / Ancient Tradition: The Institute, which is officially "just" a society of philosophers. Its (many) detractors consider it to be the former. In some ways, it also resembles an Absurdly Powerful Student Council.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Skin, hair, and eye color can be altered at will. Notably, in the first book Gersen dates a Green-Skinned Space Babe.
  • Bawdy Song: In The Face, about the unfortunate adventures of a Darsh man who runs afoul of a "vile old khoontz."
    She seized my draps and dangles, she toyed with my emotion;
    She rubbed my private enterprise with scrofuletic lotion.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Howard Alan Treesong's other personalities decide this fate for him.
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: The Human Subspecies known as the Darsh have women who are larger and hairier than the men (who are usually hairless after puberty) to the point of often growing mustaches.
  • Bodyguard Crush: After a very awkward start, Drusilla Wayles starts to feel this way about Gersen.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Surprisingly averted by all five Princes; despite their lives of horrible atrocities they all remember the Mount Pleasant raid just fine. However, they have no idea who Gersen is, and don't connect the two until reminded.
  • Celibate Hero: Kirth Gersen, at first.
  • Counterfeit Cash: Used in an epic scam in The Killing Machine The in-universe equivalent of 10 trillion dollars.
  • Cloning Blues: Viole Falushe has spent his entire career cloning the woman he desired, but can't get any of them to desire him.
  • Constellations as Locations: In The Palace of Love Alusz Iphigenia says "Ophiuchus isn't a star. It's a sector". There's also a reference to an Aquarius Sector.
  • Continuity Nod: In Star King Rundle Detteras makes a passing reference to the odd mask-wearing behavior of the population of the planet Sirene, which is the setting for Vance's "The Moon Moth."
  • Counterfeit Cash: When Gersen retrieves what's left of "Mr Hoskins", he finds what at first appears to be a mathematical riddle. Only later does he discover its significance; it's the verification pattern for the galactic currency, and anyone who has informed possession of it can print themselves as much money as they want. Gersen later makes use of the knowledge to get himself out of a tight spot, and to thwart Kokor Hekkus's plans.
  • Coup de Grâce: Howard Alan Treesong—to himself.
    • Also indirectly Suthiro the poisoner, whom Gersen has infected with cluthe but who still needs a finishing shot when Gersen nearly gets too close.
  • Crapsack World: Thamber.
    • Much of the Beyond. One of the first things that happens to new arrivals on many worlds Beyond is that they are interrogated by the Deweaseling Corps, a criminal organisation whose sole purpose for existing is the detection and extermination of law enforcement officers. On one landing, Gersen reflects that their absence is an indication that the planet is not under the control of slavers and other heinous criminals.
  • Creator Cameo: One of the introductory Fictional Document excerpts at the beginning of Chapter 6 of Star King is by "Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII."
  • Dead Guy on Display: Marmelizing is a process mentioned in The Book of Dreams that turns a body into its own memorial statue. It almost becomes Demon Prince Howard Alan Treesong's Fate Worse than Death when the parents of one boy he killed beat Kirth Gersen to a revenge Best Served Cold.
  • Deface of the Moon: Lens Larque's final plan in The Face.
    Kirth Gersen: Go out into your back garden. There's a great Darsh face hanging over the garden wall.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: The Princes are very good at concealing themselves despite their notorious reputations (and in Malagate's case, his literal inhumanity - but this latter ability is lampshaded by Gersen in-universe and also in the footnotes).
  • Doomed Hometown: The Mount Pleasant colony.
  • The Dragon: Attel Malagate has Beauty Dasce as his Dragon. Lens Larque has Bel Ruk. Howard Alan Treesong has two Co-Dragons.
  • Dreadful Musician: Gersen once goes undercover as a band member. Eventually, the target gets fed up and orders him thrown in the river. Hilarity Ensues. And you can also put an S on the front of "laughter".
  • Duel of Seduction: Alice Wroke has been told by Treesong to seduce Gersen for information. Gersen, however, is way ahead of her and chooses to simply Feed the Mole.
  • Evil Is Petty: All five Demon Princes are seen exacting Disproportionate Retribution for relatively minor slights.
  • Evil Overlooker: Justified in The Face: it's actually foreshadowing.
  • Even Mooks Have Loved Ones: In The Star King, Gersen interrogates and kills a man who participated in the Mount Pleasant raid. Said man now has a wife and young son, whom Gersen meets. (He leaves them the dead guy's money and tells the son a cover story that will explain why Dad may never be coming home again.)
  • Face Death with Dignity: Alone of all the Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong achieves this. He has been trapped and irreversibly paralysed (literally petrified, even) from the waist down, and he puts aside all bombast and fantasising in his last minutes to ask mildly what more Gersen intends to do to him, and then politely requests to be left alone since he must certainly die soon. By contrast, Malagate dies ignominiously in a mud-hole, Kokor Hekkus only gasps in horror before being shot, Viole Falushe practically begs for mercy; only Lens Larque dies fighting and spends several minutes succumbing to a rapidly fatal strain of cluthe.
    • (Treesong then somehow manages to overturn his immovable chair, despite his useless legs, and kill himself, seemingly with the assistance of his imaginary "paladins".)
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Called the Jarnell intersplit, after its inventor. It's a kind of Warp Drive.
  • Feudal Future: The planet Thamber in The Killing Machine.
    • Specifically, it's being kept in medieval stasis by Kokor Hekkus for his personal playground. Its artificial separation from the entirety of the human race also makes it a Lost Colony.
  • Fictional Sport: Hadaul, in The Face
  • Fictional Document: Lots of these are used through all five books to round out the setting. Notable documents include the multi-volume Life by Unspiek, Baron Bodissey, (excommunicated from the human race); The Avatar's Apprentice, a Scroll of the Ninth Dimension, a narrative romance populated by tricksters and used as an Epigraph whenever shenanigans are about to go down; and The Demon Princes by Caril Carphen, used as an Encyclopedia Exposita.
  • Foreign Queasine: Half the food in the Oikumene.
  • Food Porn: The other half.
  • Footnote Fever: The footnotes are seldom important to the core plot, instead adding color and forcing the reader to imagine what various strange words would sound like.
  • Freudian Excuse: Almost all of the Demon Princes have poor or at least pathetic backgrounds, but that's far from justifying their crimes.
    • Well, you can't really blame Lens Larque for having been warped by upbringing in one of the most repulsive cultures ever imagined — although, to be fair, most Darsh stay honest.
  • Gilded Cage: Interchange in The Killing Machine, a planet whose sole purpose is to house kidnap victims awaiting their ransom.
  • Girls with Moustaches: Darsh women, especially as they get older.
  • Got Over Rape Instantly: In "The Face", Kirth Gersen rescues Jerdian Chanseth, the girl he has a crush on, from Attempted Rape. They end up spending the night together.
  • Gotta Kill Them All: Except for Howard Alan Treesong, whom Gersen is satisfied has been broken as a man.
  • Green-Skinned Space Babe: Pallis Atwrode in Star King. It's actually an artificial dye.
  • Head Desk: Gersen, "a man not given to demonstrations" does this when he realizes he has just been maneuvered into paying Lens Larque a very large sum of money.
  • He Cleans Up Nicely: Gersen, whenever he has to disguise himself.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Alice Wroke from The Book of Dreams.
  • Immortality Immorality: A "hormagaunt" (not that kind) is a being who has achieved immortality from a substance extracted from children. Like Kokor Hekkus.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Unusually applies to the protagonist, who over the course of the adventure misses opportunities to kill his targets at a distance through inexpert marksmanship (Attel Malagate once, Howard Treesong twice).
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Averted. Marksmanship is Gersen's weakest point compared to his ninja-like hand-to-hand skills; in The Book of Dreams he has two opportunities to shoot at Howard Alan Treesong and fails to deal a killing blow both times.
  • Informed Ability: Lens Larque is supposedly quite an artist with his whip, Panak. Though given what this artistry could ensue, maybe we're better off not seeing it.
  • Insult Backfire:
    Gersen:: "In your youth, you committed many outrages."
    Navarth: "I'm a mad poet! I've committed outrages my whole life!"
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Gersen, on several occasions. Mitigated by the fact that many of the people he does it to were trying to kill him at the time.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Although we don't see it demonstrated, the Thribolt Gun is this - a projectile powered by the intersplit device that drives spacecraft, it is described as offering instantaneous capability over vast distances... provided that you can aim it adequately. It also offers the opportunity for a non-lethal warning shot, depending on the payload. Gersen has to be mindful of these when visiting some planets, as recklessly transgressing customs protocols can get you killed.
  • Karmic Death: Malagate is killed by the world he wanted to conquer.
  • Last Girl Wins: Alice Wroke
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: A charabanc-load of Methlen tourists of both sexes go out into the Darsh desert by moonlight, not realizing that the locals will consider this as willingly taking part in the rough sexual customs of Dar Sai. After having suffered unspeakable outrages (as the genteel Methlen consider it), they decide it is the better part of wisdom to return home and preserve each other's good names as best they can.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Demon Princes Howard Alan Treesong (The Book of Dreams) and Viole Falushe (The Palace of Love). Especially Viole Falushe.
    • It's hard to tell who is worse. Howard's brother describes him liking "young, little girls", Gersen deduces that he murdered at least one of them and it's reasonable to imply that Alice Wroke would have been next, but Falushe's lifelong obsession with one girl is an extreme monomania and there are rumours about him which suggest that he too engages in sex followed immediately by murder for his entertainment.
  • Mad Artist: Navarth the poet (The Palace of Love). Depending on your tastes, his poems as seen in the book may be a fine example of Stylistic Suck.
  • Masochist's Meal: Darsh food is intentionally vile: the people of Dar Sai seem to pride themselves on their ability to stomach it. The once-mentioned Sandusker cult also has the same attitude to their food. And part of The Book Of Dreams revolves around a banquet for the highest-ranking members of The Institute at which charnay is served - a foodstuff which, apart from being fruit, is more or less a direct stand-in for fugu.
    • And in its defence, charnay is indeed delectable - it's just that it is lethally poisonous if prepared incorrectly.
  • Master Poisoner: The planet Sarkovy's Hat is brewing and finding creative ways to administer poisons. The higher ranks of their grand masters can be Poisonous Persons, although in a touch of realism, these people tend to die rapidly themselves. Hero Kirth Gersen spent several instructive years there, to the point of being able to outwit and infect a rival Master Poisoner.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: A subtle example with Howard Alan Treesong and his Split Personalities: one of his captors says that it should have been impossible for him to commit suicide the way he did without help.
  • Mugging the Monster:
  • Named Weapons: Lens Larque's whip, Panak.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Each of the Demon Princes has selected a name that appeals to him: Lens Larque is a predatory bird from his native planet; Howard Alan Treesong is named for the hero of an obscure story cycle; Kokor Hekkus' Meaningful Name comes from the screeching sound made by his titular beheading machine.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Kokor Hekkus.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Gersen gives one of these to a barbarian chieftain in The Killing Machine.
  • Old Master: Kirth Gersen's grandfather, who trains him and is hinted to have had criminal ties in the past.
  • Omniscient Council of Vagueness: The Institute, again, or at least the upper echelon. Purposely, as it turns out.
  • Papa Wolf: Navarth is a partial example. Although a neglectful and... erratic... parent to Drusilla / Jheral IV, he is still willing to go to great lengths and privations to get her back.
  • Planet of Hats: Sarkovy, a Planet of Poisoners (mentioned in Star King and featured in The Palace of Love) as well as Methlen (The Face), a Planet of Snobs. One of the planets of The Book of Dreams is clearly influenced by the Deep South.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Both Jerdian Chanseth and Jheral Tinzy qualify as this: the former induces Love at First Sight in Kirth Gersen; the latter was locally known as The Vamp, and had Viole Falushe obsessed with her to the point of repeatedly cloning her after she died.
  • Ray Gun: Projacs are this.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Kokor Hekkus has been operating for two hundred and eighty-seven years.
  • Rescue Sex: Jerdian Chanseth.
    Jerdian: "Am I the only one going home with my virtue intact?"
    Gersen: "Not necessarily."
    Jerdian: (beat) "But I do have the option?"
    Gersen: "Yes indeed. You do have the option."
    (they get it on)
  • Reunion Revenge: Howard Alan Treesong does this in The Book of Dreams, with his former classmates. Each and every one of them is an Asshole Victim to some degree and the revenge takes the form of cruel and painful pranks that are contextual to the original slight, rather than mindless torture or execution, to the point where it's not all that difficult to identify with Treesong.
  • Revenge Before Reason: A recurring theme throughout the series. One of Gersen's girlfriends leaves him when he refuses to end his quest for revenge.
  • Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: Kirth has been trained by his grandfather since childhood in fighting, assassination, poisons, weapons, disguise... but his socializing abilities are primarily focused on infiltration rather than regular human interaction.
  • Shout-Out: One of the introductory chapter texts in The Killing Machine cites an opinion by "The dean of modern cosmologists, A. N. der Poulson."
    • Similarly, one of the footnotes in Star King makes reference to an article by Frerb Hankbert.
  • Space Sector: The Ophiuchus Sector and the Aquarius Sector in The Palace of Love are both collections of star systems.
  • Spider Tank: Built to resemble a dnazd, a monster native to Thamber (The Killing Machine).
  • Spoiler Title: Part of the plot of Star King revolves around the fact that the villain is a member of a non-human alien race — a fact that Gersen does not know for half the story, but which the reader's attention is inescapably drawn to.
  • Split Personality: Howard Alan Treesong Eerily so. They are:
  • The Stoic: Jehan Addels. High-ranked members of the Institute are expected to be this.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: The final lines of The Book of Dreams:
    "I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done."
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Alusz Iphigenia.
  • Systematic Villain Takedown: The five titular crime lords are described in the beginning chapter in the first novel (with one even making an appearance in disguise) but only one is eliminated by the end of the first novel and each subsequent novel focuses on the hunt and elimination of a single Prince. It is also a recurring theme that the minions of each Prince are eliminated one by one over the course of each novel.
  • Take a Third Option: Lens Larque, after Gersen has arranged that he can either show up in court (where Gersen plans to kill him) or forfeit his ship. He blows it up and collects on the insurance... the policy for which is underwritten by a company owned by Gersen.
  • Talking to Themself: Howard Alan Treesong's multiple personalities after he is wounded early in the hunt, and also just before his death.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: used straight and subverted in one case, where Gersen's opponent was wearing a mail vest and he had to scramble to get his knife back. The second time, he aims for the bare throat.
  • Transplanted Humans: Through colonization of the Oikumene, and to the extent that Human Subspecies exist. Apart from the Star Kings (a race of adaptable aliens to which the first Demon Prince, Attel Malagate, belongs), no other sapient aliens are seen in the entire series, though here are hints of extinct sapient races whose extinction predated human arrival on their planet.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Howard Alan Treesong is remembered fondly by his kindergarten teacher.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: The protagonist trains since childhood to avenge his parents' deaths and his Doomed Home Town, but after finally taking revenge on all of the titular princes, he realizes he no longer has any purpose in life and feels a bit numb.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: Part of the reason the slave trade thrives.
  • Wife Husbandry: Viole Falushe's motivation in The Palace of Love, horribly mixed with Truly Single Parent. Subverted, though: after all the effort he's put into raising clones of the girl he wanted to love him, it all falls flat: one is terrified of him, another falls for his nemesis on sight, and a third laughs in his face and regards him as something of a bad joke. Worst of all, Gersen uses them to reveal his identity, and that consequently costs him his life.
  • Whip of Dominance: Darsh males are famed for their prowess with the whip and their culture has several sadomasochist and domineering tendencies. A traditional art form on their planet, Dar Sai, is a dance where nude young men are whipped into performing acrobatic maneuvers by an older male. Very young men - the Darsh culture is essentially one of institutionalized paederasty, bordering on (if not crossing over into) pedophilia. The Fourth demon prince, Lens Larque is supposedly an "artist" with his whip but we never get to see him use it.
  • You Killed My Father: Part of Gersen's motivation as well as Alice Wroke's. Inverted for Otho and Tuty Cleadhoe, whose motivation is vengeance for the murder of their only son.