So hard to find time for the finer things when you’re wasting it all on vidaya games. But I’m done with the Gray Prince and I’m all the richer for it.
If you’re interesting in a more thoughtful and insightful review than I’m about to lay down, I’d point you to the excellent write-up over at Cirsova. I’m not confident I would have made the connection myself, but the Uldras do present as the inspirational precursors to the Elder Scrolls’ Dunmer, in both appearance and background.
He’s also got some great observations about the SLU (Standard Labor-value Unit), which I’d have skimmed right over, and some of the technology and devices that would be well-suited for tabletop adoption.
For my part, I’m going to start on the negatives to get that out of the way. First, as I mentioned in my initial impressions, there is a certain laboriousness to some parts the story (at least for me). I think this gets better as the book progresses and many of the key players and words become familiar. The alienness of the names coupled with Vance’s sparsity at physical character descriptions left me unsure for a large chunk of the story as to the ethnicity of two of the main characters. Gerd and Elvo – were they “normal”-looking folk or blue people? It’s likely that I was reading too hastily and either missed their initial descriptions or they were lost to me in all of the new concepts and people being introduced, but it took me a while to figure out that they were both, in fact, normies.
With the way that Vance described the different regions of Koryphon, along with other planets, when he talked about certain particular places I wasn’t always 100% sure whether he was talking about some city on the planet, a different domain, or a different world.
But those gripes can easily be attributed to inadequate reading comprehension skills on my part.
To change tack, I’m surprised that this story has slipped between the cracks of classic SFF. Perhaps this is in part due to the themes and social commentary that would no doubt be wildly out of favor today. Just judging from the Gray Prince, Vance appeared to have a disdain for urbanity. At the very least, he seemed to think city-dwelling socialites and academics to be naive and largely unprepared for the realities of the universe.
The story’s aristocratic land-barons are not always painted in the most flattering light, but this is the sort of story where foul is fair and fair is foul. Gerd is often portrayed as grim, arrogant, and calculating. As the story unfolds, we see that his arrogance is actually confidence and competence. He may seem brooding and shallow, but he holds to a code of honor and demonstrates a sort of fair mindedness and compassion.
Kelse seems rigid and set in the old ways. He’s uninterested in compromise and willing to resort to violence. Later in the book we see his way of thinking justified, and he uses violence as a last recourse, in self-defense. Even then he does so without abandon, ultimately sparing the life of the Gray Prince.
Kelse’s sister, Schaine, is painted as moderate and reasonable. She is the bridge between different societies. But as the plot progresses, we see that she doesn’t really function as a bridge. Rather she must decide where her loyalties ultimately lie and what fate she will choose. Her love of her family and Morningswake ultimately ties her to the traditionalists, while her Redemptionist sympathies and initial attraction to Elvo pull her towards the urbanites. Her former rebellious affair with Jorjol, the foppish Gray Prince, also tugs her at times in another direction.
Meanwhile Elvo Glissam, who is initially portrayed as an open-minded, compassionate, liberal chap from the city struggles to cope with the trials that befall him and to prove to himself that he’s better than Gerd. Ultimately he survives but his character fails the test. He fades into the background and loses Schaine’s affection resignedly. Elvo proves to be a relatively insignificant beta-male surrounded by alphas. He serves as a good stand-in for the entirety of the Mull and the urban Redemptionists. His idealism is all well and good when chatting safely in a parlor, waited upon and protected by others. But “civilization” is not a concept held sacred by all. Elvo initially fights when his life depends on it, but ultimately despairs and is saved by those who are willing to do what needs to be done. A similar fate befalls the cityfolk at the story’s climax.
And then we have the titular Gray Prince, Jorjol. While he at first seems to be a romantic pauper-turned-prince, the veil is pulled further away the more we see of him. He is neither honorable nor loyal. His duplicity is fully revealed at the end of the story, and he is pronounced an ideologue.
Ironically, it’s not the aristocrats who are pampered and naive. They hold on to their titles and lands through preparedness and hard work, while the self-righteous, liberal city dwellers rely on slave labor and blindly trust in the safety of the civilization they’ve built.
There are other interesting characters to be analyzed, and numerous themes and socio-political commentaries to be explored, but I’ll just present a few more thoughts before this post turns into a novel of its own.
As I noted in my initial thoughts, Vance’s literary style really reminds me of Frank Herbert’s with Dune, at least in terms of world-building. In college, my sociology professor was a big Dune fan, and so we studied the social constructs of the novel. It’s a universe filled with many different peoples with very different societies – the Atreides and Harkonnen and other houses of the Landsraad, the Fremen of Arrakis, and influential orders like the Guild and the Bene Gesserit. In Vance’s world, we find four human societies on Koryphon in addition to the morphotes and the erjins. I’m amazed that Vance was able to so skillfully flesh out the different peoples in such a short book.
Another thing that struck me was that this was a SFF story in the truest sense of the word. We find ourselves in a distant future with advanced technology and alien races, and yet Vance also implements a touch of magic. The Uldra blue magic and the sorcerous charms and telepathic powers of the Wind Runners are real and effective.
On a personal level, I derived a sort of smug satisfaction from Vance’s portrayal of the SJW crowd. Idealism is all well and good, but it must be grounded in reality. Let your head dwell for too long in the clouds and you’ll lose your footing. Some other cliche about being naive! I think he also really hit the mark with the hypocrisy of the Mull and Redemptionists on multiple levels. Not only do they ultimately compromise their beliefs at the end when they realize that they must trade away not only the properties of other people but also their own, but before that they are nearly cowed into allowing the very violence that they claim to abhor to restore that which was taken long ago by violence. Very apropos of what we have going on these days with the Left and to some extent the alt-right. On the Left we have people who claim to want peace, justice, and equality. How do they accomplish this? By employing thuggery, intimidation, and violence to target people who look different or hold different beliefs. Letting in the barbarians in a misguided effort to save civilization.
Lastly, I must say that in retrospect I was very pleased with the pacing of the plot. While it starts off a little sluggish, it continues to thicken and develops a potent suspense that culminates in a very satisfying ending. Some readers may perhaps anticipate Uther’s “joke” before the climactic reveal at the end, but I didn’t.
I give the Gray Prince full marks and would definitely recommend it to SFF fans out there. It’s a short and sweet read with a conservative bent, 10/10.