I’m a little ways into Star King now, with a couple of initial thoughts. *Light spoilers ahoy.*
First, I continue to really admire Vance’s writing. Simultaneously intelligent and accessible, he seemed to know how to provide enough description and exposition to flesh out characters and worlds without going overboard. My only gripe so far has to do with the prefaces at the beginning of each chapter. Much like Herbert in Dune, Vance starts each part with one (or more) quotes from books, speeches, people, etc. within the literary world. These provide context for events, locations, or peoples in the story, usually just as the reader is about to encounter them. I do like the use of these in general; I just prefer it when they’re are a few lines long, as opposed to a page or more. When they’re short, they can give a little break as the story progresses and provide some useful insights. When long, it feels to me like they upset the pacing somewhat.
Second, there’s something about the way that grandmasters like Vance, Howard, and Burroughs crafted their characters that makes them likable for me, despite coming close to Gary Stu status (as opposed to some R.A. Salvatore characters I can’t stand). Conan and Carter are charismatic, strong, brave, and honorable men who conquer foe after foe and have to beat off the hot ladies with a stick. Perhaps they’re acceptable because they suffer defeats and setbacks, and they know how to win and lose like men. Invariably it means they keep on keeping on, no matter how grim the situation.
I didn’t note much description of Gersen’s physicality and I haven’t read anything yet to make me believe the womens are swooning all over him, but he is a master fighter/poisoner/killer. It’s also clear that he’s a pretty bright chappy. So he’s brave, strong, and smart at the very least. Relatively early on he proves his fighting prowess by overcoming an Earthman of considerable fighting skill, but Gersen doesn’t feel like an invincible (dark elf) killing machine. Though you know he’s going to survive at least for quite a while (after all we’ve got 4 more books in the series after this), he feels vulnerable and fallible.
Ok, so that’s Star King. That’s where my mind is these days, at least a part of it. On the classic SFF.
Last week I decided to watch something light on Netflix and it seemed time to knock Nevada Smith off my list. This one is a western from 1966, starring Steve McQueen as half-Indian Max Sand as he quests for revenge. That’s not so unusual in and of itself, especially for a western. But man, immediately I thought to myself – “Holy cow, this is the Demon Princes writ-small, except in the Wild West!” And only two years after the publication of Star King!
Well, I’m not so sure there’s any connection, but the general setup of the story sounds pretty similar. Max’s parents are tortured and killed by three outlaws, and so he sets out to seek revenge.
Along the way he experiences a few hard knocks but eventually runs into a gunsmith who mentors him on how to hold his own with a firearm. Some time passes, and Max becomes more competent and prepared for his task.
One notable aspect of Nevada Smith is that the story is as much about revenge as it is the struggle to give up on that hatred and forego revenge. The first appeal to this end comes from his gunsmithing mentor, Cord. Cord offers for Max to come with him and give up on his pursuit of the outlaws, to no avail. Max passes on the offer of a new life and meaningful employ by his new friend.
The second appeal, presented twice, is new life and a family. During a period of convalescence, he is taken in by the beautiful Indian woman Neesa and her tribe. Max is asked to stay but refuses. Later on he uses the Cajun girl Pilar’s feelings for him; he recruits her to help him and his second target escape from a prison surrounded by swamp (at this point the outlaw doesn’t realize Max’s true identity). Pilar begs Max to “treat her nice” when they escape, but it’s obvious that although he bears her no ill-will and perhaps does care for her, he has no intention of giving up his mission. As his second target is getting into their escape boat, he tips it and Pilar falls into the water, where she is bit by a venomous snake. A short while later she succumbs and dies. If he had left the outlaw and his vengeance behind, he could have escaped with her. She would have lived and he perhaps could have found peace building a family with her.
The third appeal follows a while later. Injured once again, he is found by a priest, who takes him back to his mission and introduces him to Christianity and the Bible. Several times he asks Max not to pursue his final mark. Max mentions that his favorite part of the holy book was “an eye for an eye” and that the priest can’t understand. The good father reveals to Max that he too survived after watching his family tortured and killed, and knows of that hatred and lust for vengeance. But he took a different path. This shakes Max, but does not dissuade him.
In the final moments of the film, Max has the third evildoer at his mercy – in a river at gunpoint. Max shoots his arm and both his legs, but struggles internally as the outlaw taunts him and exhorts him to end it. It’s at this point that our hero finally realizes how hollow his pursuit has been, and that killing his parents’ murderers will not gain him peace. He tells the dastard that he’s not worth killing, and walks away as the wounded bandit curses him, calling him a coward and yellow.
I’m not sure how the Demon Princes saga will progress and ultimately end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a different course. In many revenge flicks, the bad guys are paid back for their evil ways, though often the hero pays a toll as well. It was a nice twist in Nevada Smith that after finding religion (though perhaps not the only decisive factor), the protagonist is eventually able to give up on revenge.