cover of The Star King
|Cover artist||Richard M. Powers|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Followed by||The Killing Machine|
Star King (also published as The Star King) is a science fiction novel by American writer Jack Vance, the first in his Demon Princes series. It tells the story of a young man, Kirth Gersen, who sets out to track down and revenge himself upon the first of the Demon Princes, the five arch-criminals who massacred or enslaved nearly all the inhabitants of his colony world when he was a child.
Star King was originally serialized in the December 1963 and February 1964 editions of Galaxy magazine, as The Star King. The antagonist of the book was originally known as Grendel the Monster, and was subsequently renamed Attel Malagate for the novel version. The magazine version featured striking cover and interior illustrations by Ed Emshwiller.
Gersen is taking a short holiday at Smade’s Tavern, the only settlement on Smade’s Planet, which is a “neutral ground” hostelry for crook and honest man alike in the Beyond. Here he meets an explorer with a problem: Lugo Teehalt has discovered a beautiful and unspoiled world – but he has learned that his employer is the notorious criminal Attel Malagate, “Malagate the Woe”, and Teehalt cannot bear to see his planet despoiled by him. However, some of Malagate's minions murder him and steal the spaceship parked nearby. By chance, Gersen's spaceship is the same common model as Teehalt's; the thieves have taken the wrong ship. Gersen departs in the deceased man's ship and thus comes into possession of the navigational device that contains the planet’s coordinates.
Gersen goes in search of the identity of Teehalt’s employer. He quickly establishes that his mission was sponsored by someone at Sea Province University, an important institution on the planet Alphanor in the Rigel Concourse, and narrows Malagate's alter ego to one of three men, all senior officials at the university. All deny specific knowledge of Lugo Teehalt. By now, Gersen has encountered two of Malagate’s chief henchmen, whom he saw earlier at Smade’s Tavern: Tristano the Earthman, and Sivij Suthiro the Sarkoy. He knows that Malagate is aware of what he carries, though not his motivation.
He has also deduced that Malagate is not, as widely assumed, human, but rather a "Star King", a member of a species that can rapidly evolve in a few generations to resemble its most successful rival. After contacting humans, the Star Kings began changing their appearance to look more and more like Man. The most successful can readily pass for human.
During his visit to the University, Gersen makes the acquaintance of Pallis Atwrode, a clerical assistant. While the two are enjoying an evening out, they are attacked by another of Malagate’s lieutenants, the hideous Hildemar Dasce. Gersen is left unconscious and Pallis abducted. Through a combination of detective work and good luck, he traces her whereabouts to a secret base belonging to Dasce. He takes the three officials to see Teehalt’s world, which they are interested in purchasing, and along the way, Gersen opportunely stops to rescue Pallis and capture Dasce, along with a prisoner Dasce has tortured for years, Robin Rampold.
Gersen convinces Dasce that Malagate betrayed him and then allows Dasce to overpower him. Dasce's attempt to avenge himself on Malagate reveals the Star King's identity. In combination with strong circumstantial evidence, this convinces the other two men to accept Gersen's accusations. After Dasce’s unsuccessful attack and flight, Gersen tells Malagate that he is to be summarily executed. Malagate however succeeds in escaping himself, only to be horribly killed a few minutes later by one of the native lifeforms on Teehalt’s world. At his own request, Rampold is left behind. He subsequently turns the tables on his former torturer and begins a long-term program of revenge.
Malagate “The Woe” maintains his anonymity, setting the pattern for most of the other Demon Princes. Reputation makes him the most callous of the arch-criminals and he has no qualms about killing the recalcitrant Lugo Teehalt, and does nothing when Gersen captures his trusted lieutenant, Hildemar Dasce. An outcast from Star King society, Malagate has the comparatively reasonable life goal (compared to the rest of the Demon Princes) of founding a people of his own on the new world that Teehalt has discovered.
Malagate’s hideous lieutenant, nicknamed "Beauty", whose natural charms weren’t improved when, sometime in the past, Robin Rampold cruelly cut off his eyelids and cleft his nose. He refuses to have his features mended and instead accentuates his ugliness with outlandish skin-tones. Calling himself “Mr. Spock" he maintains a secret hideaway called “Thumbnail Gulch” on a dead black star, a close binary companion to a red dwarf. There he imprisons Rampold, subjecting him to many years of intermittent tortures both physical and psychological for revenge.
A master Sarkoy poisoner, the second of Malagate’s henchmen and referred to as a hetman (presumably a Sarkoy title or rank). He, Dasce and Tristano the Earthman deal with Teehalt. Later he crosses Gersen’s path on three occasions; ironically, Gersen poisons him with cluthe on their second meeting and informs Suthiro that he is a dying man on the last occasion, though in the end he is obliged to shoot him. By his own lights, Suthiro is not especially wicked; "I kill only when I must or when it profits me", he explains, and by Sarkoy standards, this may indeed make him a model of restraint.
Tristano the Earthman
Malagate’s third underling is a shortish, but powerfully built man who specializes in unarmed combat - it is said that "he kills with touches of his hand". However, he is no match for Gersen. When they meet, Tristano is seriously injured, but not killed, and plays no part in the plot afterwards.
The builder and proprietor of Smade’s Tavern, the only settlement on the bleak Smade’s Planet. Smade insists on peace inside his tavern, with any transgressors being pitched into the sea from the nearby cliff. The murder of Teehalt on his premises angers him, inasmuch as the deed could as well have been perpetrated outside. Otherwise, Smade lives contentedly in a polygamous marriage with many offspring, calmly accepting that his clientele includes some of the galaxy’s most notorious criminals.
The Star Kings are an asexual alien species whose highly successful strategy is to evolve at a furious rate to become like their most successful competitors. According to Kirth Gersen, their development on their homeworld, which they call "Ghnarumen" (Lambda Gruis III), was profoundly influenced by the artificial introduction of Neanderthal men in prehistory. In the ensuing millennia, Neanderthals proved to be the fittest species, so the Star Kings grew first to resemble them, then to outcompete and eventually exterminate them from Ghnarumen. Thus, when the Star Kings later came in contact with spacefaring humanity, they immediately began to imitate homo sapiens, driven by their age-old instinct to excel and outdo.
Their temperament and motivations are far different from those of humans, but the most highly evolved (that is, the most human) are able to venture into human society without notice. However, Malagate is an atypical Star King. A notorious criminal with an outstanding reputation for callousness, he himself states shortly before his death that his career is not one that his kind would respect or endorse.