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Jack Vance’s The Book of Dreams (Demon Princes, Book 5)

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series 2022 Reads

Well, this is the saddest of the Demon Princes novels, because its villain, Howard Allen Treesong, was the most sympathetic of the series: a lunatic, to be sure, but he lost his mind through abuse and bullying and a horrible childhood.

The eponymous The Book of Dreams feels like some kind of metonym for a lot of SF as a literary form: a kooky, self-aggrandizing remix of obscure adventure stories, folklore, and religious tracts. The “high school reunion revenge” scene is the stuff of a Netflix miniseries season climax, I tell you. Also, the parallels between Gerson and Treesong are… interesting. (Both are revenge-obsessed childhood outcasts driven by deep damage sustained early in life, and by an upbringing most sane people would consider abusive.)

I found Treesong’s fall into villainy particularly sad: not only was he an abused child, but he was tricked into worsening his abuse by a bullying sibling who hid his Book of Dreams, causing Treesong to lash out at—and then lose—his only friend in the world. How sorrowful, how pathetic that child, and we get to hear enough of the story to really pity him. 

The pity extends a bit to Gersen, too, or at least it did for me, given the parallels between the two characters. Little wonder, then, that Vance skips the denouement here: where indeed can Gerson go, now that he is “deserted by his enemies”? Can one even come back from what he’s become? Or, heaven forbid, does he inevitably become a “demon prince” himself?

Eh, probably not: this isn’t really one of those kinds of stories. But it’s also not the kind of story where the protagonist is supposed to grow or develop or change. He’s more an iconic hero, like the ones we know from most superhero narratives: he exists to set a disordered universe back to order. 

But the problem is that unlike those other iconic heroes, he has nobody left to vie against. For Conan, for Batman, for other characters of that type, the universe is an inexhaustible source of conflict. But Gersen’s done what he set out to do, and what he does afterward… we see hints, maybe, but it doesn’t matter, because that’s not what his story is about. 

Series Navigation<< Jack Vance’s <em>The Face</em> (Demon Princes, Book 4)
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