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The lawlessness which characterizes the Beyond (the area outside the Oikumene) is legendary.  One of the darkest chapters in this dark history is the infamous NE 1494 raid on the colony of Mount Pleasant -- the entire colony murdered or carried off into slavery, thousands of men, women, and children.

Only two people escaped the raid -- Rolf Marr Gersen and his young grandson, Kirth. From that moment, Kirth Gersen's life was determined.   Gersen formed his grandson into the instrument of his revenge: He inculcated in Kirth in the necessity of tracking down and killing the perpetrators of his family's destruction, and made sure Kirth would learn enough to continue on that course.

Eleven years after his grandfather's death, Gersen tracked down one of the Demon Princes' henchmen in the affair - a certain Pankarow.   Before finishing Pankarow off, Gersen extracted the names of the five leaders of the syndicate who had led the raid:

Each one of these "Demon Princes" was well-known as a master criminal -- well, perhaps "well-known" is not accurate enough.  They were only well-known in that their names were uttered, if ever, in terrified whispers. Each commanded a criminal empire capable of perpetrating the most appaling atrocities, and suffering no consequences. No consequences, that is, except for Kirth Gersen.

Jack Vance describes the career of Kirth Gersen, and the downfall of the five Demon Princes, in five novels:

The Demon Princes novels are ideal for characterizing my conflicted feelings about Jack Vance's writing.  While he paints a vivid portrait of his universe, with a writing style guaranteed to weld your eyes to the pages, I must confess that a couple of things make me uneasy:
  • Plot.  I don't think it would spoil the story to tell you Kirth Gersen eventually gets his men, every one of them.  The novels' draw is the imaginative way Vance gets Gersen from point A to point B.  Again, I must be careful about my choice of words: "Imaginative" does not describe the movement of the plot.  At the beginning of each novel, Gersen hears a rumor about one of the Demon Princes, then relentlessly follows the lead until it leads to the final confrontation with his quarry, on the last page, or immediately before it.  Gersen bandies about the name of his quarry with reckless abandon; he always knows whom to trust (few) and whom not to (most everyone).   Although Gersen does suffer setbacks, these are with only one exception of the "fleabite" variety.
  • The character of Kirth Gersen himself.  As a matter of fact, Kirth Gersen is the least interesting character in the entire series.  Although he occasionally engages in a bit of introspection as to how his vendetta makes his life less enjoyable than others' lives, he will do whatever it takes to hunt down his quarry.  Although he occasionally pursues a romantic entanglement or two during while pursuing one of the Demon Princes, his "monomania" eventually costs him all of these relationships.   Gersen is no James Bond, but perhaps that's a good thing.
In the end, The Demon Princes novels read like movie serials from the 1930's or 1940's, albeit with a much larger vocabulary.  Vance occasionally reminds one of Kilgore Trout, although his prose never actually manages to be purple. Sometimes these novels seem the very thing that Douglas Adams satirized in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

With all of this criticism taken into account, however, I must point out that The Demon Princes are currently available in two trade paperback omnibus editions, and I did spend $18.95 for the second omnibus after reading the first three novels.

Worth reading, but not life changing. * * * 1/2  You will probably enjoy The Dying Earth or Night Lamp more.

The Demon Princes run Hell in Steve Jackson Games's In Nomine.

Lucifer is not a Demon Prince. He's something much, much more.
The original French game that In Nomine was based on, In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas, had a completely different set of Archangels and Demon Princes than the Steve Jackson Games version.

In addition to avjewe's near complete list of main rulebook Demonic superiors, there are the following... noded with a little fill-in-the-blanks help from:

Gorgonzola's summary of the Demon Princes novels is accurate enough as far as it goes, but I'm afraid he's missed the grandeur and sweep of the forest by obsessing about the trees.

While the pentalogy is superficially a tale of revenge exacted by the increasingly powerful Kirth Gersen on the even more powerful criminal masterminds of the Beyond, the real meat of Vance's series (as it is in so many of his other tales) is the endless, often baroque variety of cultures and peoples that make up the Oikumene. All human, but all different in social structures, appearance, architecture, foods and religion, the inhabitants of the Oikumene reveal themselves to the fascinated reader as they progress with Gersen from planet to planet in search of his quarry.

Here, the secretive and ever-wary poisoners of Sarkovy; there, the inhabitants of long-lost Thamber, living out the bloody medieval fantasies of Kokor Hekkus. Off the main paths of commerce, the austere and lonely Smade's Tavern (on Smade's Planet); in the center of humanity, Old Earth, but not as we know it. Indeed, humanity in the Oikumene would seem to have only three common features: the basic human genetic material, the currency of the Standard Value Unit, and the secretive Institute, whose functions help drive the plot in two of Gersen's adventures.

So in truth, reading The Demon Princes as a revenge tale is like concentrating on where you're going and completely ignoring the scenery along the way. Vance is one of the great descriptive writers in SF, and to concentrate on the plot while ignoring all the cool people and societies he describes is like driving through the Black Hills with your eyes fixed firmly on the Interstate. You could do that, but why bother?

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