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The Dragon Masters
Jack Vance
ibooks, 235 pages

The Dragon Masters
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl and Madouc
SF Site Review: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden
SF Site Review: Night Lamp
SF Site Review: Tales of the Dying Earth
SF Site Review: Big Planet
SF Site Review: Emphyrio
SF Site Review: Ports of Call
Jack Vance Tribute Site
Jack Vance Tribute Site
Jack Vance Retrospective

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Jack Vance is one of the greatest SF writers of all time, an SFWA Grand Master, an inimitable prose stylist, as individual a writer as anyone. His career began in the late 40s, and continues to this day, with a new novel, Lurulu, rumoured to be in the publication pipeline.

He has won two Hugo awards and one Nebula, for two long novellas from the 60s. These are "The Dragon Masters" (1962) and "The Last Castle" (1966). (The latter won both awards -- the former having been published prior to the establishment of the Nebulas.) These stories have long been associated with each other, not just because they both won Hugos, but because they share certain themes, and because they have been published together as an Ace Double. This new book, called simply The Dragon Masters, brings these two stories together again.

Both stories are set in the far future, and they feature humans enslaving genetically modified aliens. In each, the plot turns on a war between the humans and the aliens. The two stories are quite cynical, and our admiration for the heroes is tempered by our natural antipathy for some of their attitudes and actions.

In "The Dragon Masters", humans have almost been eradicated. Those that remain are mostly slaves of aliens, modified for special uses; except on one planet, where a few remain free. Indeed, these free humans have captured some aliens and radically modified them for their own uses. The hero, Joaz Banbeck, is a very Vancean hero, dour, misogynistic, intelligent but resigned. He has determined that the aliens are due to return, and he tries to organize a defence while dealing with a foolish enemy in the next valley, and also with the reclusive humans who live underneath the ground. The story works its way to a logical and rather bitter and uncompromising conclusion. The science is not terribly plausible (though I can think of ways to paper over the worst bits), but the description is good, and the action is sound. The story moves well and fascinates. And the prose is enjoyable as ever with Vance, if perhaps not tuned to the highest pitch of Vancean elegance.

In "The Last Castle", a group of decadent humans have returned to a long-abandoned Earth and set up an effete society in several "castles". The labour is performed by various genetically conditioned alien races. For example, the Phanes are beautiful elfin creatures sometimes used as sexual playthings. The Peasants perform menial chores. And the Meks are a hive-like species used to maintain the technological underpinnings. The Meks have finally revolted, and using their control of the technology, they have destroyed all the castles, until only the strongest, Castle Hagedorn, remains. The story turns on the ineffectual attempts of the humans to resist -- most are too concerned with their "honour", unable to sully themselves by any hint of labour, to put up a real resistance. Others refuse to kill aliens for what seems an arguably just rebellion anyway. Only a few see that the only hope for humanity is to regain a semblance of a work ethic and to cast off the decadent ways of the aristocratic society. The prose and characterization here is more effective than in "The Dragon Masters", but I thought the plot resolution less convincing.

This is an extremely welcome reissue. It is worth noting that the text is based on that of the Vance Integral Edition, the result of a wonderful project to create, in 44 volumes, a corrected edition of all of Vance's work, under the supervision of the author himself.

Copyright © 2003 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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