Star of Gypsies
by Robert Silverberg
Stunningly well-written, this is a book about a King of the Gypsies in the far future, where humankind has spread among the stars and the Romani are the only people who can navigate the ships that travel from sun to sun. Yakoub, the King, abdicated some years ago; now his brutal son has taken the throne, and Yakoub must face the responsibilities he abandoned. Sentence for sentence, this is easily the finest book by Silverberg that I’ve read, and one of the finest sf books I know. There’s a wealth of invention here that recalls Lord Valentine’s Planet, but the scope is even larger, and Silverberg creates societies and planets and larger-than-life personalities in glorious profusion.
That being said, I did often feel myself a bit detached from the story. That’s due to two reasons, I think. The first is that among all the extravagant characters in the book, Yakoub never finds (or admits to) a peer. He stands head and shoulders above all the other characters in the book, if only in his account; but then, while he certainly has a self-aggrandizing streak in him, I don’t think that estimation is wrong. In the long run, this tends to make the main story of the book less than gripping — his estranged son never really seems to have a chance. Basically, Yakoub comes up with a plan to remove him, executes the plan, and the plan pretty much goes just as he figured it would. Yakoub has no real rivals, and nobody to balance him or challenge him.
The other reason I felt a bit removed from the book was Silverberg’s decision to tell much of it in flashback, unreeling Yakoub’s early life in detail. He comes up with very elegant ways to introduce the flashbacks, and they’re as well-written as the rest of the book — in fact, they probably make up the majority of the book’s text. Silverberg gives Yakoub the ability to blur past and present; he can ‘ghost’ into the past, to be present at any point in history (this strikes me as a bit under-thought, though; it’d be a great way to spy on your enemies, but neither Yakoub nor anyone else ever uses it as such). He spends much of his time, then, observing or recalling his past. Effectively, the present-day story is like the surface tension on a lake, while the main part of the book, those past years, is the depths below. The problem is that the exploration of the depths makes the surface feel a bit thin. Oddly, I wonder if the present was less developed if I might have had an easier time with the book. But then again, as I say, perhaps it’s the mix of past and present (both of them looking toward the future) that’s the real point here.
So I’m hesitant to say that the problems I had with the book are real problems. They may well be cases of assumptions I made as a reader that were wrong-headed. Certainly the writing’s gorgeous, and Yakoub’s a vivid character — warm and clever, but so arrogant he’s difficult to warm up to; accomplished and yet flawed (I don’t feel I know anywhere near enough to speak knowledgeably about how he fits into traditions of romanticised depiction of the Romani; all I can say is that on its own terms, it seems to work). The depiction of the Romani as effectively an alien race is odd (it seems to relate to events in another of Silverberg's novels, Letters From Atlantis, which I have not read), but the depiction of their history is heartfelt, if not particularly novel. Mainly, the great strength of the book is its wildness, its invention, its unpredictability, and the elegance of its writing. As such, it’s well worth reading.