The protagonist: a serial murderer. The antagonist: a woman seeking to solve the mystery of her own death. Jack Vance through these hoary clichés gives life to a far-future society, where death is the last taboo and immortality is the prize awarded to one of every two thousand citizens. For the other 1,999, the high black car of the Assassins will come at a specified hour to take them away.
Early in the book, Gavin Waylock, the protagonist, who has been hiding out for the seven years required to prove the death of his earlier identity as one of the immortal Amaranth caste, resolves to climb the slope of society and win again a place in Amaranth. He did it once as a journalist; he can do it again in another discipline.
His efforts to find a place in society are continually foiled by The Jacynth Martin, the woman who sees through his new guise and identifies him as The Grayven Warlock, the notorious Amaranth-caste murderer. Gavin’s original crime and his murder of The Jacynth are only temporary, however: each victim has a spare body ready and therefore suffers only a temporary loss of consciousness.
This could all be safely left on the shelf, unread, as thrills-and-spills literature, except for Vance’s creativity and wry humor in his characterization and exposition. His description of a pantomime performance is breathtakingly beautiful, even as the mime herself is revealed to be a self-indulgent brat, and the concept of the congealed-water sculpture (and the sententious spaceman sculptor character responsible) is the kind of impossible-in-real-life artifact that only literature can supply.
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