BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of Yakoub, the King of the Gypsy race known as the Rom, chronicles his rise to power (from student to slave to merchant to King) and his quest to return his people to their mother planet, Romany Star.
PROS: Exceptional storytelling; strong lead character; lots of wondrous worlds; never boring.
CONS: The Gypsies’ ghosting ability, while cool, seemed like a half-explored plot device.
BOTTOM LINE: Robert Silverberg is a master storyteller.
Star of Gypsies was first published in 1986 and its 2005 reprint from Pyr is well-deserved. Like Nightwings, Star of Gypsies proves that Robert Silverberg’s storytelling abilities make him more than worthy of the title of Grandmaster.
The backdrop and plot go like this:
The universe is populated by two human races: the Rom and the Gaje. Millennia ago, the Rom fled their home because of their volatile sun, Romany Star, and eventually evolved into the Gypsies of old Earth. By the 32nd century, they have integrated themselves with the other humans, the Gaje. Both races coexist in an uneasy peace; while the Gaje vastly outnumber the Rom, only the Rom can pilot the starships that spread mankind through the galaxy. At the same time, the Rom are frequently indentured as slaves to the Gaje, working for them to buy back their freedom. Both races have formed a monarchy: while the Gaje live under the rule of an emperor, the Rom are led by a Gypsy King. (While Democracy works within small geographic boundaries it has proven to be impossible to scale it to universal proportions.)
The current Gypsy King is Yakoub and, as the story opens, he has abdicated his throne and fled to the tranquility of the ice planet of Mulano. The galaxy is subsequently thrown into chaos as the Empire experiences leadership troubles of their own. With no Rom King to help, the universe is surely headed for war. To prevent it, Yakoub must regain his throne, restore order to the galaxy and, while he’s at it, fulfill his destiny of leading his people home to Romany Star, the star of Gypsies. (Hey, that’s a good name for a book!)
The first thing that I immediately liked about this novel (and continued enjoying in every single scene) was the wonderfully strong characterization of Yakoub. His first-person narrative was filled with attitude and gusto that elicited smiles and made him seem real. You just gotta love the guy. He’s a tough leader who doesn’t take guff from anyone, least of all a Gaje. (In a few scenes, within a single conversation, he has the boldness to alternately admit and deny any abdication at all. This, of course, confuses those who come to entice him off Mulano for purposes of supporting their own Gaje lords’ bid for Emperor. Those chain-yanking scenes were a hoot! )
Other characters, while not as strong as Yakoub, are just as interesting. The three Lords battling for the seat of the Emperor (Lord Sunteil, who employs a Rom named Chorian to do his dirty work; Lord Periandros, a schemer through and through; Lord Naria, cowardly but determined to grab power) have distinct personalities. Yakoub’s friends and family (the French-food-loving Julien de Gramont; close friend and fellow slave Polarca; Yakoub’s inherently evil son, Shandor) round out the well-drawn cast.
Yakoub’s rise to the throne is told to the reader in flashback scenes that show Yakoub hopping across worlds, from one perilous and adventurous situation to the next; from student to slave to merchant to King. Every episode of his earlier life was another unique and wonder-filled mini-story within the larger story of his attempts to return to the throne and bring his people home. The present-day thread was interesting as well as it was an enjoyable blend of political intrigue, manipulations, misplaced loyalties and the always-welcome dose of backstabbing. Every scene was intensely interesting. Period.
Taken together, I am simply floored by Silverberg’s storytelling ability. Sure, the plot is interesting to begin with, but it takes more than a good plot to make a story this enjoyable. The way the author weaves the plot lines together, driving the story forward while worlds of wonder pass inside your mind, is just astonishing. I am convinced that Robert Silverberg can take Goldilocks and the Three Bears and turn it into a masterpiece. Truly, Silverberg is a master of the craft.
My only misgiving, and it’s a minor one, was in the Roms’ ability to “ghost”. With this ability, the Roms can project themselves into the past where they may appear as ghostly apparition to select individuals with whom they can communicate. While Romany protocol dictates that the dreaded time paradox be avoided through the withholding of vital information, I can’t help thinking that it was an unfortunate handicap to put on a plot device that could have been used to greater effect. However, the ghosting scenes were just too cool to dislike them in any significant manner.
In the end, I am left with the feeling that I was in the presence of a master storyteller who could take wonder, adventure, intrigue and chutzpah and weave them into a damn fine tale.