Series: Durdane 3
Reviewed date: 2006 May 21
The Asutra is the final book of Jack Vance's Durdane trilogy. It helps to read the previous books, but is not entirely necessary; I enjoyed The Asutra despite not having read book two of the series.
Plot synopsis: If you can imagine Jack Vance writing Heinlein's Puppet Masters, you'll have a pretty accurate conception of The Asutra. The setting is Durdane, an out-of-the-way planet with a civilization approximately equivalent to Renaissance-era Earth, but with a distinctively foreign, other-worldly culture. Durdane has just gone through social upheaval, having ousted a dictator and also defeated an attack by the Roguskhoi, a subhuman anthropoid that coexists with humans on Durdane.
One Durdanian, Gastel Etzwane, knows that the Roguskhoi attack was far more than it appeared. The Roguskhoi were under the direction of parasitic mind-controling aliens known as the asutra. Although the Roguskhoi experiment failed, Gastel fears the asutra will be back. Gastel enlists the help of Ifness, an undercover researcher from Earth. But as they follow clues to uncover information about the asutra, their origin, and their plans, Gastel realizes Ifness cares nothing for the safety of Durdane, but rather is seeking to turn the situation to his personal advantage. Gastel requires Ifness's help--particularly his advanced Earth technology--if he is to protect Durdane from the asutra, but now he must outwit Ifness too.
The trail of clues eventually leads to Gastel and Ifness to Caraz, a remote part of Durdane where there are rumors of another Roguskhoi attack. In Caraz, the people report not only a Roguskhoi problem, but also describe seeing powerful spaceships and strange aliens. In the course of investigating, Gastel is captured by the asutra and taken to a labor camp on an unknown planet; he realizes that Ifness--despite all his promises of help--will never take any risks to rescue him. Gastel is faced with a nearly impossible task: he must escape, steal a spaceship, learn to pilot it, and return to Durdane.
I enjoy Jack Vance's style of writing, but I've noticed he has a few bad habits. 1) All his settings are bucolic planets that have knowledge of but little contact with a technologically advanced galactic civilization. 2) Vance often relegates climactic plot elements to offstage action. Both these devices allow Vance to give his rich, intriguing cultures the center stage, but the storytelling suffers. The anticipated denouement in The Asutra happens entirely offstage and is recounted only in a casual conversation between Ifness and Gastel.
The Asutra is a decent story but not representative of Vance's best work. If you want to read something by Vance, skip this one and read one of his better-known books instead. I suggest The Languages of Pao.