The Five Gold Bands
Reviewed date: 2012 Jan 11
The Five Gold Bands is an early Jack Vance work. It displays his signature style, but in an early, undeveloped form. The story is simple and straightforward, with few plot twists.
The backdrop, which Vance reveals bit by bit, is an interstellar civilization controlled by the five Sons of Langtry, hereditary Lords who hold the secret to faster-than-light space drive. The Sons of Langtry sell sealed, tamperproof drive units to various planets on a strict quota system, allowing no planet to gain enough power or influence to challenge the Sons of Langtry.
Paddy Blackthorn is arrested while attempting to steal a space drive. He is sentenced to death, but first he is sent to serve as an interpreter at a secret meeting of the five Sons of Langtry. Paddy attempts to escape the meeting, and manages to accidentally kill the Sons of Langtry. Paddy takes their five gold bands, which contain clues to the location of the equations that hold the secret to the space drive. All Paddy has to do is follow those five clues, combine the equations, and deliver the knowledge to Earth. Mankind will be freed from the oppression of the Langtry Sons.
With help from Special Earth Agent Fay Bursill, Paddy follows the clues and obtains the equations. Unfortunately, while attempting to locate the final equations on Koton, Paddy and Fay are captured by the new Son of Langtry. They bargain--they promise to give up the other four sets of equations in exchange for their lives. Here, Fay holds a secret: she has memorized the equations, so if she can escape with her life, she can return to Earth and the space drive will be public knowledge.
Despite double-crossing on both sides, Fay and Paddy do manage to escape with their lives. The book ends with them about to deliver the precious knowledge to Earth.