The Moon Moth

by Jack Vance
Reviewed date: 2013 Dec 12
Rating: 3
128 pages
cover art

Edwer Thissell, the Earth consul on Sirene, struggles to learn the local customs. On Sirene, it is customary to cover one's face with a decorative mask. One's social status, or strakh, determines which masks are acceptable. Strict etiquette governs the unique Sirenese mode of language: all speech is sung, accompanied by small musical instruments, which the people carry with them. There are a dozen instruments, and their proper use is dictated by the social situation. Failure to follow the intricate social protocols is a grievous offense that often proves fatal to foreigners.

Thissell can play only six of the Sirenese instruments, and poorly. His strakh is low; the only mask he can wear is the Moon Moth.

The assassin Haxo Angmark arrives on Sirene. Angmark escapes Thissell, then murders one of the few foreigners in Sirene, and assumes his identity. Because everyone is masked in public at all times, identifying Angmark is difficult.

Thissell determines which foreigner is Angmark by examining the masks he wears. Each of these foreigners--Rolver, Welibus, and Kershaul--has sufficient strakh to wear any number of masks. Thissell notices a change in the pattern of which masks that Welibus wears: while Welibus preferred Chalekun, the Prince Intrepid, and the Seavain, Angmark masquerading as Welibus had worn the Emerald Mountain, the Triple Phoenix, and the Shark God.

Thissell confronts Angmark, and it nearly costs him his life. Angmark puts on the Moon Moth and pretends to be Thissell; then he unmasks Thissell and drags him out in public, expecting Thissell to be killed for the offense of appearing with a naked face.

The Sirenese do not oblige. Instead, thinking he is Thissell, they kill Angmark for crimes of etiquette that Thissell had committed earlier. Then Thissell spins the situation to his advantage: he convinced the Sirenese that his actions--appearing unmasked in public--were an act of bravery to defeat his enemy. The Sirenese agree, and Thissell's strakh rises.

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