Robert Silverberg, Star of Gypsies (PYR, 2005)
Speculative fiction, by which I mean that category that includes both fantasy and science fiction and their hybrids, has accumulated over the years a group of larger-than-life characters: Ralph 124C41+, the cat girl C'Mell, Jubal Harshaw, R. Daneel Olivaw, the Mule, Paul Atreides -- I'm sure each of us has a list. Add to it Yakoub Nirano, Rom baro, King of the Gypsies in a future still a thousand years ahead of us, courtesy of Robert Silverberg.
I remember Silverberg from my early years as a science fiction addict, which was also early in his career, when he turned out a series of workmanlike and good but not exceptional stories. Then something changed. Suddenly, we were graced with the likes of Thorns, Nightwings, and Dying Inside -- potent, magical, poetic stories that opened up a new dimension of what science fiction could be.
Star of Gypsies, originally published in 1986 and now reissued, is one of Silverberg's best. The book is truly epic in scale, not only in traversing the known galaxy, but in traversing the realms of the past. Imagine that the star ship Enterprise is captained by Zorba the Greek -- or better yet, that Zorba is his own star ship (the marvels of modern technology) and his own time machine (a gift that only the Rom possess). Imagine also that this man is king of a race that has been exiled for many thousands of years, suffered ostracism, persecution, vilification, but most of all, loss of their home. (Yakoub is at pains to point out that the Gypsies never had a king until they led the rest of humanity into space, and then it became a practical necessity.) Imagine that it is almost time for the Gypsies to return to that home, the Romany Star, as an ancient prophecy says they will.
Yakoub is an astute politician, with long practice at landing on his feet. He has abdicated (which is not really possible among the Rom) as a way of waking his people up, forcing a crisis among the Rom to bring them back to the traditional ways and ready them for the return to the Romany Star. Unfortunately, Yakoub's abdication coincides with a crisis in the succession of the Empire of which the Rom kingdom is part. Yes, well, we do what we must to survive.
Fine. There's a plot. Very honestly, I don't think I would have cared very much if there hadn't been. (Note: Nothing much happened in the novel until I got to Book II. I didn't care.) The book is about Yakoub, and Yakoub is the book -- expansive, shrewd, earthy, cynical and innocent, completely captivating, and Silverberg does him justice. The book is rich, inventive, with possibilities flying like fireworks, and Silverberg's prose is magnetic and compelling.
[Robert M. Tilendis]