A blast from the past this one, 1996 to be precise, and another in the SF Masterworks series.
There are times when this book reads like a ghost story, other times an SF novel and occasionally a boy’s own adventure. It’s also one of those books in which you can see the modern world portrayed in all its nastiness, and humanity in all its variety.
Jaro was found by two academics, being beaten by a group of youngsters on another world. When they took him to see a doctor they discovered that there were recent memories that were preventing him from healing, so they had those memories erased.
They adopted him, took him home and raised him as their own son.
The society in which Jaro is raised is rigidly defined with various groups on the pyramid to the top, such as the clam-muffins, and with each person expected to climb this pyramid in order to achieve greatness. Jaro, like his parents and many others, has no desire to climb. Instead he wants to travel the galaxy and sets his heart on being a spaceman, something which his professorial parents do not like.
As he grows up, he’s haunted by nightmares of a strange place and a stranger voice, the origin of which is revealed later in the book. His parents take him to be cured and he is, after some time. The origin of this voice and the consequences of being cut off from it are revealed, with tragic results.
After his parents’ death at the hands of a mad bomber, he inherits everything, is released from his obligations to continue his study, buys a ship and begins to travel in search of his origins, meeting his father just before he sets off. Such is Vance’s storytelling ability that you are surprised and not surprised at the same time.
What is revealed from this point on is a tale of greed and violence and what happens when you let an elite run a world for their own benefit. This may not have been meant as a satire, but the hierarchical status on many worlds, especially the world on which his mother’s killer is found, is a mirror of any free-market society run by a small class of people.
Jaro has two love interests, one is a woman more similar to himself than either realise, and one woman who sees him as a toy, something Jaro is well aware of but plays along with, something that could easily ruin him and his adoptive parents.
The story is full of reveals, strange and interesting worlds and a discovery which leaves Jaro conflicted and also in deadly peril. You’re never sure what’s going on in the background, but when all is tied up at the end, left satisfied.
A good book by a great author.