fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Star Kings by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsThe Star Kings by Edmond Hamilton

Up until recently, my only familiarity with Ohio-born Edmond Hamilton had been via his short stories, and mainly through the exceptionally fine 1977 collection The Best of Edmond Hamilton. And indeed, who could ever forget such sci-fi tales as “The Man Who Evolved,” “Thundering Worlds,” “What’s It Like Out There?” and “Requiem”; such a charming fantasy as “He That Hath Wings”; and such well-done pieces of horror as “The Monster-God of Mamurth” (Hamilton’s first published story, which appeared in the 8/26 issue of Weird Tales when he was only 21) and the masterpiece “The Man Who Returned”? But Hamilton was also, of course, one of the originators of Golden Age space opera, with dozens such novellas and serials to his credit; indeed, his Captain Future tales would go on to appear in over a dozen volumes alone. Not for nothing did Hamilton acquire the sobriquet “The World Wrecker”! But of all those many titles, the book that seems to have proved his most popular over the decades is The Star Kings. Initially appearing in toto (!) in the 9/47 issue of Amazing Stories (cover price: 25 cents), the novel was finally published in book form in 1949. Essentially a galaxy-spanning update of Anthony Hope’s 1894 Ruritanian classic The Prisoner of Zenda, the book proved to be a wonderful entertainment for this reader, now 68 years after its initial appearance.

In The Star Kings, the reader makes the acquaintance of John Gordon, an ex-bomber pilot who, three years after the conclusion of WW2, finds himself bored to distraction by his accounting job in a NYC insurance office. His life is given a decided jolt one night as he lies in bed, suddenly in mental communication with the scientist Prince Zarth Arn, son of the ruler of the Mid-Galactic Empire, over 200,000 years in the future (202,115, to be precise)! Zarth Arn, desirous of exploring the barbarous Earth society of the mid-20th century, offers to Gordon a remarkable proposition: Through his superscience, Zarth Arn will inhabit Gordon’s body for six weeks, while Gordon’s psyche will flash forward to inhabit the prince’s, and thus learn about the far-distant future. Gordon, after several more stultifying days at work, agrees to the deal (Employers take note: It’s remarkable to what lengths a man will go to escape from a dreary job!), and before long, finds himself inhabiting the prince’s body in a secret Himalayan laboratory 200,000 years hence. But trouble soon arises, when dastardly upstart Shorr Kan — leader of the League of Dark Worlds, which reside in the galaxy’s largest cloud nebula — tries to overthrow the Mid-Galactic Empire, and induce the other star kingdoms (the Baronies of Hercules; the Fomalhaut Kingdom; the kingdoms of Lyra, Cygnus and Polaris) to break their alliance with it.

A kidnapping attempt on Zarth/Gordon is foiled, but Zarth’s ruler father, Arn Abbas, immediately demands that he return to the Empire capital of Throon, a planet of Canopus, to aid in the upcoming conflict. Thus, Gordon is soon embroiled in a galactic war, resulting in intrigue in the imperial palace, the machinations of traitors, an arranged marriage to a Fomalhaut princess (while trying to keep Zarth’s child-wife happy), a frame-up for murdering his father, mental torture by Shorr Kan’s scientists, a crash-landing on a planet filled with liquefying mutants, and his being compelled to use the galaxy’s most fearsome weapon — the Disruptor, the secret of which only the royal family members possess. Yes, it’s quite a lot for John Gordon to deal with, all while trying to keep his promise to Zarth Arn that he will not reveal to anyone the truth about his inhabiting the prince’s body… and, of course, while trying to get back to Zarth’s laboratory on Earth, so that he might get his old body back in the 20th century…

Hamilton is not exactly an elegant writer here, and those seeking poetic, exquisitely fashioned prose on the order of, say, Clark Ashton Smith may be a tad disappointed with the verbiage on display in The Star Kings. Rather, Hamilton writes in a clean, simple pulp style, and his story really does move; indeed, it is remarkable how much action and vigorous adventure he manages to squeeze into a 190-page book. Characterizations are not overly deep; rather, color, sweep and galactic scope predominate, with every chapter ending in cliffhanger fashion and every page boasting some new wonder. Lovers of vintage space opera will surely be left happily grinning. Some of the scientific wonders here truly do boggle the mind (for example, starships travel at 200 parsecs an hour; that’s over 600 light-years an hour, or 200 times 18 trillion miles an hour; try wrapping your mind around that!), and Hamilton makes poor John Gordon’s plight ever more complicated, culminating with his using the dreaded Disruptor in the heat of battle (a fairly complexly detailed space battle, I must say) after having been named regent of the entire Mid-Galactic Empire! Besides Shorr Kan, who is a wonderful villain (and an oddly likable one), the novel also boasts any number of lesser bad guys, minions, traitors and spies, most of whom have memorable and violent set-tos with Zarth/Gordon. Hamilton takes some time to flesh out his worlds with vivid descriptions (Throon sounds lovely, with its three moons and glass mountains; Thallarna, the capital planet of the dark nebula, suitably dreary; the planet of the mutants in the Orion Nebula, quite nightmarish) and to give Gordon some romantic moments with the Fomalhaut princess, Lianna, but basically, the novel is on overdrive from beginning to end; most readers should devour it at a breathless pace.

Good as it is, The Star Kings yet contains a few boo-boos on the part of its author. We never learn just why Prince Zarth Arn makes Gordon promise to never reveal his imposture, and Hamilton makes a faulty prediction when he states that Man had reached Mars and Venus with “atomic-powered rockets” by the end of the 20th century. But Hamilton’s biggest mistake is in telling the reader that the dreaded Disruptor (which seems to be almost a stand-in for the recently released atomic bomb) had last been used to repel alien invaders from the Magellanic Clusters in the year 129,411, and later having Shorr Kan state that that event had been 2,000 years earlier. But if the current year of the story really is 202,115, wouldn’t that have been more like 72,000 years earlier? I’m confused! But this last is a mere quibble, and one that most readers will never even notice as they get helplessly sucked into Hamilton’s epic tale.

The Star Kings, as it turns out, had several sequels: Return to the Stars, which is comprised of several linked stories featuring, I believe, Gordon returning in his own body to the far-distant future; the cleverly titled story “Stark and the Star Kings,” which conflates the Hamilton star kingdoms with Leigh Brackett’s (Hamilton’s wife) most famous character, Eric John Stark; and another volume of short stories, The Last of the Star Kings. I greatly look forward to reading these works in my own, personal future … and much sooner than 200 centuries from now! “Who would credit such a crazy story?” Gordon asks himself early on, but somehow, via his great narrative skills, Hamilton DOES make us buy into his epic tale, and the result is Golden Age space opera at its very finest. More than highly recommended!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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