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Star Of Gypsies by Robert Silverberg

01/11/2006. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy Star Of Gypsies in the USA - or Buy Star Of Gypsies in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 508 page enlarged paperback. Price: $15.00 (US). ISBN: 1-59102-309-2.

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'Star Of Gypsies' is the story of Yakoub, the King of the Gypsies, or Rom as they are known in the 32nd century. The Gypsy King only rules his own kind but he is an important figure in an Empire that spans many stars. The tale begins with Yakoub in self-imposed exile on an isolated icy world, having abdicated his throne.

The novel is written in the first person and much of it reminded me of 'God Knows!', Joseph Heller's hefty tome about King David, albeit without the jokes. As the present day plot unfolds, Yakoub often launches into reminiscences about his past life. He was born a slave that shows us not only his won history and character but also the wonders of the universe. Robert Silverberg is a past master at this Science Fiction lark and his invention does not fail him here. There are strange planets with intriguing ecosystems and terrifying life forms. Realistically, man involves himself with these creatures for commercial gain - their dung makes perfume, their excreted parasites make valuable jewellery. It is slaves that do the dirty, dangerous work. The worst world is a place that bottles the slaves' own terror for export.

The Rom, like the Jews, are a tribe set apart in their own eyes from the rest of mankind - the Gaje as they call us - yet mingled with humanity across the galaxy. Because of some quirk in their souls, they are superb at steering ships through the 'jump' into hyperspace. Most pilots, therefore, are Rom and they are essential to commerce. Several planets are entirely populated by Gypsies and they do their best to survive and prosper while waiting to fulfil their destiny.

I won't give that destiny away in a review but it is Yakoub's chief purpose in life. His abdication ploy having backfired, he must defeat his own son to get the crown back, then get involved with three contenders for the Imperial throne in deadly political intrigue. Yakoub is like Moses, always trying to do what is best for his people.

He believes in God, too, and destiny. At the heart of the novel is the idea that the future is just as firmly written as the past, already fixed and unchangeable. This philosophy is familiar from 'The Stochastic Man', one of the best books in Silverberg's long and brilliant career. In this story, it is linked to the Gypsy skill of 'ghosting', visiting the past in spirit form to watch events, even being seen there by other Rom. Telling them the future is utterly forbidden, though hints can be dropped. 'Ghosting' is a recreational pastime for the Rom.

'Star Of Gypsies' was first published in 1986, but it has not dated in any way. Silverberg is a master of his craft and doesn't put a foot wrong. Yakoub is a great character, full of vigour, humanity and passion. This is a wonderful space opera and I highly recommend it.

Eamonn Murphy

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