Star of Gypsies: A beautiful story about exile, wandering, and coming home

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStar of Gypsies by Robert Silverberg science fiction book reviewsStar of Gypsies by Robert Silverberg

In 3159 AD humans have spread across the universe, colonizing other planets. The spaceships that took them to the stars were piloted by the special “magic” of the Romany people. The Romany “Gypsies” have always been mistreated by the people of Earth who never realized their true history and nature. The Gypsies are not actually human. They are the remnant of an ancient race who escaped from their home planet thousands of years ago when it became inhospitable to life after its sun flared. According to prophecy, after the third solar flare the sun will be stable and the Romany can return home. Meanwhile, while they wait, the Gypsies have roamed the Earth and have used their skills to help humans get to space.

But it’s been so long, and as the Romany people have begun to settle down and get comfortable on other planets, their urgency to return home is diminishing. Because of this complacency, Yakoub, the beloved king of the Gypsies, abdicated in protest and has been in self-imposed exile on an uninhabited icy planet called Mulano for the past five years. He hasn’t been totally alone, though. The Gypsy magic allows some of the Romany people to “ghost,” which means that they can use electromagnetic energy to send their spirits out to other places and times. A few of Yakoub’s friends have come to beg him to return to his people. So far he has said no to all these requests. Then he learns that in the power vacuum he left, a scoundrel has named himself king of the Gypsies. Now Yakoub knows it’s time to return to his people, re-claim his kingship, and lead the Romany back to their homeland. He is ready to do this, but he does have one fear that he doesn’t want to admit to himself or anyone else…

Star of Gypsies is a beautiful story about exile, wandering, and homecoming. In some ways it appears to be an allegory for the Jewish exiles, dispersions, and homecomings but, as the title of the book implies, Robert Silverberg (who is Jewish) chooses to focus on the misunderstanding and mistreatment of the dispersed Romany people, a topic which we have been discussing recently. Using an exile motif, Silverberg explains why the Romany people have been so restless, why they wander, and why they are discriminated against. Along the way he also gives us the history of Atlantis, explains the origin of the Star of Bethlehem, explains how space travel could work (very cool), expresses nostalgia for the cities of Earth (a common theme in Silverberg’s work), concocts wonderfully creative meals, explains why war will never be obsolete (it’s simple physics), and amusingly prophesies that “in the twentieth or perhaps the twenty-first century… all knowledge became available at the push of a button and every jackass began to think that he knew everything.”

As you’d expect if you’ve read any of Silverberg’s stories, there are nature scenes of great beauty and horror on the planets Yakoub describes. I wish I could see the green-tentacled plants embedded in the frost outside Yakoub’s ice bubble house on the planet Mulano. I think I’ll take a pass on Megalo Kastro, though:

There are many life-forms on Megalo Kastro, nearly all of them large, predatory, and nasty. It’s a young world, as I say: this is its Mesozoic that’s going on now, and everything has fangs and scales. But the biggest life-form of all is one that is, thank God, unique to Megalo Kastro. The sea itself, I mean… That sea is alive. I don’t mean that it’s full of living things. I mean that it IS a living thing, a single malign entity with some sort of low-level intelligence. Or, for all anybody knows, intelligence on the genius level. It thinks. It perceives. You can actually observe its mental workings: questing ripples on its surface rising in little interrogative quivers, short-lived protuberances like exclamatory worms, puckered bubbling orifices that come and go. God knows what evolutionary process brought it into being. God knows, but no one else does. Scoop a section out to study it and all you have is a lump of watery mud, rapidly growing cool. And the thing from which it was taken lies there with its feet basking in the warmth of Megalo Kastro’s subterranean magma and its arms resting on the shores of far-flung continents, laughing at you. And it will eat you if you give it the chance.

Yikes! If you want to think about what extraterrestrial worlds and species might look like, read Silverberg. His alien nature scenes are one of my favorite features of his writing. I also love all of the little throwaway imaginative details he includes in his stories:

We drank and ate and ate and drank and I waited for him to make his appeal, but instead he talked only of family things, the cousins on Kalimaka who were pulling transuranic elements out of their sun and selling them to all corners, and the ones on Iriarte who had gambled away five solar systems on a single toss of the dice and then had won them all back before dawn, and those of Shurarara who without even bothering to ask permission of the Imperium had yanked their world out of orbit and were taking it off into nomadry, telling everyone that they were going to leave the galaxy entirely. That last astounded me… What will they use for a sun…?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAny of those ideas could be the basis of an entire novel, but Silverberg has so many ideas that he can just throw them away. I wish I had the time and space to tell you all about the giant male salizonga snail whose dung is coveted on 5000 worlds, the planet Mentiroso where the terror that’s in the air is bottled and sold for thrills, the eye-tooth of a sanguinosaur which has the complete text of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius inscribed on it, the planet Xamur where the air is perfume and where drinking from the sea causes euphoria, the tunneling worms of Alta Hannalanna who carry a parasite that creates a type of jade (the harvesting of the jade is so disgusting!), the planet made of gold which caused the metal to become worthless as a unit of commerce, and the family that renovates and resells undesirable planets. There are so many more of these little inventive incidentals in Star of Gypsies. I love that about Silverberg.

Star of Gypsies won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 1987. The audio version has recently (September 2015) been produced by Skyboat Media and Blackstone Audio. It’s narrated by Stefan Rudnicki. Anyone who regularly reads my audiobook reviews knows what I’m going to say next: Rudnicki, an award-winning narrator, is one of my very favorite performers and I am always happy with the production and performance of any audiobooks he works on. His deep baritone is perfect for Yakoub’s story. Star of Gypsies is 16 hours long.

Published in 1986. Yakoub was once the legendary King of the Rom, the Gypsy race that has evolved from the days of caravans into lords of the spaceways – the only pilots capable of steering ships safely between the many worlds of the Galaxy. Weary and proud, Yakoub has relinquished his power and lives in exile on a distant, icy world. In his absence, chaos fills the vacuum of power. The fate of the entire Galactic Empire hangs in the balance. Yakoub must journey across the cosmos and fight to regain his throne. Only then can he fulfill his dream – to return his people to their ancestral home of Romany Star. The Rom need the Yakoub of legend once more. Can the once-mighty King overcome time and tyranny and inspire his people in their darkest hour?

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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4 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    Haven’t read THIS one yet, Kat! It sounds terrific. Thanks for this review! Any book with priceless snail dung is fine by me!

  2. This really does sound like a beautiful story, Kat!

  3. Sounds like an amazing book. You can’t go wrong with the combination of Silverberg and Rudnicki!

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