The origins of the people we call Gyspies have always been in question; historians claiming they originate from areas as diverse as Turkey, Romania and even Egypt. Robert Silverberg makes great use of these mysterious origins by pushing it even further in his newest novel, Star of Gypsies. In the world of this novel, the gypsies, or Rom as they call themselves, immigrated to Earth thousands of years ago from a distant world and became a part of our society. Or at least the fringes of our society. Living on the edge in their own way, they developed into a nomadic people made infamous by their image as fortune tellers, thieves, and scam artists. Their natural predilections for journeying long distances and an unusual knack for piloting makes them instrumental in the development of mankind's space age; without the Rom it's quite apparent that mankind may have floundered and found themselves trapped on an Earth ravaged of all its natural resources.
The Rom use their new unique position to gain some measure of power, and establish their own loosely connected kingdom within the growing empire of man. Although technically science fiction, this future universe of the Rom holds equals levels of fantasy. Alongside starships and suspended animation lie centuries-old prophecies, and ghosts. At the book's opening, Yakoub, king of the Roms, lives on the barren, cold world of Mulano. Although still technically king, Yakoub left his throne behind to focus on a way to take his people back to the long lost home they call Romany Star. After three long years in isolation he receives word that a new upstart has taken over the mantle of Rom king, a cruel and terriying man named Shandor who happens to be Yakoub's oldest son. When Yakoub returns to reclaim his throne he finds himself immeshed not only in a political fight for control over his own throne but a burgeoning civil war within the empire of mankind.
As a first-person narrative, this book's a rarity in science fiction that focuses not on action but on character. Yakoub's storyteller voice is so strong I can't imagine this tale being told in any other fashion. Reading Yakoub's words, I get the feeling like I just sat down next to someone at a bar and am listening to odd little pieces of his fascinating life. Because it has an almost oral tradition feel to it, the novel interweaves the main story line with a series of colorful flashbacks and diversions. While the flashbacks do enhance the main plotline here and there, most give Silverberg the opportunity to build on our understanding of Yakoub. In lesser hands this novel would be a mess, but Silverberg maintains tight control over the flow. We relive his early days as a slave, watch him work and scheme hard enough to win his freedom and eventually claim the throne of all his people. Behind all the political manipulations, murders and explosions Star of Gypsies is ultimately a portrait of Yakoub, and it's a portrait well worth reading.