Drake Majistral is a minor aristocrat, traveling the area of human space that once was conquered by the alien Khosali but now is independent. He is not particularly well off, even given his rank of nobility, and so he makes his living as a professional “Allowed Burglar.” The rules are relatively simple for Allowed Burglars. Keep what you steal for 24 hours without getting caught; there’s no crime, and you can sell the item free and clear.
Easy money, right? The planet Peleng looks to have plenty of juicy targets for Drake, who is seeking to up his rankings in the Imperial Sporting Commission. And he can’t disappoint his fans. Drake is very nearly a celebrity, in certain circles. But when Drake steals an item that is of extreme interest to the powers that be in Human Space, in the old Khosali Empire, and beyond, Drake may have stolen the worst possible item in order to continue his profession. Or his life, for that matter.
The Crown Jewels (1987) is the first novel in Walter Jon Williams’ Drake Majistral sequence, a comedy of manners and errors, with wordplay, lots of physical comedy, wit, and cleverness. [The title of the novel itself is a pun.] Rogues have a honored place in the SF canon, and Drake is no exception. Rather than scruffy Han Solo, though, Drake is much more a creature of balls, and politics and social functions. The witticism, quip and cutting remark are much more Drake’s weapons than a blaster or a sword. (Drake avoids duels as much as possible). Making deals and plans during a formal dance? Plotting with his butler and crew how to break into a mark’s house? Avoiding a rather bloody-minded countess with a fondness for vicious croquet? These are the matter of Drake’s life.
The other joy, besides the fun plot machinations, is the mixed up and confused Earth history. Elvis is a major part of this confused remembered history, with Elvis impersonators a paying profession (and people sophisticated enough to know when a bad one is afoot). And yet, popular culture and conceptions of history, even about Elvis, are…muddled.
Once in his suite, Maijstral settled his unease by watching a Western till it was time to dress. This one, The Long Night of Billy The Kid, was an old-fashioned tragedy featuring the legendary rivalry between Billy and Elvis Presley for the affections of Katie Elder. Katie’s Heart belonged to Billy, but despite her tearful pleadings Billy rode the outlaw trail; and finally, brokenhearted Katie left Billy to go on tour with Elvis as a backup singer, while Billy rode on to his long-foreshadowed death at the hands of Greenhorn inventor-turned lawman Nikola Tesla.
The Crown Jewels is a light entertainment, a trifle to while away a slow rainy afternoon, or even better, to fulfill the need to immerse into a book on a long frustrating flight that has already had delays, the joys of the TSA and that crying baby two aisles up.
The real downside to the novel, though, for modern readers and for readers in general, is that this book is *too much* of a trifle, especially with regards to the characters. Without character growth, development or real depth, the novel is all veneer and surface plots and complications, without going much deeper. As a reader, I never was all that much invested in Drake, his companions, staff, friends and foes. Even a character death doesn’t have much gravitas to it at all. While the novel is breezy and airy, it is in the end a diversion that doesn’t last in the mind, and the playground of its imagination, while interesting, has faded somewhat in mind. I do think, though, that reading the sequels would quickly dump me back into Drake’s world.
Finally, what The Crown Jewels does is illustrate just how broadly Williams writes. The comedy of manners that the Drake novels are stand at variance with his post-Singularity City on Fire. Its certainly not the cyberpunk Hardwired. The Dread Empire series, although it also has a space empire, and humanity conquered by aliens, is a very different universe than the Majistral novels. Williams is a polymath, and the Drake Majistral novels help illustrate that his skills are wide and prolific indeed.