REVIEW: Dark Prince by Keith Herber

Dark Prince by Keith Herber is the first full-length novel for the World of Darkness and, more specifically, Vampire: The Masquerade setting. It was published in 1994 and introduced the character of Vannevar Thomas (popularized by web series LA by Night). It also imagined a complicated interlocking web of undead politics taking place behind closed doors in San Fransisco.

Dark PrinceWith that history lesson out of the way, I’m going to admit my horrible bias towards this book. I read this book when it first came out in 1994 and would buy it used a couple of more times. It’s not just a good Vampire: The Masquerade story or even a good vampire story but a good novel period. It’s gritty, dark, and incorporates all the weirdness of the World of Darkness without requiring any knowledge of the setting beforehand.

Indeed, that is probably my main selling point for Dark Prince. The lore of tabletop RPGs, especially the World of Darkness, is often impenetrable to outsiders. You either get too much of it and can’t enjoy it unless you’re already a player like the Clan Novels or they just go with the vampire horror element a la Walks Among Us and you don’t have enough to differentiate it. Here, the story manages to capture the interlocking web of politics, horror, and characterization to make a perfect example of what Vampire: The Masquerade should be. Just one small problem: the main character in Dark Prince is a complete scumbag. Another is, well, let’s just say this isn’t necessarily the most culturally sensitive book in the world either.

The premise is San Fransisco in 1994 where a particularly scummy Caitiff vampire named Sullivan is intimidating prostitutes under his control and shaking them down for twenties. Sullivan works for the Family, a group of Chinese vampires who have been working the docks since the 19th century and don’t seem to follow the Cainite clan structure but are still able to make their own. Sullivan is neither particularly smart nor insightful but he’s doggedly loyal. So much so that the Family has kept him on despite the fact they only Embraced him as an intermediary with the white criminal element.

Unfortunately, for Sullivan, Kindred power games don’t care if you’re loyal or not and he’s soon set up as a traitor to the mysterious Grandfather. Sullivan finds himself bouncing from one faction to the next in San Fransisco, trying to find someone who will protect him from his sire. This includes the Anarchs, Prince, Primogen, old friends, and even older enemies. Sullivan soon finds out that his banal street level of evil has nothing on elder vampires or the Sabbat. He also finds himself shamed by vampires who tried to help others during the AIDS crisis among other human tragedies.

Dark Prince knows how to keep a careful balance between lore and character development. Garou, hunters, a frigging Bane, and (arguably) the Kuei-Jin show up in the book, but you’re never overwhelmed. The focus is entirely on Sullivan realizing he’s wasted his vampire life and debating whether or not he should try to become a better person or pursue something more meaningful than being the exact sort of low-level scum he’s been for a century. As you might guess, power and prestige don’t go well with personal growth. Neither does maintaining any sense of freedom or command over your own destiny.

I really recommend Dark Prince if you want to get started in the World of Darkness but also note that, well, the lead is a scummy pimp who only begins to become someone you don’t want to see staked for the sun later. Also, there’s the koala scene. Let’s just say that the Sabbat don’t get any sympathy in this book. They’re very much of the irredeemable monster interpretation even if they talk a good game about freedom. Still, it’s got a lot of drama, and the ending is superb. I’m glad Dark Prince is available back in print after twenty years.

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CT Phipps

CT Phipps

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He's the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer's Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine.