Far in the future, young Ghyl rebels against the system that would have him carve wood his whole life, without hope of luxury or travel. He is raised by his thoughtful, brave, but slightly unworldly father. His father teaches him to read archaic script, including the ancient covenant of their world and the legend of Emphyrio. Inspired, Ghyl first tries to run for mayor, but this leads to his father's arrest and eventual death. Then he and his friends sieze a space yacht, only to find that they can squeeze no ransom out of their kidnapped lords. His friends want to kill the lords, or sell them into slavery, but he convinces them to set him and the lords down on a nearby planet instead. Ghyl tries to keep his former captives alive, but not only do they completely lack survival instincts, they refuse to take his suggestions. Disgusted, he leaves them behind. When he reaches a city, he finds that the crafts for which he and his people have been recieving mere living stipends are considered priceless, and kept in museums. Disguised as an off-worlder, Ghyl returns to his homeland to try to break the trade monopoly But the power structure of his world is immovable, and he is captured and sentenced to death. Ghyl manages to escape being crushed to death, and instead realizes the great secret of his world. The lords and ladies who demand his people's servitude are not human at all--they are literally puppets of an alien race! Simply by declaring this aloud (with no social standing or proof at all), he causes the people to riot and the puppet lords to flee the planet. PLUS, then Ghyl's planet demands the aliens give back all their stolen treasure, plus interest, and although the aliens have mighty warriors and at least as much tech as Ghyl's people (who I'm not even sure have a military or interplanetary weapons--certainly it would make no sense for them to have them, given that they've been ruled by aliens who want to keep them powerless), the aliens immediately give in. There's no description of what monetary system or hierarchy the newly-freed people use, nor any indication of what kind of monumental societal changes the loss of the welfare system and nobility created, but there IS a description of the "plaque of polished obsidian" Ghyl gets that says he's the bestest ever. And thus ends the novel.
I read this in the same spirit as a child eating their vegetables. I've never yet enjoyed "classic" sf (a category in which I throw Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc), but I feel like I ought to read it in order to properly understand and appreciate the genre. The Worlds Without End Grand Masters Challenge
provided the prod to do so. It was better than much of the trashy fantasy I read, but not by much. Although ostensibly sf, the tech obeys no physical laws--Ghyl never worries about running out of spaceship fuel, nor is there any explanation for how any of the tech works, and the alien construct creatures make no logical sense. The childhood of Ghyl is described in interminable detail, to no point I could discern. The dialog is stilted and unbelievable, like a mix of Dostoyevsky-translated-into-English and Socratic dialogs. Ghyl has the same vocabulary and thoughts as a nine-year-old as he does as an adult. He is a bit of a cypher; the other characters have even less personality. And the plot just doesn't make sense. BUT. The female characters are not treated any differently than the male by the author (although they do still follow 20th century roles, and are only present in the story as love-interests). Some effort was clearly put into the world-building; certain details are very vivid.
To my mind, this book would have been much better if it had been either been much shorter or a bit longer. As a novel, the pacing is very ragged: we spend chapter upon chapter watching Ghyl grow up, and then no time at all on the revolution or rebuilding of his world. For a book that's so focused on Emphyrio, legendary for his rebellion, and spends so much time in dialog about freedom, the focus of what is actually shown seems backward. Alternately, if every part of the story was as rushed as the climax, the first half wouldn't be so out-of-place and boring.
I don't intend to read any more by Vance--but I don't regret reading this. It's got at least a few ideas to it, and the descriptive text (if not the dialog) are good.