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Review – Vampire: The Masquerade: Dark Prince by Keith Herber

What is Dark Prince?

Vampire Cannibalism — The Ultimate Crime

Sullivan was a working stiff, a before-the-mast sailor, when he was taken in by the Family almost 150 years ago. They gave him immortality — and an undying hunger for human blood.

Since then, Sullivan has been on the prowl. And what better place for a night creature than modern San Francisco, its streets crowded with runaways, drifters, tourists, violent gangs, and nameless punks? Food is plentiful. Even food for the darkest hungers of the inhuman heart.

But San Francisco is more than just a hunting ground. Known as the Casablanca of the World of Darkness because it is home to so many competing vampire clans that have heretofore existed in relative peace, it is on the verge of becoming the locus for many schemes of immortals both within the city and beyond. And when Sullivan falls victim to their plots and is accused of diablerie, vampire cannibalism, he discovers how easily the hunter can become…the hunted.

Review

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. It also imagined a complicated interlocking web of undead politics taking place behind closed doors in San Fransisco.

Dark Prince would have a single sequel in PRINCE OF THE CITY before having a lot of its lore retconned or ignored in SAN FRANSISCO BY NIGHT. Later, it would be recanonized with Jason Carl’s fantastic LA BY NIGHT incorporating some of the characters as well as their lore. The book would be out of print for about two decades, not even available on RPGNow in PDF form, until Crossroad Press re-released it in 2024.

With 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 of 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 ala WALK 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 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 actually 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 this book 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 on. 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 it’s available back in print after twenty years.

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