Dorsai! (1959) is the very first of the Childe Cycle novels. It tells the story of Donal Graeme. The Graemes are the first family of the Dorsai (we'll meet his ancestor Cletus, the founder of the family, in Tactics of Mistake), but Donal's mother is an Exotic from Mara. (There's a famous typo in which a chapter title that should say "Part Maran" reads "Part Moron"). The result is a boy that is, as the first sentence of the book tells us, odd. He's a good-sized man, but not big for a Dorsai, and small for a Graeme. He has a Dorsai's strength of character, and the Dorsai tendency towards cold, murderous rage, but on the surface there's nothing remarkable about him. On the surface, that is...
The plan of the book is quite simple. Donal begins as a junior office, and ends up as Protector of the Worlds, an office that's invented for him, and which amounts to Overlord of Humanity. Each chapter describes a stage in Donal's ascent. He is always the viewpoint character, but we're rarely given access to his deeper thoughts or feelings. He's clearly always thinking several steps ahead, but we infer that rather than being shown it. We also notice that Donal knows things he doesn't really have enough information to have figured out and is sure of himself in situations that seem to us to be amorphous. Indeed, there's something odd about him. A bit of background before we examine the plot. Commerce between worlds largely consists of exporting and importing the contracts of specialized talent: soldiers from the Dorsai, psychologists and healers from the Exotic planets, technologists from Cassida and Newton, etc. There are two main blocs: those whose inhabitants control their own contracts, like the Dorsai and the Exotics, and those whose contracts are owned by their planetary governments: like the Friendlies and Ceta. There's a natural rivalry between the two. (If you want to see this as an analogue of the West vs. Communism, feel free.) The Exotics see the spread of tight-contract policies as dangerous to themselves and to the human race, and do what they can to resist it.
The book begins with Donal traveling to his first assignment on a commercial spaceship, where he meets two people who turn out to be quite important. Prince William of Ceta appears to be a successful business tycoon. Anea is a young and beautiful Exotic woman who's the Select of Kultis, that is, considered to be the best result of that planet's genetic and psychological sciences. She has been contracted to work for William, though she's clearly uncomfortable around him. In fact, she asks Donal to help her escape from William, something that's quite impossible: he's too powerful a man for the Exotics to dare to insult in that fashion. From the fact that the Select of Kultis is acting in a way that's frankly stupid and a few other clues, Donal divines that William, behind his pleasant exterior, is a genuinely evil bastard. He also starts to grasp William's true goal, which is to gain control of the interstellar market in contracts, and thus effectively control all of the human worlds.
Donal begins his campaign against William by succeeding brilliantly in his first assignment and gaining a promotion. Much of the book follows his career as he moves from one job to another, always moving up the ladder and gaining more renown. He meets Anea a few times along the way, and each time she seems both attracted to him and repulsed by him. (This won't be the last time we see this pattern.) Donal also gains a retinue of sorts: other Dorsai who have been damaged in some fashion and seem to take comfort in Donal's strength. (Two of them are Donal's uncle Ian Graeme and Corunna el Man; we'll meet them again in later stories.) Eventually, Donal forces William into open combat and defeats him. William, having anticipated his ruin, has taken his revenge: he'd previously hired Donal's brother Mor as a military advisor, and when Donal comes to capture him, he shows Donal Mor's tortured, mutilated corpse. Donal, in the full throes of rage and horror, orders William to suffer, and then escapes into a sort of catatonia.
Afterward, when the care of the Exotics has started to heal Donal, he forgives William and tells him to atone by using his talents for good. A few things are made clear:
- Anea was intended by the Exotics to fall in love with William, the strongest man around her, and be a good influence on him. They didn't expect that someone stronger would emerge, and Anea would love him instead. In fact, Anea is now very happily enamored of Donal.
- Donal's oddness is his ability to use intuition. Given a few facts, he can build a pattern, cross-check it against other facts, and be as certain of his conclusions as a normal man is of a logical certainty.
- No other human has this ability, or can even comprehend it. When Donal tries to explain it to one of the chief Exotic philosophers, the man assumes Donal is using the Socratic method to demonstrate that no such talent is possible.
So even as the effective ruler of all human worlds, with a brilliant, beautiful woman who loves him, Donal is still alone.