[spoilers for Crest of the Stars as well as the former portion of Banner of the Stars I (that's up to episode six)]
At first glance Baron Febdash — or Atosryua Syun-Atos Lyuf Febdak Klowal — is a pretty simple villain. He’s got an inferiority complex, because his father wasn’t Abh, and he envies the Abh a whole lot. He’s got his father locked up and does the same to Jinto. Basically, Klowal shows up in the narrative at the perfect moment to throw Jinto into disarray, as Klowal’s roots are coming from the same place Jinto now is: Klowal’s family started as landers and are recently Abh. Klowal, though, looks the same as the rest, as he’s the product of proper gene-manipulation and Abh birth practices.
Our picture of Klowal complicates a little when we learn about him from his sister, Admiral Atosryua; she tells Lafiel and Jinto about him as a person, rather than a scheming no-good-nik. He liked dogs, but owned a cat because it was more “Abh.” He loved sweet food, and there’s a bittersweet flashback image of him eating pears.
On its own this wouldn’t be great shakes in character development — villains with cute/innocent/sad childhoods are all the rage in the third-rate RPG of your choice (also, the Harry Potter books). The thing is, if we start to really look at Klowal just in Crest of the Stars we find that things aren’t as simple as they appear.
So Klowal is a douche who values his own little tract of land over the safety of the entire Empire. Okay, that sucks. But in a race full of peculiarities (the Abh), Febdash is just weird. He has, at some point, presumably sworn fealty to the Empress, but he’s misogynistic enough to keep only female servants around.
He frequently makes one of them come in and wash his back for him (the question of sexual favors is unaddressed save through this minor hint).
He dares to invite Lafiel, relative of that same Empress, to dinner while he explains why he’s holding her hostage, but has Jinto tranquilized and imprisoned almost upon arrival. This indicates not just douchebaggery, but a decent amount of The Crazy as well.
It gets weirder. Suddenly he’s talking about seceding from the Empire, setting up his own kingdom. It’ll be okay, he comforts himself by saying, he can live off synthesized meat. He’ll just have to do without his favorite cider. This is the same guy who was justifying his hostage-taking habits by claiming it will protect his barony. Cutting off ties to the Empire would do more than lose his awesome cider and real-meat privileges — it might destroy everyone there. They can mine fuel, apparently, but they live in a space station. Where would the parts come from? You can’t synthesize meat without machines, and those break. What about the air? There are a whole lot of people on that station. He’s possibly damning all of them to a death much like that of someone stranded on an island, except the ocean is trying to get up onto the island at any time, and about thirty seconds of exposure to it is immediate death (this strained metaphor is driving at space vacuum, thanks for trying to make it to the end).
And then, uh…
Yeah okay, he’s going to make Lafiel bear him an heir? We are now in Super Crazy territory. Otherwise known as the dark realm of the Gothic Villains.
Seriously. The first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, is about a usurping guy named Manfred who tries to marry his almost daughter-in-law after her marriage to his son is interrupted (by a giant helmet landing on said son and killing him). Manfred’s obsessive about the sanctity of his little piece of land, exercising iron-fisted rule over it. He goes progressively crazier, locking people up for no reason, imprisoning his sick wife (whom he is about to send to a convent, because she’s not bearing him any more male children).
And his cover story — the story that makes all this better — is that it turns out Manfred and his wife are related, so the marriage is void.
Does any of this sound familiar? Klowal is a perfect Gothic villain in a series that doesn’t do much with the tropes. The Abh are very classical in some senses, letting rationality govern their movements and actions far more than their emotions. They feel emotion, but don’t let it get to them as much. Look to a people’s image of their leaders to see what they want: the Abriel family isn’t allowed to cry anywhere they might be seen.
Klowal has all the earmarks. He is absolute ruler of his domain, which he got by underhanded means (he’s imprisoning his father, the former Baron). He can imprison whosoever he likes, the authority of the Empire is so distant as to mean nothing to him (indeed, he wants to be his own country). He has a deep concern with lineage and bloodlines, both past and future (his obsession with his “sub-par” bloodline and his desire to continue that line through any means — don’t think it’s happenstance that his Crazy gets worse when he has the means to father a child on an Abriel).
Hell, his tomb is a ship hurtling toward the center of the galaxy.
He even has the Byronic aspects of the Gothic villain — powerful, dismissive of societal rules when they aren’t helpful, assertive, on his own plane (Nietzsche recognized Byron and the other Romantics and Gothics when he drafted his ideal of the übermensch [overman, often translated as "superman"]). Despite how awful he is, one can’t resist enjoying Klowal whenever he’s on screen. He commands. Just as Manfred, Montoni, and any number of other traditional Gothic villains do. Klowal and his antecedents are exactly why the Gothic was considered a terrible crime of literature: no matter what happens to them in the end, we can’t help but like the people who are committing these terrible crimes; they have a power that makes them irresistible.
So it is with Klowal. In a world of reason, politics, and agendas that are never quite wrong — it’s hard to fault the United Mankind’s desires even as we condemn their aggressive tactics — Klowal is different. He’s not just angry, or a zealot, or cold. He’s mad. He is pageantry and the rotten core behind the pretty skin. He is all the Abh Empire could become, glutted with power and nothing to do with it, no purpose to exercise it on.
In short: Klowal is awesome.
You can make requests for “Showing a Bit of Character” here: [->]
In common SF (and fantasy) terms, “wonder” hearkens back to the Gothic: [->]
On The Castle of Otranto‘s position in the Gothic tradition: [->]
The obsessive figure in Gothic, as seen by Northrop Frye: [->]
Ghostlightning on the awesome lady who inspires Baraon Febdash to Gothic rape, Lafiel: [->]