- The Burning City
- By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
- Pocket Books
- $24.95/$35.95 Canada
- Hardcover, March 2000
- ISBN 0-671-03660-2
Whandall Placehold set himself apart at an early age. He learned woodcraft from kindly lumberjacks, until he learned they were of the people called "kinless" -- the hardworking underclass from whom Lordkin like Whandall "gather" what they need. He spied on the secretive Lords, until he was caught and badly beaten. He even befriended Morth of Atlantis, the only wizard in magic-blighted Tep's Town.
Fire doesn't burn indoors in Tep's Town, thanks to the fire god Yangin-Atep. But every few years he possesses the Lordkin, who incinerate their own city in an orgy of destruction called the Burning. Many Placehold men died in the last Burning, leaving Whandall feeling isolated. His apparent future, a long road to leadership of his faction, holds little appeal. He must be the only Lordkin curious about the world. But what future is there outside Tep's Town for a Lordkin, known far and wide as shiftless thieves?
One day Whandall, watching other Lordkin violently "gather" a wagon full of kinless children, feels a rage so hot it sets buildings ablaze. He is possessed by Yangin-Atep -- he is starting the next Burning! Already rioting roils around him. Disgusted, Whandall shepherds the now-orphaned children out of Tep's Town, burning his way through the malevolent forest until the god leaves him.
Whandall carves out a new life on the Hemp Road. Around him grows a legend, thanks to his possession by another god, Coyote, his unmatched fighting skills and his magical tattoo (a gift from Morth). He marries and tries to settle down. But Morth reappears. The unstable wizard has drawn Whandall's son into his plan to destroy his magical nemesis. His scheme requires the unique conditions present in Tep's Town, pulling the unwilling Whandall back to the one city he never wanted to see again.
A magical but flawed society
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, as a team, have cornered the market on the richly-textured SF epic. Now they've moved into Robert Jordan/David Eddings territory, plundering their dog-eared copy of A Field Guide to Mythical Kingdoms to populate a color-saturated world with wizards, warriors, talismans and monsters. But where the stock fantasy dreamscape is usually designed to carry readers far from home, Niven and Pournelle can't break their long habit of relevance. By explicitly setting the story in prehistoric Southern California with a mix of aboriginal cultures, the authors lend topicality to a young man's journey into manhood. Like Lordkin, people today are sometimes trapped by customs that have lost their meaning.
Whandall grows organically from this environment. As he's shaped by his culture, he feels its hollowness as well, probing it unconsciously as one would a missing tooth. As he grows he looks outward, not because the plot demands it, but because his society's flaws turn and direct him. Indeed, Whandall takes on a life of his own. In the end the authors must force him back down the Hemp Road one last time for the necessary showdown with Morth and Yangin-Atep.
Though in some ways unconventional, The Burning City exhibits typical genre shortcomings. The strongest woman, Willow, retracts in on herself to become the devoted and worried wife. Mad wizard Morth's sporadic appearances, while lively, are like the constant reappearance of a bad penny. He lacks the poignancy of Merlin, another wizard who watches as magic fades.
Nonetheless, the story survives its flaws because of the involving dynamic among Lordkin and kinless in a world slowly losing its mysteries and its gods.
Yangin-Atep be praised, there isn't a Quest! Note to fantasy writers: Just because Frodo happened to live on the other side of Middle Earth from the Cracks of Doom, your stories do not have to hinge on everybody walking 600 miles before something climactic happens. Here, Whandall is searching only for himself, and he begins to find that almost as soon as he leaves Tep's Town. That's refreshing.