My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I do not have much background in Larry Niven’s Magical parallel universe of Warlock and drowned Atlantis, but that’s mostly a matter of missed opportunity. I have read LIMITS, the short story collection, which references Lion’s Tower, which plays a part in this tale. Niven has a certain style, so does Pournelle, and when they write together it is often different for either author’s style on their own. The combined Niven and Pournelle authorial voice is less engaging than either writer by himself, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable as a team– as anyone who has read The Mote in God’s Eye, Footfall or Inferno can attest to. Still, I think both a protagonist and plot might suffer from being divided between authors, and I think that might be the case with the Burning City. I like the Magical universe setting– especially for the reason that Magic is treated as a non-renewable resource. The energy that powers the universe, Mana, started being used up long before the events in this novel and only occurs naturally in a series of unlikely places where Wizards don’t usually go. The setting for the first part of the novel is Tepps’ Town, home of Whandall Feathersnake, the novel’s protagonist. Whandall is a “Lordkin”, which is group of sanctioned thugs that routinely commit crimes against a conquered underclass, called the Kinless. In addition to this, there is a mysterious, only semi-defined group called the Lords, who live in a better part of town that the Lordkin are not allowed in on pain of death.
Magic doesn’t appear to work in Tepp’s Town, as a result of the intervention of the local fire deity, Yangan-Atep. Yangan Atap has almost grown dormant over the years but still wields great influence in the town. For instance, cooking fires go out when lit indoors. The central character, Whandall, spends his childhood and young adulthood in Tep’s Town, plotting to escape.. somehow. The second half is Whandall as an adult, having fled Tep’s Town to start a new life as a Trader, and the confluence of events that bring him and a Wizard comrade back to Tep’s Town again.
As I’ve mentioned, the Niven/Pournelle combination creates characters that don’t’ reveal much about their motivations and desires. So there was a lot of me rewinding, rereading passages and pondering where the heck THAT came from going on as I read. There’s a lot of allegory in this book– The crazy custom of burning the city to the ground that occurs once in a great while while the citizenry is possessed by Yangen-Atep clearly is meant to portray the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating (in fact, Rodney King shows up, after a fashion, in this novel, and yes, his beating does set in motion a great burning). There were a lot of quirky references to real or literary events in the Burning City, including the Tale of Othello, the O.J. Simpson murder case and others. The entire Lord-Lordkin-Kinless relationship evokes modern imagery of race relations in Los Angeles (on purpose, I think)– and perhaps the mysterious “Toranesti” are the LA Cops? Hard to say!
For all of their standoffish literary style I ended up liking the setting and the story of Tepp’s Town and Whandall quite a bit. It takes a while to jump in with both feet, but it is a very satisfactory read after you figure out the world that Whandall lives in.