The Burning City
by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Pocket Books, 2000, 486 pp, $24.95.
The Burning City is set in the world of "The Magic Goes Away", roughly 10,000 years ago. Magic is a natural resource inherent in matter, but it can be used up. Right after the glaciers retreated, a magic-using civilization spread across the globe, now it's tottering as magic fails. The gods themselves -- all-powerful when mana was plentiful -- are weakened and mostly sleep.
This story takes place in what will later be Southern California -- the LA basin and nearby. Tep's Town is a strange place even in this strange world, a fairly large town hemmed in by malignant forests. (One of the more interesting creations in this book is the interaction of magic and plants. The giant redwoods are magical -- possibly aware -- creatures and they use their magic to surround themselves with an array of deadly plants to protect themselves against predators like lumbermen. When the mana is depleted, all that's left are trees and shrubs.)
The town itself is decidedly non-magical and is one of the few remaining strongholds of Atep, the sleeping fire god. This non-magical town is infested with gangs -- I have the impression that it's modeled on Somalia -- which spend their time killing each other and stealing from anyone who works and generally keeping the town poor.
A young man who grows up in the gangs is brighter than most and learns somewhat of the outside world and, when he finally has to flee, becomes a very successful trader in the caravans. Twenty five years later he leads an expedition back to Tep's Town and changes it. The main story is his growth from an apprentice tough to a responsible adult.
Running through the story is an Atlantean wizard, Morth, who has been fleeing a water elemental since the fall of Atlantis. When Atlantis started to sink, Morth fled rather than stay behind to try to counter the subsidence. His colleagues did not take this as friendly and set a water elemental to follow him and kill him. If Morth stays close enough to water to do his magic and maintain his youth, sooner or later the elemental finds him and tries to destroy him. If he feels the elemental, he also flees the source of his power.
I greatly enjoyed the world Niven and Pournelle constructed and their elaborate working out of how mana changes our mundane world -- and how the disappearance of mana changes the magical world into our own. The Burning City is just full of wonderful ideas. All in all, though, the book was a bit bland -- it didn't have quite the sparkle of their best works.
See also my review of Niven's Ringworld's Children
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