Burning City, The  

2000-03Magic Universe: Golden Road NovelHardcover, Pocket Books, 2000

0-671-03661-0Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Orbit, British hardcover;
paper, Pocket;
paper, Little Brown/Orbit
Whandall Feathersnake;
Tras Praetor;
Collaboration, co-written with Jerry Pournelle


The Burning City returns Niven to the world of dying magic, as described in the tale The Magic Goes Away. Larry's long-time writing partner, Jerry Pournelle, joins Larry in telling this tale of dwindling magic in a land where gods and elementals still have power.

The Burning City reads in many ways like Larry's previous novel, Destiny's Road. As in that book, the plot of The Burning City follows the life of a young boy, through his adolescent years and through into adulthood, although this novel differs from Destiny's Road as it is not set on a future colony world, but on earth in the year circa 14,000 bc when mammoths still ruled the earth. The boy in his tale is called Wandall Placehold, born amidst dubious parentage, into a family of "Lordkin" (or the underdogs) of the Lord's (ruling class) society. Even further down the hierarchical levels of society are the "Kinless" who take each and every opportunity to steal (or "gather") goods and commodities from others. "Lordkin" also gather goods if the opportunity presents itself, especially during burnings.

Life in Tep's Town and the nearby Lord's Town is focused on the annual burning and rioting massacre, where the fire god Yangin-Atep is let loose on the unsuspecting towns. However, in Wandall's brief life a Burning has not happened in several years, so people are becoming complacent. Life in the Placehold home is ok for Wandall, but he never really feels as if he fits in.

In a spirit of adventure Wandall journeys from Tep's Town and, using wood skills he has learned from watching the "Kinless" foresters, manages to evade the poisonous and deadly trees and bushes to visit the hierarchy of Lord's Town—where he is caught after developing an association with one of the Lord's daughters. After receiving a severe punishing by the Lords, with a threat that they would do worse next time, Wandall returns to Tep's Town to recover.

In the intervening years, Wandall matures into an adolescent and becomes friendly with the local wizard "Morth of Atlantis", one of the few wizards to escape the continent's demise. Wandall earns himself a blue "feathersnake" tattoo for his chores for Morth. Finally, the power of the Burnings returns again, and Wandall experiences the horror and the fire lust firsthand. Fortunately for Wandall, during his long recovery from his injuries inflicted by the Lords, Wandall practiced hard at the art of knife-wielding and now can handle himself in a fight. This skill served him well during the craziness of the Burning, where anarchy prevails.

After several more years of life in the Placehold, and Wandall now reaching adulthood another Burning occurs, this time, the focus for Yangin-Atep's burning power is Wandall himself. Wandall uses this power to save a family of ropewalkers after their father is killed by Kinless enraged and out of control during the latest burning. Wandall uses the deadly power of Yangin-Atep to burn a path for himself and the ropewalkers right through the centre of the Chaparral and finally escapes the Burning City, with a reaffirmed friendship with Morth, once and for all.

Through the pages of this novel, Larry and Jerry offer comment on the disparing differences between the Lords and the inhabitants of Tep's Town which are mirrored by today's have and have not society. The madness of the burnings also has its place in modern day society - who can forget the Los Angeles riots of the last decade?

In the afterward, Larry gives a slight nod to the remains of Yangin-Atep, still in the world today in the form of the Doheny family oil reserves. The money from this oil find is part of the money which went into Larry's Trust Fund, allowing him to be a professional author from an early age. Who knows - without the power of Yangin-Atep, Ringworld may have never been written!

The sequel to this novel, Burning Tower, (the name of Wandall's daughter) was released in December 2003.