Thursday, 13 March 2008

Review: "The Burning City" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I just finished the epic "Burning City" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I don't tend to read much fantasy, but it was a pleasant enough diversion. What strikes me after reading "Oath of Fealty", "Lucifer's Hammer" and "Burning City" is just how much of Niven and Pournelle's work is centered around California and Particularly Los Angeles. I wish I'd read more of their work when I lived there.

"Burning City" offers a nice take on the fantasy genre. There's magic, to be sure, but interpersonal dynamics, class struggle, and the love of storytelling are just as much a part of the world they describe. Its also a nice take on the epic story. "Burning City" does not take its hero's greatness for granted. We see the hero come from his early childhood through to middle age, and grow to new kinds of greatness all along the way. Although we clearly see the main character grow into adulthood, the book does not follow the formula of so many "rite of passage" novels, taking the hero through a great test that leads them to adulthood only to summarize the remainder of their life in a single chapter (ala Harry Potter, "His Dark Materials", "Middle Passage", shall I go on?).

The tone of the story and the careful avoidance of more graphic content remind me somewhat of Michael Chabon's excellent "Summerland". Where "Summerland" is a sprawling (but somewhat shallower) pastiche of legends from North America, "Burning City" is a narrower cross section of just a few recognizable elements explored in more depth. Both novels are about learning to make one's way in the world, and just as in life, each character has his own solution. On balance, I like the darker tone of "Summerland" and the outstanding ending a tad better.

This isn't to say that "Burning City" is a bad book, in fact quite the opposite. The authors are obviously skilled enough to succeed in venturing outside of their primary genre. I don't know that I'll read any more fantasy for a while, but it was a nice change of pace and I plan to read their remaining collaborative works when I get a chance.

Here's a challenge for anyone who likes Fantasy more than Science Fiction: try this book, then cross over and try "The Mote in God's Eye" to see how you like it...

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