Larry Niven, The Magic Goes Away (Ace, 1978)
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Burning City (Pocket Books, 2000)

Larry Niven, best known as a writer of sci-fi and speculative fiction, particularly the Ringworld series, occasionally turns his hand to fantasy, as he did in 1978 with The Magic Goes Away. More than 20 years later, he teamed up with his long-time writing partner Jerry Pournelle (co-author of The Mote in God's Eye and Footfall, among others) for the longer and more sophisticated The Burning City.

The two stories are set in the same universe, as it were — an Earth of several thousand years ago, at the end of the age of magic. In fact, the two tales could take place about 20 years apart, although no explicit chronology is offered.

Magic is a fairly straightforward sword-and-sorcery tale, with plenty of Niven's fingerprints, particularly the writing style and sly wit, and in the use of a conundrum as the major plot device.

The background of both tales is this: magicians, sorcerers, witches and other beings of power have only belatedly realized that the earth's supernatural resources, or "mana," can be used up. In fact, there are only a few pockets of magic left, so a small team — a sorcerer known simply as Warlock, an American Indian called Clubfoot and a sorceress named Mirandee — has hatched a scheme to wake a sleeping god to harness its power. They have with them the living skull of another powerful magician, Sorcerer's old enemy Wavyhill.

Stumbling into the midst of this plot is Orolandes, a barbarian carrying a broken sword. He's a Greek, one of the only survivors of the army that conquered the wizards of Atlantis and brought about the sinking of the island continent. He's doing penance for his part in that wicked deed by helping the team try to bring some magic back into the world.

For all that it's a pretty short book, there's a good bit of violence and some sex — and of course lots of magic — in The Magic Goes Away. The original 1978 edition contains oodles of illustrations, some of which at this remove are pretty funny — nothing ages quite so badly as one era's erotic artwork aimed at post-adolescent males. Then of course there's the moose that's supposed to be an elk.

The entire story, of course, can be seen as a parable for our times, warning of the dangers of overpopulation and the overuse of the earth's natural resources. It's a message we seem even further from heeding now than we did in 1978.

Magic takes place somewhere in Europe, but The Burning City is a world away, in what will someday become southern California. It successfully takes Niven's tongue-in-cheek conceit of the first book and turns it into a book-length tale with real flesh-and-blood characters.

Burning City is the story of Whandall Placehold and how he learns to "think outside the box," moving beyond the provincial world into which he is locked by caste and custom.

The magic has mostly gone from this part of the world, too, except for once every few years when the god Yagen-Atep wakes and turns the "Lordkin" men of Tep's Town into pyromaniacs. They're already thieves — excuse me, borrowers — who make their living by taking whatever they want from the working caste, called Kinless.

At the outset, it sounds like a setup for a Sherry S. Tepper-style tale (hmm.... "Tep's Town?"), complete with a scathing indictment of the way patriarchal religions despoil everything around them, from women to the environment. But in the hands of Niven and Pournelle it remains more of an adventure story.

There is, of course, a riddle to solve: why do the men of Tep's Town try to burn the place down every few years, and why are the burnings coming more frequently? Actually, there are more riddles than that, particularly the histories and inter-relationships among the Lords, Lordkin and Kinless, but we only get hints, as though the authors don't really know or care.

When we meet Whandall, he's a curious young boy who likes to see what's over the next hill, even when he's not allowed to go there — particularly when he's not allowed, actually. He does his best to fit in with his peers, but his wanderlust and love of a good story goad him to keep pushing the boundaries. He's aided by some outsiders, especially the mysterious Morth, who may be the last surviving wizard from Atlantis, and who has some deadly secrets of his own.

What Niven and Pournelle end up with is a species of speculative fiction, much like their more usual sci-fi fare. This time, though, instead of taking an idea and projecting it forward in time, they've projected it back into the past. They never seem to take it entirely seriously, though, and that dilutes the story's impact.

The Magic Goes Away and The Burning City are enjoyable reading, but are nowhere near as challenging or engaging as some of these authors' other books.

[Gary Whitehouse]