“They had come ill-equipped, and moved too fast. Too much had been forgotten about the gods. Perhaps nobody had ever known enough.”
Unicorns are dying. Atlantis falls. Centuries-old magicians finally grow grey-haired and tired.
The magic is going away.
But one posse of magicians—including a reanimated skull, a Grecian warrior and a Native American—determine to manufacture a solution. Together, they decide to seek out and resurrect the last living god, hardly considering the implications of raising the god of love and madness from its decaying slumber.
I recently came across mention of this novella in a Fantasy Reference work and found the premise intriguing. Magic as a non-renewable resource? Very clever. The very beginning introduces us to Orlandes, a Grecian soldier who helped overthrow Atlantis and only barely survived the fall. That opening grabbed my interest immediately. (Plus, there’s that Grecian hunk on book cover #1. Mmm, mm.)
The humorous introduction to the next two characters also amused me. Two old magicians travel across a desert on pack unicorns—horror of horrors! What respectable magician travels on a pack unicorn?—to an inn, where they reanimate the dead skull of an old enemy, all to seek help on their mission.
The climax and results of their journey made the story worth reading, for me. I enjoyed the clever ending and what it conveys about gods and magic.
So I understand why the story might have been popular when it was published, in the seventies, what with the oil crisis and all. The popularity of this first short story-turned-novella spawned several more works set in the same universe. Some consider them classic F/SF “must reads.”
Clearly some readers found all they wanted in the sparkling satire and rigid, “logical” magic system of this short, satiric adventure quest. The theory of the magic disappearing—and the reappearance of beloved characters from previous stories—appeal very much to faithful readers of Larry Niven’s science fiction. These reviewers usually praise the sparkling satire and magic system.
Unfortunately, I found little of interest in the story beyond that original premise and the interesting climax. I wanted to skip the entire middle portion and get to the point. Uninteresting characters and simplistic character relationships dulled the whole adventure, for me; the only woman of the group is especially dull. (See book covers.) We don’t get much in the way of description, explanation or worldbuilding, either, beyond the magic system, since this is only a novella. Newcomers will find little originality beyond the premise.
Interesting premise, gripping intro and climax. Meh characters, saggy middle.
Clearly some readers enjoyed these stories. If the idea sounds intriguing to you—or if you’re familiar with Niven’s work, already—you might be able to get past the un-relatable characters and into the clever ideas of the worldbuilding.