Whandall Placehold lives in Tep’s Town, also known as the Burning City because beneath it is a fire-god, Yagen-Atep. Periodically that god awakes, enters the minds of some of the men of Tep’s Town, and sends them on a rampage of setting fires and causing destruction. Tep’s town is ruled by gangs, and Serpent’s Walk is the gang of the Placehold family. The gangs, called Lordkins, spend most of their time trying to steal from each other and from the “kinless,” people outside the gangs. Ruling over Tep’s Town are the Lords, who have their own gated stronghold outside Tep’s Town, and who are assisted by the Lordsmen. As the book progresses, young Whandall explores every part of his world, even making friends with an Atlantean Sorcerer, Morth, who is reported to have killed Whandall’s father. He also infiltrates Lord’s Town and is befriended by the young daughter of a Lord. Then a Burning comes, and Whandall is taken over by the fire god, participating in the fires and other evil deeds. This convinces him he needs to escape Tep’s Town, something that few Lordkins have been able to do. With the help of some kinless friends, he succeeds, and finds a new life in a wider world outside Tep’s Town, eventually becoming a successful trader and a family man. Yet, Tep’s Town continues to call him, and eventually he must return and face what waits him there.
I tend to think of Niven and Pournelle as hardcore science fiction writers, but Niven’s early work included fantasy stories beginning with “The Magic Goes Away.” This book is connected to those. Despite the many fantasy elements, I kept looking for scientific explanations, and trying to figure out the setting. It certainly seemed like California, and Tep’s Town suggested a prehistoric Los Angeles, complete with an area similar to the La Brea Tar Pits. I enjoyed the book, but the uneasy mixture of fantasy and reality pulled me out of the story at times. Still, it’s an epic tale with lots of adventure and action, including an amazing set piece at the end that forces a battle between two gods.