The Burning City

"The Burning City" is a fantasy novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle set in the same prehistoric world as "The Magic Goes Away". The novel is set in Southern California about 14,000 years before the present. Magic and gods exist in the world, but depend on a natural resource called mana, which is almost exhausted. The book was published in 2000, and was followed by a sequel, "Burning Tower" in 2005.

Plot summary

The first and last parts of the novel are set in Tep's Town, on the site of modern Los Angeles. The town consists of three classes: the Lords, the ruling class, who live in a separate area of the town; the kinless, the workers; and the Lordkin, organised into street gangs, who live by stealing from the kinless. The Lords supervise the kinless and tolerate the Lordkin. The kinless are unarmed and untrained in the use of weapons, and cannot resist the Lordkin. Some leave the town, but the surrounding vegetation is malevolent. The town is the base of a fire god, Yangin-Atep, who possesses the Lordkin every few years to burn the town down and rape any kinless woman they can catch.

The main character, Whandall, is a Lordkin who is crippled from a beating in his youth but gradually regains his health. He teams up with an ex-Atlantis wizard and some kinless and they escape from the city. Beyond the city they find traders and Whandall founds a successful trading empire. Eventually, he returns to the city to establish a trade route there, and defeats Yangin-Atep.

Perhaps surprisingly for a novel which claims to portray a world which became our present, the society has domesticated horses and cats, and the wheel is in widespread use. Humans did settle the area by the time the novel is set, and there were horses similar to modern horses in North America earlier, so it is possible that these horses were domesticated but later died out without leaving any trace. There were no modern cats, but perhaps there were similar felines which could have been domesticated. For the actual domestication of cats, see Cat#Ancient Egypt and for horses, see Domestication of the horse. The disappearance of so useful a technology as the wheel is more difficult to explain.

In the epilogue the authors do make a handwaving attempt at an explanation. There they claim that the savage people who became the "so-called Native Americans" wiped out the existing civilization, including horses (and presumably cats and wheels) in their conquest of the Americas.


According to the afterword published with the book, Larry Niven originally developed the story in order to channel his feelings of frustration relating to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

In keeping with the spirit of the allegory Niven and Pournelle drop into the text several anagrams and other oblique references that bring to mind modern people, places and events. Some examples:

* Jispomnos, anagram for O.J. Simpson: A legendary (in the story) Lordkin who married a kinless woman and adopted kinless ways. His story was made into an opera that is referenced several times in the book. As the story goes, Jispomnos killed his wife and her lover for her infidelity. On trial before a Lordkin jury Jispomnos claimed he was still a Lordkin and thus had the right to kill his cheating woman. He was, of course, acquitted. Here the authors betray their personal opinions when they do not have Jispomnos (Simpson) even pretend to be innocent of the killing.

* Arshur the Magnificent, oblique reference to Rodney King: Arshur is clearly meant to sound like "Arthur," as in King Arthur so that as events unfold the reader would link "King" to "Arshur". Arshur is a lawless bear of a man from outside the Tep's Town (a "looker") who is adopted is an honorary Lordkin. In one incident Arshur is beaten severely with sticks by kinless peacekeepers when he refuses to just lie still. Lordkin anger over this "unjust beating" leads to another Burning.

* Tras Preetor, anagram for Star Reporter: A "looker", an outsider who has come to Tep's Town hoping to see the Burning. Tras makes his living by telling stories and trading information, so he sees the Burning as source of exciting stories that will make him rich. The authors present Tras as a "well-intentioned fool" who nearly gets young Whandall (and himself) killed with a hare-brained scheme to curry favor with the "Lords". The authors' treatment of Tras is somewhat nuanced, but they make their negative opinion of journalists fairly obvious by the end.

* Duddigract and Coscartin, anagrams for "drug addict" and "narcotics": Two minor characters, both Lordkin, who are used by the authors to make cautionary points about drug abuse; respectively, a user who dies of an overdose and a dealer who is killed for his drugs.

* Vedasiras Range, nearly an anagram for Sierra Nevada: Not long after Whandall joins up with the trader caravan, he glimpses the beast-god Behemoth in these huge mountains to the east.

* Mount Carlem, transparent anagram for Mount Carmel, near Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA: A mountain near the sea north of Tep's Town. The Atlantian wizard is trapped there in the post-exodus part of the novel. If you didn't get the anagram here the authors give you another chance with "Carlem Marcel", the remains of a town on the bay near the mountain, drowned when the sinking of Atlantis caused world sea levels to rise.

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