The first third of the novel is interesting and diverse. First we meet the main character and learn about his exploits in a war he isn’t enjoying. This quickly leads to him recounting being wounded in battle and leaving the war as a veteran, with a trip through Europe planned. He catches a flight to Signapore where we learn that he can sense direction with ease and that he’s won a lot of Irish Sweepstakes tickets. However, we also discover that even though he’s a war veteran he won’t get any benefits for his service, and that his winning ticket is actually a fake. His plan turns to just surviving in France for a while when he spots a beautiful woman, they chat for hours, and then she leaves without him getting her name. (Fellow readers of Heinlein will quickly spot the similarities between this woman and many others he’s described in other novels.)
What comes next is a jump to the fantastic as he gets multiple notices of an ad in a newspaper for a job that fits him near perfectly. He attends and quickly passes the test put before him, landing him in front of the lovely lady he meet before who turns out to know medicine and gives him a thorough examination. The pair then transit to another world with a third individual tagging along. It’s here that they all gain their names for the rest of the novel: Oscar the soldier, Star the mage and physician, and Rufo the groom. We also learn that Oscar’s sense of direction also works flawlessly when transported somewhere else and he is unconscious; this really sets the stage for his ability and pushes it into the realm of fantasy.
A few things happen here that are important in hindsight. First, Oscar can use a bow incredibly well even though he said he was lousy at archery. Second, the entire situation fits exactly with standard fantasy fare: a female mage, a male knight, and a bumbling sidekick make for a delightful romantic romp. Third, we learn that they must deal with someone named Igli, there’s an egg to retrieve, and Oscar is the chosen one. All of these things seem to fall too perfectly into place, and there’s a good reason for that. However, I didn’t like how quickly Igli was defeated, nor how. We had a very nice build up for his directional powers, but his ability to suddenly warp space, time, and matter came out of nowhere and seem contrived. Despite this, I took that it might just be a literary misstep and only the first in a series of events.
The middle part of the novel was my favourite section. Oscar started integrating himself into a new society, learnt a new language, stumbled a bit with social mores, Heinlien got to explain his views of sexuality (I always enjoy his lecturing style), and there were a lot of clever solutions to battles. Oscar marries Star after fighting internally, the stakes get raised, there’s something hidden between the trio, and we get ever closer to the egg. All of this was a lot of fun and didn’t drag too much, propelling us forward to the tower containing the egg. They get in after fighting dragons, Oscar solves the riddle of the paths, and we get a beautiful sword fight and battle of tactics. They get the egg and… I’ll leave the rest for the third spoiler.
At this point I really liked the logic of the story. Too often I find that fantasy novels don’t have enough explanation about the rules behind the magic, but there was a beautiful balance here. Heinlein made most of the magic scientific by saying it was highly advanced technology. I was a little confused about firearms not working in the first world, but I enjoyed the idea of a set time limit in the tower due to the conditions of the world (though they’re left unstated, I assumed that it was radiation of a sort). I enjoyed the way the wards were set up, how they worked, that they didn’t deflect fire (and perhaps a reason for that), and especially the biology behind fire-breathing dragons. The gravity shifts on the tower world were just icing on the sci-fi/fantasy cake.
One part that was missing was how the map was created. Did these sixty-three men have some sort of GPS on them? They lost their lives, so surely they didn’t exit and explain their movements, and they were able to report their true positions which was something that Star and Rufo were unable to do. Further, how did they know where the egg was if there was such a man/beast guarding it? I’d like answers to these questions, but they’re minor overall and the story is good enough here that I didn’t dwell on them.
Here’s a summary of the last third: Star is “in charge” of twenty universes, the egg contains the knowledge of all the previous rulers so that the current ruler can learn from their mistakes, Oscar gets multiple marriage proposals, he doesn’t enjoy sitting around in the castle all day doing nothing, and then he realizes that he can’t stay with Star as a “gigolo” so he roams around trying to find himself before realizing that he’s a warrior and should go on another quest. My issue is the whole story built to getting the egg, and then Star’s true identity just tacked on another 100 pages that brought the pace to a crawl. Yes, Oscar needed to learn who he was but he had partly done that on the quest to find the egg. So why is this part here?
One reason is learning about the egg and getting Heinlein’s view on politics, something which I enjoyed reading. Yet it also comes with a lecture on sexuality again, this time done in small parts multiple times, but covering much of what we already heard at Jocko’s home, now with an “I’m married” twist. We learn about alien cultures but this is brief and merely serves to emphasize Oscar’s position, one he’s uncomfortable with. Luckily, we also hear why the quest itself was so contrived and fit so well with what we expected: Star designed it that way. And perhaps she even helped Oscar at archery.
The reason I felt so let down by Star’s position was because there was no follow up on the quest. These people spent all this time and effort to take the egg, yet they were just defeated afterwards? I wanted the palace to be found in ruins and the egg be used to restore order, or there be some additional quest followup to resolve. Could it have been done better? Yes! Give me all that revelation on Oscar’s part with a bit more action. Let him use his crazy time, space, matter warping skills more than once in the story, make Star use her egg knowledge to solve a tricky problem, and let Rufo help both of them deal with their future. As it is, Star doesn’t change much besides going through mood swings, and Oscar just mopes.
It’s this final third of the book that brings down the score so much. It was about a 7 before here and went downhill from there. Would I read it again? For the first 200 pages, sure, but I don’t think I’d touch the last hundred. For now I’m heading back to sci-fi; take me home Star.