The Burning City, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
The Burning City is a novel of epic proportions. Set 14,000 years ago, in the region that would later become the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Niven and Pournelle take the sketchy legends of the Mayan and Aztec peoples, flesh them out and insert them into the tale of Whandall Placehold, Lordkin warrior in an age when magic and gods were still very real, who would become possessed by the fire-god Yangin-Atep, thus becoming a legend in his own lifetime.
The Lordkin are a race, not quite of giants, but of tall, heavily-muscled, inherently violent people who are also longer-lived than normal, while the Kinless whose town they usurp are, apparently, normal humans. The two can, though, interbreed.
Whandall was born, and lived, in Placehold, his clan fortress in Tep’s Town, and would rise to prominence in one of the town’s many Lordkin gangs, Serpent’s Walk. Inter-gang warfare is a major feature of life in Tep’s Town, as in it’s modern-day counterpart, Los Angeles. 200 years previously, Lordkin, under the command of their Lords, conquered Tep’s Town, taking it from the people who lived there, whom they dubbed Kinless. Promised the spoils of war by the Lords, the Lordkin extended this idea seemingly into perpetuity, and lived by “gathering” the goods and chattels of the Kinless – sometimes their women, too. (Note: I’ve not been able to figure out if the Lordkin are related to the Lords, or whether the name is a diminutive.)
The Lords sensibly went off and established Lord’s Town, where the Lord’s own Kinless dwelled, safe from Lordkin thievery, and their own fortified enclave of Lord’s Hills, well away from the incendiary events of Tep’s Town, where, periodically, Yangin-Atep would possess one of the Lordkin, who would then fire the town. Magic, a potent force in the outside world, didn’t work in Tep’s Town, owing to the influence of Yangin-Atep, who took the magic into himself.
Whandall, having risen in the ranks of Serpent’s Walk, where the gang members all had serpent tattoos, pesters a wizard, a survivor of sunken Atlantis, for a tattoo of his own. The wizard, Morth, eventually relents and gives Whandall a huge, gloriously-coloured, sorcerous tattoo of a winged, feathered serpent, that ran from his left hand to cover his shoulder and the left side of his face, to the ultimately disastrous (for them), envy of his peers.
Eventually, Whandall is, himself, possessed by Yangin-Atep but, instead of burning down his own town (though others, latching on to the early manifestations of his power, do it anyway), suppresses the power and uses it to burn his way out of the semi-sentient and hostile redwood forest surrounding Tep’s Town, in the company of Willow, a tight-rope walker whom he eventually marries, and her cousins, who are also ropewalkers, but of the rope-making kind, in a wagon drawn by a Kinless pony.
Emerging from the forest, they enter a whole new world, where bison-drawn wagon trains trudge up and down the coast between towns, villages and cities, trading and carrying news and stories (stories are a valuable trade item in an age before literature). Unicorns exist, too (though to tell you how would give away too much), and have a use in verifying the virginity of prospective brides. (For those who don’t know the legend, only virgins can control unicorns – probably explains why there aren’t any now!)
Whandall Placehold, who would soon become Whandall Feathersnake, joins the Bison Tribe wagon train, sires the daughter of the god Coyote, marries Willow, and goes on to found first his own wagon train and, ultimately, a powerful trading dynasty, under the Feathersnake banner, that eventually stretched from Great Hawk Bay, which will, 14,000 years down the line, become San Francisco, down into Central America, bearing into history the symbol of the feathered, winged serpent…
I hope, then, that I’ve managed to give you a flavour of the life and times of Whandall Feathersnake, though the narrative is so detailed and complex, it’s difficult to avoid giving away major plot elements (OK, I’ve mentioned that Whandall sires the daughter of Coyote – the how you will have to find out for yourself), and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It kept me up reading until the early hours, and that doesn’t often happen.
I haven’t given away any secrets by disclosing that Tep’s Town will eventually become LA, or Great Hawk Bay San Francisco, as it’s perfectly obvious from the outset. There’s a neat twist in the afterword, too,regarding the future of Yangin-Atep, but I can’t reveal that without spoiling it, and I’d suggest not going to the back of the book and reading it first!
There is a sequel – called either Burning Tower, after the eponymous central character, the daughter of Whandall Feathersnake, or The Burning Tower, depending on which version of the book you get hold of. This latter title is quite wrong. I was going to say that it slightly lacks the grab-you-by-the-throat immediacy of the first book, but on reflection, perhaps it’s merely familiarity with what was, initially, an alien landscape and people. On the other hand, it does make you care about the characters, and is no less engrossing than The Burning City. It features the Terror Birds first encountered with the Bison Tribe wagon train in The Burning City, and proto-Aztecs, busily refining their heart-removal habits. Read both books – you certainly won’t regret it.
At the time The Burning City and Burning Tower were written, Terror Birds and humans had been thought to occupy the same time frame, as recently as 10,000 years ago; more recent opinion suggests not. In the future opinion may swing back – who knows? – so having them feature strongly in Burning Tower is quite legitimate. The website linked to, above, contains this statement, regarding Terror Birds:- “This also shows the last known occurrence of Titanis in the fossil record and reflects its extinction.” This is about as wrong as it’s possible for a scientist to be – the last known fossil reflects NOTHING but the fact that it’s the last known fossil. What is still unknown may be entirely different.
I’ve a feeling that Niven and Pournelle aren’t yet done with the story of this age, and it’s people – I do hope not, as there’s scope for at least two more books.
Note: Niven and Pournelle have a habit of listing the characters in their novels at the front of the book. In some cases this can be worrying, as the list in Footfall runs to over 400 dramatis personae. To date, this has put me off reading it, but I really must make the effort, and just hope too many of the 400 don’t turn up at once!