by Fred Saberhagen
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0765312107
Date: 02 May, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Chance Rolfson is the lineal descendant (many generations removed) of Rolf, legendary human partner to Ardneh, an entity worshiped as a god but which has been dead since his battle against the archdemon Orcus. Now, Chance is part of an expedition to find (and exploit) Ardneh's Workshop, a treasure trove lost in the vast wilderness.
One night, a talking owl named Mitra drops a small charm necklace on Chance--but the mysterious item literally melts in his hand, until later revealing itself to be the key to Ardneh's Workshop. Chance learns this through encounters with two strange, red-headed children dressed in silvery armor-clothing of the Old World. Lack of tangible evidence (the Key disappears when Chance is not in danger) and a reputation for dreaminess ensure that nobody in the expedition--Scholar Jervase, Captain Horkos, or even magic-wielding Lady Ayaba--believes him.
He also encounters the "grandmother" of the children, shortly before a bandit attack drives the expedition to the dubious safety of Ardneh's Servants. This religious enclave works to heal whoever is in need; however, the bandits are a danger they cannot overlook--or expect to survive--so they guide the expedition to a sheltered cave. There, the Servants' leader's daughter Abigail proves herself magically talented...and discovers that the "grandmother" Chance encountered is in truth a djinn named Zalmoxis. Zalmoxis seeks to become human, a task that has left it frustrated and jealous of humanity for over a thousand years, but it believes that success lies in helping Chance.
Beset by bandits and mistrustful of all offers of help--except that of the Beastlord Draffut and Abigail--Chance works his way toward Ardneh's Workshop, unsure of what the ultimate treasure, Ardneh's Sword, might possibly be...or why the bandits' demonic ally Avenarius is so keen to acquire it. Will they even recognize this treasure when they find it? And what will it mean for the world when it is unleashed?
Saberhagen returns to his fantastic future Earth in this tale, which bridges the Empire of the East trilogy with the Swords multi-novel epic. The upside is that several secrets of the latter series are revealed here, some of them merely seeds planted for those other stories. The mysteries of Ardneh, Orcus and the Empire stories are thoroughly plumbed elsewhere, and are not revisited in this book (nobody really understands what Ardneh is, for instance), but instead tends to focus on the fact that Ardneh has been gone for ages but his final gift to mankind endures. (Sharp-eyed readers should also take note of the name of one Servant in particular as, if I remember correctly, "Benambra" resurfaces in another context in the Sword novels.)
The downside is that Chance is, unfortunately, a passive and rather unengaging hero. Given the Key, he spends his time hiding and running, rather than growing toward heroism. He bemoans his destiny as the Key's unwilling holder and relies rather heavily on Abigail's magic to wring answers from the recalcitrant and sly djinn. Similarly, he is powerless to resist the blackmail of Avenarius, who threatens him with impunity, and cannot even break free with help from Draffut. All in all, he is a very problematic "hero" and does the story little good.
However, on balance, the book does well in spanning the gap between these two sets of books. Fans of Saberhagen's work will be well-rewarded, though other readers, unfamiliar with the setting, should probably begin with Empire of the East and work their way forward.