The Story is set in the same "universe" as "The Magic Goes Away", but much later. Mana has been heavily depleted. The old gods are "turning mythical". Most of the action takes place in what is now Los Angeles, though part of the book uses ( Hwy 5 ?) as a setting, with a side trip to Carmel. The Le Breya tar pits play a role as does the Los Angeles River.
The story is told from the point of view of Whandall Placehold. When you first meet him, he is a young boy. Being young, he does not know a lot about the world around him. As he learns, you are introduced to the complex environment that he is enmeshed in. This environment, both cultural, and geographic, is depicted with high resolution. The details become important as the story progresses. This detail also makes the book very vivid. I found a number of easter eggs while reading. At some point I will reread with the goal of finding more. I would not take any name for granted!
If you have read any of the Warlock stuff, you would know that it is the style of fantasy where magic is a force of nature(?) that is explored just like any normal force is explored in Hard SF. This is true Fantasy done SF style. It is also a great "What if ...?" exercise. As any good piece of literature, it has something to say about the "human condition" that is relevant to our world today. In history, as in physics, similar initial conditions usually yield similar results. You will find aspects of our society in this book, that you might have overlooked before.
Whandall Placehold typifies a set of characteristics that are promoted in this story. He tends to keep his mouth shut, and listens. He is curious and a natural explorer. Facts are not just learned, they are analyzed and placed in the context of a larger world view. If something does not work, the whole model is updated. If data is missing, Whandall will try to find it. Even though the boy is a bit impulsive, he generally thinks before he acts, the more so as he matures (with some back sliding during his teens). The basic rule: Look, Think, Act.
I found this book to be one of the finest examples of what a story teller can do. Though, I would classify this book as "Literature" as opposed to "A good story". It also shows the synergy that can be achieved through collaboration. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle out did themselves. Every aspect was masterfully executed. "The Burning City" has an important message, as social commentary. But this message does not get in they way of the story. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of detail. All of this detail is used in propelling the story. Unlike some Open Source code, there are no variables declared, that are not used! No were does the book bog down. All of this detail is presented in an exciting and well paced manner. At 613 pages, this is a long novel, but thats how long it needs to be to tell the story.
The characters are great. Kids act like kids, teens act like teens, and adults act like whatever their environment and inclination molded them to be. But with that, they are all recognizable individuals; no lame stereo types here.
I have one question, Why the strong magical nature of the Redwood forests around Tep Town, when Tep Town itself is running low on mana?
Oh, and I also liked it because, at the end of the story, Whandall is 43, and I just turned 43!