As far as fantasies featuring nebbishy "regular guys" plucked from our world and deposited unceremoniously into other ones go, A Name to Conjure With is fairly average. Though his debut is seriously hampered by a draggy midsection, Donald Aamodt has managed to add a few unusual and surprising twists to this otherwise unprepossessing tale.
Sandy MacGregor is a guy so ordinary he might as well have a bar code tattooed on his head. Living day to day working a governmental paper-pushing job, not terribly successful with the chicks, Sandy's life is utterly lacking in excitement, advancement, anything adventurous at all. So, one day following a series of inexplicable occurances and an odd session with a fortune teller, he finds himself whisked away from our world and into Zarathandra, linked magically to Earth from an alternate dimension.
Zarathandra was once under the absolute protection of the benevolent Goddess. She was originally from our world, but achieved goddesshood as a result of her cross-dimensional transfer. (Not a bad perk.) But Zarathandra has since been invaded and corrupted by the evil god Kels Zalkri. Though the Goddess did finally manage to drive Kels Zalkri from Zarathandra, his dark influence remains, threatening the absolute faith the Zarathandrans once had in the Goddess. So the ticket, quite clearly, is a warrior from another dimension, an outsider who will bring her the victory she needs. Enter Sandy.
On Zarathandra, names embody a great deal of magical power, and Sandy's name is apparently so powerful the mere utterance of it creates a result similar to getting hit with a cruise missile. ("Sandy MacGregor" ka-boom. Don't think about it too hard and you'll be all right.) Sandy finds he has been brought to Zarathandra by the arrogant and greedy wizard Zhadnoboth (who is unknowingly being manipulated by the Goddess), who seeks the help of a "demon" in some crazy scheme to loot the wealth of Kels Zalkri's most fearsome cult. All the while the Goddess has her eye on them, surreptitiously giving them the prodding they need to fulfill her quest to destroy Kels Zalkri for keeps.
The pros first. Characterization is good. Sandy is a convincing Ordinary Guy who tries his best to get by in a startling and wholly unexpected situation. Aamodt also gives real depth to supporting characters Uskban and Pognak, whom many other writers might have just made stereotypical brutes. Another element I enjoyed was the realistic way Aamodt created a venal and avaricious world in which everyone is out for himself. It rings true, without slipping into D&D- or Thieves' World-type clichés. Aamodt's good feel for character notches this novel a space higher than many of its peers. Fantasy fans who like their battle scenes violent and gory won't be disappointed either. Limbs are hacked off, guts ripped out, the whole nine yards.
Now the cons. The novel is hamstrung by a deadly pace. Right off the bat, Aamodt piles on the talk, spelling out the history of his world and the conflict between the Goddess and Kels Zalkri through interminable exposition. Once over this hump, the story picks up somewhat, with some expertly placed wit that never descends to the lame levels of self-conscious "humor" evident in many books of this ilk. (In other words, Aamodt doesn't force us to endure a nonstop string of annoying wisecracks and puns, for which he has my eternal blessing.) But for the most part, we are treated to lengthy riding scenes that seem to go on endlessly, and every time Zhadnoboth needs to cast a spell, which is a lot, Aamodt exhaustively catalogs every ingredient the mage uses. By page 150, my attention was seriously drifting. Aamodt wraps everything up with an ultraviolent, bravura finale that offers up a surprising revelation. But it's too bad he bores us on the way there.
A Name to Conjure With is a book I can only recommend with serious reservations to fantasy fans who have pretty much checked out everything else. It evidently did well enough for Aamodt to persuade Avon to release a sequel, A Troubling Along the Border. That's all the success you need to conjure these days.