After spending much of the '80's helping husband Robert Asprin edit the insanely popular Thieves' World anthology series — which made "shared worlds" the hottest thing in fantasy since chain mail bikinis — Lynn Abbey returned to her own imagination to offer up this misbegotten yarn that, while it avoids the stuffy prose of some of her other tales, still collapses under the weight of an uninteresting plot and unlikable, often depressing characters whose behavior and motivations are confused and inconsistent.
Berika is a young woman who lives in Walensor, ruled by an enormous pantheon of dieties with whom people communicate through the Web of Walensor, a field of magic power made up of energy called basi. Everyone on Walensor is born with some basi, and people have learned how to store basi in material objects. But very few people actually are able to become true mages and use basi to commune with the gods. Before the novel opens, a war has just been won against a corrupt mage who sought to wrest absolute control over the Web, in order to make himself a god. Now the survivors are trying to get back on track with the routines of daily life.
Berika lives in a tiny rural community where she has been betrothed in marriage to a dispicable cretin. Naturally, she is frantic to find a way out. One day she offers up a desperate prayer to her local diety. The surprising result summons up a "fetch," who turns out to be a young man named Dart, who possesses a strange harp that is brimming over with basi. Deciding the harp is the real answer to her prayer of deliverance, Berika plans to sneak away with it, not to learn how to harness its magic, but simply to sell it for enough gold to move so far away no one can ever find her. Yet it turns out that Dart is really a human being after all, spirited away by the goddess Weycha many years before to act as her champion. Now Weycha charges Dart with protecting Berika and getting her safely to Eyerlon, the city where the Web of Walensor is generated. So, after several distinctly unpleasant scenes in which Dart must not only deal with the nearly psychotically superstitious people of Berika's village, but save Berika from her doubly psychotic husband, Dart and Berika find themselves on the road to Eyerlon.
I would have to look long and hard to find a less pleasurable reading experience than witnessing Dart's having to deal with villagers shouting "Demon!" at him when he's never done anything the least bit threatening, or putting up with the weirdly inconsistent behavior of Berika and her mother, who seem gentle and loving one moment and almost monstrously hostile the next. Berika is hopelessly confused, which, at first, is fine, because of the situation she finds herself in. But she never seems to change. One minute she's desperate to flee her village, the next she's utterly resigned to her lot in a way that resembles clinical depression. Then back again! Abbey wants us to sympathize with her by ruthlessly depicting all her beatings and implied rapes by her vile husband. But when Dart retrieves the titular weapon from a magical tree and finally does the creep in, she's suddenly afraid of him. This is one fantasy heroine who doesn't need magic; she needs Prozac!
The second half of the novel is marginally better than the first. Dart learns how to be resourceful in his travels despite the fact all the memory of his earlier life has been stripped from him. Some gambling scenes late in the story are entertaining.
But Berika actually grows more loathsome. Abbey herself even describes her as a "snarling girl," leaving me to wonder why the hell she thought any reader would find Berika a sympathetic fantasy heroine in the first place. Helpful hint to writers: causing your reader to actually hope something ill befalls your protagonist is not the idea.
Berika is unforgivably spiteful and stupid. Despite her life of abuse and terror back home, she is for reasons hard to make out deeply resentful towards Dart for taking her on this journey to Eyerlon, a trip that she initially wanted to make anyway. At one point she even whines in self-pity, "Without Dart, I wouldn't be here at all. I'd be safe at home..." Excuse me? Safe at home? Where she has been thrown against walls hard enough to crack plaster? Where she has been threatened with disfigurement? At times like these it is hard to tell whether or not this is a case of of Berika's being an idiotic character, or Abbey simply having her head up her ass as a writer. (Later cast members, such as a prostitute who keeps saying "Strewth!", are no less annoying.) Whatever the case, misguided characterizations and joyless storytelling rob the reader of any reason to read this novel.
Oh, and one more thing. The surprising revelation in the novel's climax involving Dart's true identity...is completely given away by the back cover blurb. Good one, Ace.