Vicki Ann Heydron and Randall Garrett’s 19811 The Steel of Raithskar is the first volume in their Gandalara sword and sorcery fantasy series2.
Aged Richard Carillo sets out on a cruise expecting to live only a few months before untreatable terminal illness kills him. The incandescent meteor falling from the sky comes as a surprise.
Waking up after being hit by a bolide is also unexpected. The surprises keep coming.
Richard finds himself in the middle of a vast desert surrounded (although it will take some time for him to discover this fact) by immense, unscalable walls. Overhead, the sky is overcast, denying him any astronomical hints as to where or when he is. Next to him, a corpse: a warrior of an unfamiliar (humanoid but not necessarily human) race.
By rights, Richard should have died in the desert. He survives thanks to the intervention of a giant cat, who drags him to the nearest habitation. There the kindly inhabitants, of the same odd race as the dead man, give Richard water. He looks in the bowl and is surprised to find that he looks just like his hosts. He has been transformed.
He eventually discovers that he is in Gandalara, which rather unhelpfully translates as “People Place.” Richard’s mind has been transferred into the body of a warrior named Markasset. The giant telepathic cat is named Keeshah and is Markasset’s close companion. When Markasset passed by the habitation on his way into the desert, he was guarding a caravan. The caravan appears to have been set upon by desert bandits and perished.
When Richard finds his way to Markasset’s home, he finds the household in turmoil. His father, Thanasset, is one of the men trusted with guarding the sacred Ra’ira. The Ra’ira was stolen while Thanasset was on duty. Since the room in which the Ra’ira is kept can only be unlocked by a guard, Thanasset is the logical suspect. He swears he is innocent, and Richard believes him. Still, there appears to be no way than collusion for someone to have entered the locked room.
Thanasset is charged with the theft and Richard (as Markasset) is believed to be complicit. Richard has no choice but to solve the puzzle himself. That is, provided he can evade arrest.
Richard isn’t the first alien soul to possess a Gandalaran native. Exactly how this process works is unclear, but visitors are given just enough of their hosts’ memories to function — minimally. There are still large gaps in their knowledge base, a deficit that is sure to land them in trouble.
We eventually learn how the sacred Ra’ira was stolen from a locked room; it’s not quite as simple as “a wizard did it,” but that’s close. One would think that inhabitants of a world in which magic is a daily reality would immediately seize on such an explanation. In this case, the obvious explanation isn’t even considered by Zadorn, the official in charge of the case. He has a pash for Richard/Markasset’s fiancée and would like to put his rival out of the way (shades of The Count of Monte Cristo ).
Because this is a first volume, there’s a whole lot of infodumping going on, interspersed with hairsbreadth escapes, sword duels, and other derring-do.
Prose and plotting: unremarkable but serviceable. The book is a combination of portal fantasy and locked-room mystery. We learn whodunnit in this volume, but catching the fellow is left to later installments. Likely this was intended as an enticement to purchase later books in the series.
One purported author of this novel, Randall Garrett, died in 1987, having spent eight years in an encephalitis-induced coma. Before his illness, he had written down a draft for this novel and an outline for the series. It seems likely that his wife Vicki Ann Heydron did most of the writing3.
1: May 1981, which makes it just a bit too late for the Tears reviews.
2: The entire series comprises:
- The Steel of Raithskar (1981)
- The Glass of Dyskornis (1982)
- The Bronze of Eddarta (1983)
- The Well of Darkness (1983)
- The Search for Kä (1984)
- Return to Eddarta (1985)
- The River Wall (1986)
3: I would cite Wikipedia as a source for this, but they cite me.