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River Running Free

Voyage to the City of the Dead

By Alan Dean Foster 

17 Dec, 2020

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Alan Dean Foster’s 1984 Voyage to the City of the Dead is a standalone novel set in his Humanx Commonwealth setting.

Eager to explore the mysteries of Tslamaina — Horseye to off-worlders — scientists Etienne and Lyra Redowl have been waiting impatiently for permission from the native authorities to explore far up the Barshajagad canyon along the course of the spectacular river Skar. 

Due to Horseye’s unique geology, shaped by a vast, ancient impact crater, Horseye has three native species of intelligent tool user, each one adapted to very different conditions. The Mai live in the humid, hot lowlands, the Na up in the cold, low-pressure heights, and the Tsla in an intermediate region. This is the only planet in the Commonwealth in which such a juxtaposition occurs. 

Until now, the sticking point has been that the Mai functionaries wanted payment in proscribed off-world technology, which Commonwealth law forbids the Redowls from providing. Now, the authorities propose a lesser payment: simply permit two Mai guides, Irquit and Homat, to travel with the two scientists.

The Mai do not have the Terrans’ best interests at heart.

While the off-worlders may not supply the locals with advanced technology, the Commonwealth allows the humans to use advanced technology themselves. For example, the Redowls will be using a hydrofoil boat to zoom up the Skar at speeds no local boat could match. The Mai covet the boat, thus Irquit and Homat’s true mission: orchestrate the hijacking of the humans’ marvelous boat.

The Redowls’ kind treatment of Homat inspires him to switch sides. Exit Irquit, leaving the humans and their guide to continue up river. The humans’ troubles are not over. The Skar winds its way down vast elevations through a myriad of climates. Each region is different but none could be said to be safe. Additionally, while geologist Etienne is most interested in the planet’s geology, ethnologist Lyra is fascinated by the prospect of documenting the world’s natives; whose work takes priority is a continual source of bickering between husband and wife. 

If they persevere, however, they might just reach the legendary City of the Dead. There ancient secrets await them, as well as vast treasure. Not to mention the opportunity to be murdered by an ally seduced by greed.


Zooming up an unfamiliar river at speeds of up to seventy kilometres an hour seems like a life choice likely to lead to all sorts of adventures regardless of the disposition of the natives. 

The Redowl marriage is remarkably dysfunctional. The pair spend a lot of time sniping at each other as their professional interests tug them in different directions. Lyra believes the two of them are an excellent research team, but there’s not a lot of evidence that is currently true. This is where I would usually advise the couple seek counselling, but the author got there before me: the problems with the Redowls are so obvious a Tsla does his best to provide them with advice. When your marriage is so troubled the non-humans are noticing, it’s pretty bad. 

This is the sort of adventure that used to be set in places like the Amazon and the Congo in days of yore. As one might guess from the fact the Commonwealth has graciously provided Tslamaina with a human name, the Commonwealthers treat low-tech locals with off-handed condescension. The locals, many quite sympathetic, die in huge numbers as the expedition wends its way upriver1. At least the human habit of underestimating locals comes back to bite the Redowls in the ass on a number of occasions. 

This pattern of Commonwealth folk underestimating seemingly backward natives, only to discover that this is a serious mistake, is a theme that appears over and over in the Humanx books. Despite that, no one seems to have told other explorers to wise up. I suppose the humans on Midworld were not in a position to share their experiences, 

but you’d think eventually some explorers would report back and others would learn to respect the locals. 

This book is fairly harmless. Foster writes for speed, not craft, but he does provide the reader with spectacle and adventure as the novel races towards its abrupt ending. 

Voyage to the City of the Dead appears to be out of print in North America. It is available here (Amazon UK).

1: I am reminded of some explorer’s (I forget the name) account of his adventures traveling up the Amazon in the 18th or 19th century. He offhandedly complains that the locals he hired had all died. Hundreds of them. Luckily for the Redowls, the Tsla who decide to accompany the humans are fatalistic and not terribly upset when yet another one of them dies in an new and interesting way while the expedition is penetrating unfamiliar territory.