McClure Jones’ 1978 Cast Down the Stars is a standalone fantasy novel.
Glory is a skilled astrologer, the Second Starcaster of the Solstice Tower. There’s no doubt that she will eventually be First Starcaster.
Her career has been complicated by her parentage. Her parents were traitors whose mad scheme got them (and their followers) killed. While society in general does not hold this against Glory, her grandfather Sun in Winter does, and he sits on the ruling Council.
Her parents are long dead but their greed still imperils the land.
Ages ago the spirits raised the Serpent Wall to divide the civilized lands from the barbarian lands. Glory’s people know very little about the barbarians save rumours that the barbarians had a wealth of precious metals. Eager to get their hands on the metal, Glory’s parents and their followers collapsed part of the wall so they could march into the barbarian lands.
Whether or not the barbarians have the wealth legend says they do is still an open question. What is clear is that the barbarians are very good at killing. Every person in the expedition died. The only tangible results from the expedition were a mountain of corpses and a large hole in the Serpent Wall.
Guards stationed at the gap capture barbarian scouts infiltrating the civilized lands. The barbarian purpose is unclear — the prisoners are disinclined to talk — but being barbarian they can be assumed to be up to no good.
The immediate question of what to do with prisoners in a land that does not believe in killing is relatively easily resolved; the prisoners are sent out to sea for fate to deal with them as it pleases.
This leaves the matter of the gap in the wall. The best stone workers have failed to repair the gap. Perhaps the error lay in depending entirely on mundane methods to repair a defense known to be at least in part magical. Glory and her close friend Honor are dispatched to see if their magical skills can close the gap.
Whether or not they can do this in time to prevent barbarian hordes from pouring int into their defenseless land is an interesting question.
The author might not agree that this is a fantasy novel. The sense I get from the rather perfunctory bio is that Jones, who is better known for her romances, took astrology seriously. She might not have been ironic when the text describes the civilized people as “scientific.” Jones might say that this is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a distant future.
Also unclear: what’s up with the barbarians. The civilized people agree that fences make good neighbours, and that the barbarians can be assumed to be bad and their mystical leaders evil. Admittedly, this prejudice is supported by the brutal massacre that occurs partway through the book and by the comportment of the barbarian magicians that Glory encounters. But to look at the situation from another POV, the only thing the barbarians know about the so-called civilized people is that they tried to invade the barbarians a generation ago. The barbarians may be trying to deal with the clear and present danger of gold-hungry neighbours.
While the so-called civilized folk have no interest in diplomatic or trading relations with the folk outside the wall (and the barbarians appear just as uninterested in peaceful relations, what with the massacre and all), the polities within the wall have agreed to coexistence and compromise. It’s not clear why this is seen as impossible in dealing with the so-called barbarians but admittedly the novel provides no evidence attempts at diplomacy would produce anything but dead diplomats.
I am not quite sure what to make of this book. The prose is competent, but the antagonists are poorly fleshed out and the plot itself seems rather slender. The book is only 186 pages long; perhaps had it been longer it would have filled in some blanks. Or perhaps not. The best I can say of this book is that it’s mostly harmless1.
Cast Down the Starsappears to be out of print.
1: Editor disagrees. She hasn’t read the book, but the stark division between the good, civilized people and the bad barbarian people is ugly. Evil. Colonialist thinking!