Third or fourth reading: First read in the mid 1980s.
This science fiction/fantasy is one of my favorite escapist reads. It has a unique and creative premise, features an unusual depth of characterization (for this genre), and includes one suspenseful and surprising event after another. Though it is lengthy (nearing 2,000 pages in four volumes), May's writing style is such that a reader can zip right through in record time. I fail to understand why it has not become a cult classic; it is that good.
Volume 1-The Many-Colored Land
In the mid 2,000s, when Earth has joined many other planets and races in a Galactic Milieu, a scientist invents a time machine, but it only goes one way--back to Earth's Pliocene Epoch. With no return trip being possible, the device seems of no use, not until those who do not fit into the new society begin choosing it as a means to escape to a time of more freedom for individuality. The action of the novel centers on eight such travelers:
*a nun, who is suffering from compassion fatigue following years of counseling dying patients and their families;
*an elderly man whose wife of many years has just died;
*a star ship captain who has lost his license to fly;
*a teenage lesbian girl with anti-social behavior;
*a former metaphysical Grand Master, who has lost her mind-meld and psychic abilities due to an accident;
*a gigantic man whose violent and quick temper has unsuited him for the peaceful new society;
*a sociologist who is following his "one true love," who had traveled back earlier;
*a mischievous trickster whose antics have made him persona non grata in the Milieu.
Here comes the surprise. Instead of the 100,000 humans who had traveled to the Pliocene earlier, the eight new arrivals are greeted by very tall, very beautiful humanoid ALIENS!!! from another galaxy, who had been stranded on earth when their sentient space vehicle expired. Their latent metaphysical abilities are enhanced to operancy by the golden torcs they wear. They have essentially enslaved most of those from Earth by the use of torcs of various metals, which give them psychic control. A few very valuable humans have been given golden torcs, raising them to the level of the overlords. The aliens have instigated a quasi-feudal society, with humans, of course, as the vassals.
One of the problems faced by the aliens, called the Tanu, is that the background radiation of Earth interferes with their fertility, so that they produce few offspring, despite their voracious sexual appetites. They have found that a solution to the population problem is to use humans as breeding stock. The nun and the lesbian girl, in particular, find this to be problematic.
Another problem faced by the Tanu is the Firvulag, their so-called "shadow brethren" who traveled to the planet with them, even though they are traditional enemies. Both races were expelled from their home planet because they insisted on adhering to their ancient battle religion. Each race seeks the extinction of the other.
Sorry for the long set-up, but this is a premise entirely original in my reading experience.
Another unique attribute of this saga is that most of this first volume is given over to character development of the eight time-travelers.
Volume 2-The Golden Torc
The group of eight is divided by the Tanu: four deemed of especial value by the Tanu are taken to the capital city and four of lesser value are sent to another location where they are to be assigned tasks suitable to their talents. The latter four escape to join free humans who are hiding out in the wild. The story follows both groups as they cope with their new situation. Important new characters are introduced.
*The nun regains her compassion.
*The elderly man finds new love.
*The star-ship captain finds a new purpose in life.
*The teenage girl's latent metaphysical powers are transformed by the time passage into psychic operancy. She later is driven insane.
*The former Grand Master metaphysical regains her psychic abilities.
*The violent man finds gentleness through love.
*The sociologist embarks on a study of the impact of humans on Pliocene society at the behest of the Tanu.
*The trickster also gains metaphysical operancy and plots to take control of the Many-Colored Land.
This volume is maybe my favorite because the story encompasses so many twists and turns and suspenseful adventures, plus some developing love stories. It culminates in a surprising catastrophic event which changes the whole nature of the Tahu-human-Firvulag conflict.
Volume 3-The Non-Born King
Despite all odds, the human trickster assumes the kingship of the land. The Firvulag, risen in power after the cataclysm, plot against the Tanu and the new king. Meanwhile, in North America the adult children of the instigators of a Metapsychic Rebellion which had occurred 27 years previous in the Milieu plan to travel to Europe, against the objections of their parents, to build a new time machine which would provide the way back to the future. The Tanu Battlemaster, long thought to be dead, returns to challenge the trickster for the kingship. The free humans discover and repair the flying machines which had brought the Tanu and Firvulag from their dying space ship to the Many-Colored Land. Plus many other exciting incidents.
Volume 4-The Adversary
The former leader of the Metapsychic Rebellion in the Milieu enters center stage. As the most powerful psychic in the Pliocene world, will he stop at preventing his children from escaping via the new time machine or will he also decide to unseat the upstart trickster to take over the Many-Colored Land? Meanwhile, the Firvulag are preparing for what they are convinced will be the Nightfall War, the alien equivalent to Armageddon.
This series has some shortcomings, to be sure. A few story strands are left hanging. A few events are illogical. (How does it happen that all the aliens speak colloquial English, even those who have been isolated from humans?)
One interesting added element that May inserts is that many of the happenings and customs of the aliens are currently remembered in present-day legends and folk tales. One of the humans concludes: "Both Tanu and Firvulag will contribute to the Homo sapiens stem. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that remnants of both groups persisted on Earth almost into historic times, mating with human stock just as they have mated with time travelers here in the Pliocene. Our myths and legends and other heritage of the collective unconscious confirm it."
I highly recommend this series to any fan of fantasy/science fiction. It is far superior to most others I have read, including Game of Thrones.