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A Private Cosmos by Philip José Farmer4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsPerhaps aware that The Gates of Creation wasn’t half the novel it could have been without the presence of the wily Kickaha the Trickster, Farmer turns the third novel in his World of Tiers series into a vehicle for him. And it’s the most bravura, action-packed entry in the saga yet. This is adventure storytelling at its most kinetic. It opens in high gear and never downshifts throughout its length. I had a complete blast.

Set on the World of Tiers concurrently with the events in Gates — in which Wolff, Lord of the World of Tiers, was trapped in a bizarre multi-dimensional obstacle course set up, so he believed, by his murderous father — A Private Cosmos finds Kickaha fending off an invasion by the Bellers. Originally artificial life forms designed by the Lords to allow them to transfer and store their memories in other bodies, the Bellers have since become an independent, self-aware species in their own right, and one with all the intellect and power of the Lords themselves. Now they plan to conquer the World of Tiers in Wolff’s absence, and use its vast population to breed themselves into an unstoppable force millions strong.

Yet there is one thing in the Bellers’ path: Kickaha. The transplanted earthman knows all of the secret gates, codes and traps in Wolff’s palace, and the Bellers need this information to make their conquest complete. The book is thus one massive chase scene, with Kickaha staying only a hair’s breadth away from capture as he transports himself from level to level, even to the World of Tiers’ artificial moon, while he tries to destroy the Bellers one by one.

It sounds like it could become monotonous very easily, but Farmer knows full well that this kind of pure action talespinning needs not only a solid forward momentum, but plenty of wit into the bargain too. Funny little subplots pepper the narrative, the best of which has to do with the moon. In a nod to the series’ Edgar Rice Burroughs roots that is so brazen in its honesty that my respect for Farmer shot up several notches on its basis alone, he tells us that Wolff originally designed the moon after Burroughs’ Barsoom because Kickaha, a huge fan of the John Carter novels, suggested it. The only detail Wolff wouldn’t consider was to create “a living, breathing, thinking green Martian...just so Kickaha could run him through with a sword.”

Naturally, Kickaha is aided in his plight by a hot babe, in this instance one of Wolff’s sisters, Anana. Their developing romance is always concealed under a cloak of outward scorn, as you’d expect. Other characters from previous volumes put in an appearance as well, particularly the mad eagle-woman Podarge. She provides yet another constant peril our hero must survive.

The book only runs out of steam at the tail end, when it becomes more than a bit ridiculous having to keep track of exactly which body is possessed by which Beller, and just whom Kickaha is trying to avoid being attacked by. But the fact that Farmer maintains the narrative as well as he does for as long as he does is commendable. The finale, for the very first time in the series, openly sets up the next novel.

Having dealt handily with the allegorical aspects of the World of Tiers in the first two volumes (and to be honest, most of that was just in book one), Farmer keeps A Private Cosmos squarely within the bounds of swash and buckle. In doing so he has crafted a story that is certain to bring out his readers’ inner 13-year-old. Now if I can only find the right John Williams CD to go along with it.

Followed by Behind the Walls of Terra.