Paperback: 656 pages
Publisher: Orbit (4 Nov 2004)
Jack Chalker had certain tropes as a writer, and one of them certainly shows up in this series - that of the protagonist not always ending up in the same body as at the start. In this series, he does something else, too.
The outer framing story is based in the Confederacy, a human civilisation covering thousands of worlds and a fair chunk of the Galaxy. An unknown alien robot spy - indistinguishable from human - has infiltrated and caused major worries. And it appears that the spy has come via a solar system known as the Diamond: four habitable planets dominated by a viral lifeform that prevents people, once infected, ever being able to leave without dying. Not able to leave? Well, that makes an escape-proof prison. So the four worlds are the dumping ground for major criminals, but they're also rather difficult to spy on, because any agent is going to be sent on a one-way trip.
OK, so much for the McGuffin. Our unnamed hero has his mind cloned and implanted into four bodies, one for each of the worlds, while the original him remains outside, to receive reports. This first book concerns one clone investigating the world of Lilith, one where only will power can maintain anything artificial. Naked into this world he must go, and work his way up through a feudal society to confront and defeat the Lord of Lilith.
There aren't many great surprises here - one of the main plot points is signalled quite hard - and there is some appalling copy editing (when a minor character is initially introduced as a 'young woman', but described a few lines later as having white hair and wrinkles, you know something went tits-up). Chalker isn't great at characterisation. On the other hand, there are some fun ideas, and though overall I wouldn't say it's great, it's among Chalker's more inventive work. I enjoyed it.