At the finale of A Name to Conjure With (and the rest of this sentence contains a major spoiler for that novel — if you care), Sandy MacGregor helped the Goddess defeat the evil Kels Zalkri, only to discover that She was not necessarily any less nasty than Kels was. It was an okay twist to a story in a genre that usually paints its characters' hats pretty solid shades of either black or white. But A Troubling Along the Border, alas, is merely a dull and routine retread of its predecessor. Though it gets off to a promising start, it soon settles into a groove even more dreary and plodding than before, and often the story even reads as if it were a novelization of an RPG campaign (find the secret trapdoor to the hidden armory, etc., etc.).
Sandy MacGregor, now unable to return to Earth, finds himself in the army of the Rithian Empire, leading a border patrol on a mission to rescue one of the Goddess's priestesses, or "lulzi," a snotty little teenager named Anala. Though it doesn't help that Aamodt offers up patronizing characterizations of women right from the start, this hardly turns out to be the book's worst problem.
It seems the Goddess is again threatened, this time by an evil being named Jara Greenteeth. "Destroying Jara Greenteeth would rid Zarathandra of a bloodthirsty monster," sayeth Aamodt, to which I immediately responded, "And?" Having already read one book about this place, I still don't feel as if I know enough about it to determine whether or not I give a damn. You see, unlike the greatest fantasy writers (Tolkien, Martin, G.G. Kay, Peake), or even some of the the not-so-greatest but still competent, Aamodt fails to make his world of Zarathandra palpably real to the reader. There's nothing to create a sense of wonder here. It's all just a bunch of arid, bleak desert land that scarcely seems worth peeing on, let alone fighting and dying for. We are given no intimation of what its cultures may be like, its forms of government. Some history was divulged in the first book, but it wasn't enough to do the trick. All we know is that there are people on the Goddess's side and people on the other side. Sandy fights for the "Rithian Empire." Sounds grandiose, sure, but I have no sense of what that place really is.
Then there's the problem of the Goddess, too. Having discovered at the end of A Name to Conjure With that She is, to put it gently, a duplicitous, avaricious, spiteful, violent, and downright evil bitch, does Aamodt honestly think I'm going to root for her over this Jara Greenteeth thing? Especially when there are no sequences in the plot of this novel that give me any direct evidence that Jara is the "bloodthirsty monster" described? I know for a fact after reading the first novel that the Goddess is a bloodthirsty monster. I say overthrow Her ass and, while you're at it, plant some trees on this planet!
Sandy himself is a better character than he was in the first novel, but Zhadnoboth the conniving wizard is his same old self and the girl Anala is by turns irritating, which is intentional, and vague, when Aamodt wants her to convey a sense of the mystical. The rest of the characters are straight from D&D Central Casting and there's little depth to anybody. The only thing troubling about this Border is that it's simply a bore.