If you're going to write a book with a hero not only actually nicknamed "Hero", but whose full name is Heironymous Bonaventure, and do so with a straight face, then by golly, that book had better be a completely guileless, wide-eyed love letter to pulp adventure fiction of yore, chock full of monsters, lost cities, swordfights, high seas action, hairs-breadth escapes from certain doom, really big scorpions, and chicks who kick ass.
By a happy coincidence, this is precisely the sort of book Chris Roberson has delivered in Paragaea. Had this novel been released 30 years ago, it would've been published by DAW, had a Frank Kelly Freas or George Barr cover, and spawned 38 sequels with titles like Swords of Paragaea. Had it come out 30 years before that, it would've been serialized in one of the old magazines, and you'd have had to hide it from your mom and read it under the covers at night with a flashlight.
If Roberson is remotely interested in becoming a millionaire, he'll see to it a copy of this book ends up in the hands of Peter Jackson. Paragaea is geek crack. It wears its outlandishness and audacity on its puffy sleeve. Somehow it manages to be witty and self-aware without being smugly postmodern or self-congratulatory. Its influences aren't a secret; Burroughs' Barsoom, Farmer's World of Tiers and any number of other "earthmen get whisked to another world where adventure and destiny await" sagas from fantasy and SF's past leap to mind. Roberson also acknowledges Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comics and David Gerrold's work on the Land of the Lost TV show. Yeah, it gets a bit silly at times. But Roberson knows it. The book's sensawunda and spirited storytelling are simply irresistible.
The story is a quest of the most fundamental kind. Roberson's cleverness is in the casting. Our heroine is a Soviet cosmonaut, Leena Chirikova, orbiting the Earth in the early 1960's, when what should appear in the path of her Vostok but one of those damn wormholes to another universe that seem to get carelessly left lying around in pulp adventures of this kind.
After surviving a real ballbreaker of a crash-landing scene, Leena learns she is on the world of Paragaea. She has no sooner pulled herself from her wreckage than she is captured by a gang of leopard men, then just as promptly rescued by another leopard man, Balam, and his human companion, the aforementioned Heironymous. Hero, as Balam calls him with only mild snark, hails from Earth himself, and was a British naval lieutenant during the Napoleonic Wars. He fills Leena in on some of the details of Paragaea; that its human civilizations share real estate with numerous races of "metamankind", among whom are the Sinaa, Balam's leopard-men. Balam himself is a deposed Sinaa prince, who hopes to reclaim his throne from the treacherous cousins who usurped it. Hero, on the other hand, seems fairly content with life on Paragaea. After all, most everyone there considers Earth a myth, and no one knows the way back.
Leena is determined to get back, though, but not from any homesickness. As a loyal Soviet subject, she wants to report her discovery to the Kremlin and be rewarded for opening up a new world to them. Because they have nothing better to do, Hero and Balam guide her in her quest to find anyone who may know anything about the portals to Earth, and where one might be found. The journey, naturally, takes them all over the map, and is frought with nonstop dangers. On the way their little group grows, to include, among others, Benu, an "artificial man" programmed to collect all knowledge about the world and its peoples. He's handy to have around, as he can do things like rip dungeon doors off their hinges.
Paragaea is the kind of book where a chapter titled "Imprisoned" is promptly followed by a couple titled "Escape" and "Pursuit". Scarcely a chapter ends in which our unlikely heroes aren't in some kind of cliffhanger peril, usually involving being attacked; indeed, in the book's funniest scene, they've gotten so used to this that they're halfway through hacking up the latest gang to come upon them before they realize it's a rescue party.
Lest the whole thing seems like a simple exercise in dancing through the tropes, be assured Roberson really does know how to do satisfying escapist storytelling. As the tale progresses we do warm to these characters as characters. And I'm impressed with Roberson's versatility as an escapist writer. Paragaea is similar, thematically, to his previous Here, There & Everywhere (which also starred a Bonaventure), in that it deals with a heroine unstuck in universes. But each book is structurally distinct. Here, There took a contemporary speculative approach to the alternate-universe premise, employing such buzz-bin ideas as the Many Worlds Hypothesis directly, only tossing in some Clarkian "indistinguishable from magic" stuff when it made sense in the story. In Paragaea Roberson's gone entirely old-school, and woven these cutting-edge hard SF concepts into a Saturday matinee framework. Both books are fantastically entertaining, and should put Chris Roberson at the top of your reading list. What are you waiting for? All aboard for Paragaea!
(On his website Chris has the full text of a prequel novel, Set the Seas on Fire, describing what happened to Heironymous Bonaventure before he ended up in Paragaea. This book was later commercially released by Solaris.)