The Gandalara Cycle is a set of seven novels published during 1981-86 which essentially contain one episodic story over 1,200 pages long. The series was conceived by Randall Garrett, famous for his 1960s Lord Darcy fantasy series, but he was taken ill so the work was completed by his wife, Vicki Ann Heydron. The Gandalara Cycle is commonly found in three paperback volumes: the first two containing three novels each (Gandalara Cycle I and II) the third just the final novel, The River Wall. If you manage to acquire these and are looking forward to immersing yourself in the tale, be warned that in the second volume, novels five and six are in the wrong order. I first read these books in the late 1980s and enjoyed them enough to keep on my shelves so I decided that it was time for another look. So far I have read only the first novel, The Steel of Raithskar.
Ricardo Carillo, former US Marine and now an elderly and terminally ill professor of languages, is on a farewell cruise around the Mediterranean when he sees a ball of fire heading straight for his ship at enormous speed. He recovers in the middle of a desert, parched and injured and with a dead man next to him, and begins a slow and painful journey to look for help before collapsing into unconsciousness. Recovering at an oasis, he discovers several things: he is not on our present-day Earth but in the land of Gandalara, which has a culture and technology similar to the Bronze-Age Mediterranean; he is not in his own body but is occupying the body of a young man called Markasset, of whose memories he retains only fragments apart from his understanding of the language which is like nothing he has heard before; the people are hominims but not quite Homo Sapiens; and he is a sha'um rider. The sha'um are giant fighting cats, the biggest animals in Gandalara, who form telepathic bonds with their riders, and he has only survived because Markasset's sha'um, Keeshah, carried him to safety.
Still very unsure of what is going on and how he should behave, Ricardo/Markasset and Keeshah travel to their home city of Raithskar where he discovers some uncomfortable facts: he owes a large sum of money in a gambling debt; he is engaged to be married; his estranged father, Thanasset, is suspected of complicity in the theft of a giant jewel, the Ra'ira, which is the symbol of the city; and Markasset is also suspected of having fled the city with the jewel. The rest of the novel is concerned with Ricardo's attempts to clear the names of Thanasset and himself while trying to recover more of Markasset's memories and determine his place in this strange, but increasingly appealing, land.
This is a fast, light and entertaining read which sets up the Ganadalara Cycle very well. There's more than an echo of Burroughs' Carter on Mars here, and references to other works including the giant telepathic cats in Schmitz's Novice, reviewed recently. It's an escapist adventure in the classic mould, made more immediate and involving by being told in the first person, and I'm looking forward to reading the the rest of the Cycle.