An irritatingly slapdash fantasy by the notoriously uneven author of such recent charmers as Project Pope and Special Deliverance. In a gear-grinding start--to fill in the background, the characters sit about making dull speeches--we learn that the still-vital Roman empire is 2000 years old, while far to the north swarm the barbarians: between them lies the Empty Land, haunt of ogres, dragons, trolls, and other assorted nasties (""the Evil""). Then, reappearing after a long absence, Uncle Raoul tells lord-of-the-castle Charles Harcourt the whereabouts of an ancient talisman, a prism containing the soul of a powerful saint--and brings news of Eloise, Harcourt's long-vanished girlfriend. So, on these flimsy pretexts, a Quest to the Empty Land is organized. Joining Harcourt: grumbling, good-hearted Guy, the local abbot; the Knurly Man, last of a prehuman race; waif-woodcarver-guide Yolanda. And soon they're beset on all sides by the Evil, bickering comfortably amongst themselves, and perturbed by some wacky allies--a journey which forms perhaps the most inventive, rousing, hair-raising travelogue Simak has ever written. One tremendously enjoyable sequence, then, surrounded by starchy-stiff dialogue, often-sloppy prose, and a dreadfully feeble conclusion: in all, one of the most exasperatingly erratic Simaks in years.