I have just read all 4 books in this series, back to back, in the last week. I was hooked after the first book, and I think it was one of the more interesting introductory books I've ever read. I give the first book 5 stars. Tho, the series, probably only 3.5, I'll explain more at the end...
A future earth, that seems to be stuck in the 1500's. Ruled by a "Master Computer" that was developed long ago, when man was at the brink of destroying himself. Now the computer has devolved mankind into a state of technology (1500's) that can be brutal and savage...but, doesn't have the ability or technology to wipe out the world in the process.
This master computer controls all technology and knowledge in this world. However, it does use some of the "brightest" people from each culture to help it rule. These people are snatched from their primative cultures, trained, indoctrinated, and given the knowledge and technology, that the rest of the world is now ignorant of. The only caveat is, each person must return to his/her peoples for a couple of months every 2 years or so, to "stay in touch" with the culture they came from.
This computer isn't malevolent, it's just following it's programming to protect humankind from itself. However, the methods it uses to do this can be quite extraordinary.
The Master Computer has basically "de-populated" Earth, to a point where there is less than a million souls on the whole planet. It has done this by moving Billions off planet, to other planets. On Earth, it has basically created 1500's technology, and the small population's living there are ignorant of anything else. England now has kings, barons, knights and castles. China has Warlords and their peasants. And America is basically populated by Native American Indians.
Earth has basically become a protected museum of what life was like 500 years ago.
This is a story of Hawk's. Who is a Native American Indian, but was deemed bright and inquisitive enough by the Computer, to be taught about the knowledge and technology, that is prohibited to everyone else.
On one of his mandatory pilgrimmages back to his people, Hawks discovers some secrets about the Master Computer. That the people who created it, also created a way to shut it down. Basically, it involves locating 5 rings, and using them in a certain way. This is forbidden knowledge to even one such as Hawk's. This book is about what he does with that knowledge, and how the Master Computer reacts to him having it.
This was a great book, and the only book I've ever given a 5 star rating too. As soon as I finished it, I immediately went out and found the other 3 books in this series, and also got everything else I could find by Chalker.
Unfortunately, Book 1 is the only book in this series I believe was 5-star material.
The following is what I thought about the rest...
Book 2 - 4 stars.
Is actually a pretty good continuation of Book 1. Hawks has now been sent to a prison planet, where he has enlisted some interesting allies in his quest for the rings. It moves along pretty well, and we become more aware of where Chalker is heading in this series. Which is good...and bad.
After reading several of Chalkers books now, it seems Chalker has specific areas he particularly enjoys exploring. Mostly, Alien physical form and culture.
Chalker is big into alternative alien form. Much of this book, and the following books, revolve around these ideas. Alien physical differences, and how those differences can shape a society. It's not really my cup of tea...but, Chalker is good enough at it that I can appreciate his interest. He also approaches it in a unique way. Instead of having "real" aliens, he has given the Master Computer the technology to actual "change" humans into a form that is more suitable to a particular environment. Instead of terraforming a planet to meet humans needs...he changes the humans to meet the planet's needs. Interesting twist. The master computer does this through a process call "Transmutation."
By the end of these books...I was sorta sick of the Transmutation process :)
Book 3 - 2.5 stars.
This is where the series fell flat for me. We basically spend this whole book trying to get 1 ring (remember, there are 5). On one planet, with one set of "transmuted" humans..and the culture and society they have created.
Hawks team has to infiltrate this society to be able to steal a ring. That means, they have to change themeselves into these "transmuted" humans, and live amongst them, to be able to get close enough to snatch the prize. It was an in-depth look at how physical form can affect culture, and a specific look at that culture.
I can appreciate what Chalker was trying to do here, but, it really seemed to drag for me. This is where I realized where Chalkers real interests lay...societal/cultural/philosophical/religious explorations. Like I said, I can appreciate his perspective, but I guess I really wasn't in the mood for it after the first 2 books.
Book 4 - 3.5 stars
After book 3, I realized we only had one book left...and we've only got 2 rings!
That means, we have to find 3 rings, learn how to use them against the computer, and have a final episode...all in the last book! I couldn't help but feel, even before I started reading it...that this one would be rushed.
And, imho...it was.
This was still a good book. Better than the 3rd. But, I couldn't help feeling that if we'd spent less time finding one ring in book 3, we could have spent more time getting the other 3 rings.
My biggest complaint, however, was with the ending.
There are things I would have loved to have explored further. What would it have been like for someone to interface with the Master Computer? What would they have felt, or seen? How would they go about changing things through that interface, etc...
Instead, it just sorta ends and skips ahead. I was pretty disappointed in this. However, it did actually "end," even tho more abruptly than I would have preferred.
Overall, I would give the entire series 3.5 Stars. It still has one of the best first books I have ever read, and Chalker is an intelligent writer. I never felt I was reading something designed for a much younger audience, tho, I believe any age group could enjoy it. I may not have the same interests Chalker has...but, I can appreciate a good, intelligent writer when I see one.