The post-apocalypse setting of this book, three thousand years after a nuclear war, is something different for Harness, but many of the themes, techniques, and plot devices of his novels show up.
As his Firebird is a sf version of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolt”, this story is a combination of Dante’s Inferno and, possibly, the myth of Persephone.
The narrator goes on a quest for his beloved Beatra (as in Dante’s Beatrice), is kidnapped and taken to the underground city of Dis (which really stands for the District of Columbia — an underground city built thousands of years ago to house the Federal Government). His aide is the female dire wolf Virgil. Dire wolves are mutant wolves who are smart and can see in infrared. The narrator swaps a portion of his brain with Virgil rendering them telepathic.
Like The Paradox Men with its corrupt Imperial America or, less so (though it still seems at least partially responsible for the extinction of man on Earth), the American government of Drunkard’s Endgame, this novel has the American government as the villain. The constitutional offices have long since degenerated into hereditary positions. They kidnap people from the surface. They plan to wipe out all chordate life off the Earth and repopulate when the Vortex technology is finally unable to protect Dis from earthquakes. Beatra is held in the Central Intelligence complex. I suspect some post-Watergate significance in having the sympathetic rebels of Dis call themselves Democrats.
Harness’ fondness for mutants shows up by having the narrator be a rare telepath. The notion of fate shows up with the prophecies that say the narrator will destroy the gods-eye — another looming apocalypse as in The Paradox Men, The Ring of Ritornel, and Firebird (though the apocalypse does occur in all those novels}. Here the apocalypse is limited to just Dis and, in effect, renews their corrupt culture by driving the decent underground dwellers to the surface where the re-unify with normal people and become respected members of the community.
The death of a loved one shows up here in the surprising death of Beatra after she is rescued (it fits in with Persephone not being allowed to return to the surface world full time). I liked the obsessive ruthlessness of Jeremy Wolfhead, the narrator, and his honest statement that any one who gets in the way of his retrieving Beatra is disposable. I liked all the clever manifestations of Wolfhead’s psychic ability to set up vortexes (and the Vortex Chamber represents, possibly, Harness’ silliest bit of pseudoscience). The plot certainly featured more direct killings than The Paradox Men and The Ring of Ritornel, in terms of the number of people Wolfhead kills, it seems to have the highest body count of any Harness novel I’ve read. I liked the Returner being Jeremy’s father aka Father Phaedrus.