Let's talk about why Hiero's Journey isn't the best book ever written.It has everything, if by "everything" you mean "giant attack weasels" and "hypnotic axe-wielding lizard-men," but now people only remember the novel because it inspired Dungeons & Dragon's psionics rules.
And Hiero's Journey has a lot going for it. Its unapologetic absurdity has a dreamlike quality. I could imagine reading it as a child and then, as an adult, being amazed it was real and not just a confused misremembering of other, less ambitious, media. It has several dynamite scenes, including a thrilling escape from a fortress of evil psychics. Though the future of 7000 AD seems to contain only one woman, most of the characters are non-white (Hiero himself is a Metis), which is a novelty today, let alone in the seventies. And--in this age of ironic posturing--Hiero's Journey is invincibly, defiantly unironic. The main character is a future psi-Mountie and you are invited by the author either to buy into the fantasy or get out. I respect that.
But for all that, Hiero's Journey plods. Like with so much post-Tolkien-revival fiction, there's too much damn walking around, but the novel's problems are deeper than its occasional monotony, or its crude and over-enthusiastic prose. Hiero's Journey never winks or sneers at its material, which is a blessing, but it never really winks at all, or smiles, or plays with its conceits. Hiero himself is a gormless white-hat with all the complexity of a Lensman. He's a man out of time, a protagonist in the 70s who has definitely never smoked a joint, burned his draft card, or listened to The Doors. And he's not a reaction to those types of heroes--it's like Lanier doesn't even know the landscape has changed.
Our psychic protagonist's psychic deadness drags on the whole story, giving us prose that's flat and mechanical despite all the exclamation points, devoid of allusions that might enrich the (admittedly impressive) weird fauna and cultures of Lanier's world, despite all the piled-up adjectives. I have read prose containing less craft but rarely containing less ambition. Nothing sparkles.
The simplistic morality and joyless prose are significant faults, but Hiero's Journey offers something for the fantasy-history aficionado. This novel inspired Gary Gygax's D&D rules, and not just the psionic rules. (Or the threefold alignment system: Hiero's faux-Catholic church, the religion of his druid buddy, and the Satanic dark brotherhood, correspond neatly to Law, Neutrality, and Chaos, but so do many things.) But here's a more interesting question: does Hiero's Journey represent the source of LEVELING, as a concept in Dungeons & Dragons, and by extension as an element of most fantasy games today?
Here's an excerpt:
He was learning something the Abbey scholars of the mental arts were
just beginning to conceive, the fact that mental powers accrete in a
geometric, not arithmetical, progression, depending on how much and
how well they are used. The two battles Hiero had won...had
given...his already strong mind a dimension and power he would not
himself have believed possible. And the oddest thing was, he knew it.
(God, that prose is dire. The book contains several similar examples, but this one was the only one that didn't ramble for most of a page.)
Granted, this refers to psychic combat and psychic leveling. Also, early D&D rewarded more experience points for plunder than for combat. But perhaps the sheer mechanistic oddness of Hiero's "leveling" here, and the language used, inspired Gary as he formulated Dungeons & Dragons.
Hiero's Journey is an uneven and at times frustrating book. The ideas are excellent, the story serviceable, and often the action is thrilling, but leaden prose and lazy characterization hamper what might have been one of the best stories of its era. Read it because it's historically interesting, or because you've had your fill of sandy wastelands and want to see the weird end of the post-apocalypse.
But if you're looking for a book that's more than the sum of its parts, leave Hiero's Journey on the spinner rack.