Bleys Ahrens is now a political power on the planet Association, home of the Friendlies. His people - his Others, not Dorsai or Friendly or Exotic, but hybrids - are in place in all the new worlds and are ready to take his message to the greater human public. But within his inner circle is Henry McLean, Soldier of God, and a True Faith-Holder.
Henry fears for the soul of his nephew Bleys, and while he guards, he also watches and judges. And beyond Bleys Ahrens' control is Hal Mayne: the one man in all the human worlds who might successfully challenge Bleys in his bid for power.
For Hal Mayne is the true culmination of the Cycle's grand design. Bleys would give anything to convert Hal Mayne to his cause - or failing that, to destroy him.
Since its beginning in 1959 as a serialization in Astounding Science Fiction, Dickson's award-winning Childe Cycle has reflected the changes in contemporary ``space opera.'' While the early works revealed the author's skill in seamlessly melding plot complications and his deft, journalistic prose, this latest entry deals with more levels of society than did the earlier works as it follows the attempt of Bleys Ahrens and his troupe (including his brother Dahno and his right-hand woman, Antonia Lu) to encourage a grand unification of all worlds. The series has always seemed based on the idea that those who are destined to lead do so while the rest of us are the better for leaving that task to them. Here the ``Great Teacher,'' as Ahrens is often called, and his crew visit various planets, form interplanetary alliances and continue the search for Hal Mayne, the primary hero of the Cycle. Machinations and intrigues abound, including kidnapping, drugging and threats, but Dickson's presentation is so balanced that even readers unfamiliar with Mayne's role in the series may sympathize more with him than with Ahrens-or with Henry MacLean, who joins the troupe while maintaining that the Great Teacher is guided by Satan, a subplot that may develop in future volumes. And so the Cycle rotates on, with this particular spin, often overwrought but never less than interesting.