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ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person...
The Hero, Evelyn Cyril "Easy" Gordon, is a scarred veteran of an unspecified Southeast Asian conflict, living on his pittance of a military benefit while trying to improve his lot in any honest way he can, only to be repeatedly shot down by either Murphy's Law or the unpleasant realities of the mid-20th Century. Due to an unorthodox upbringing and being an Army brat, he has a number of unusual skills for a man of his time, including swordsmanship. He is ekeing out a surprisingly content life on the French Riviera with the few dollars he gets in benefits (living in a tent, eating light, buying day-old newspapers) when an unusual ad in the personals section of the Paris Match (quoted above) catches his eye. He ignores it, but the advertisement keeps showing up wherever he looks, ending with a clipping mailed anonymously to him. He decides to finally investigate it, if just to find out what the gag is, only to find himself thrust into the middle of a swords-and-sorcery adventure with a beautiful sorceress and a snarky manservant at his side.
The sorceress has many names, but they all seem to mean "star", which is what Gordon calls her. And when he replies, "Oh, 'Scar' will do" when she asks what to call him, she dubs him "Oscar", which grows on him. The manservant is a shifty fellow by the name of Rufo who seemingly knows every trick of dirty fighting ever discovered by mankind, not to mention a thousand unlikely and entertaining stories.
The three of them fight their way across a world called Nevia, facing golems, dragons and a nearly-fatal case of Values Dissonance. Along the way, Oscar and Star get married, Rufo gets snarkier, and everyone nearly dies several times. It's not until they're almost at their goal that Oscar learns the truth -- Star is in reality the Empress of the Twenty Universes, who sought out Oscar because a very sophisticated computer analysis determined him to have precisely those qualities needed to rescue the Egg of the Phoenix, a device containing all the accumulated wisdom of millennia of Emperors and vital to ruling the Twenty Universes.
Together they make their way to the hostile Pocket Dimension of Karth-Hokesh, in which the never-seen opposition has constructed the Mile-High Tower to hold the Egg: an immense three-dimensional maze, with a creature called "The Eater of Souls" at its heart. Along the way, all of Oscar's qualities come into play. After an exceedingly narrow victory, the triumphant hero travels to Star's planet where he becomes her consort, with all the riches and knowledge of the Twenty Universes at his command. Then he discovers that he's completely unsuited to this life and reluctantly returns to his old life on Earth without her. Only Oscar discovers he's completely unsuited to life there, too, now, and is far happier out on the Glory Road having adventures.
- Achievements in Ignorance: Oscar, knowing nothing of hypergeometry, somehow manages to feed Igli to himself, thereby killing the unkillable construct. He is complimented on this by Star and Rufo.
- Author Appeal: Casual nudism, a strong female protagonist, multiversal travel, a Free-Love Future, and a Libertarian utopia -- all trademarks of Heinlein's writing.
- Author Avatar: When asked by a fan which of his many characters was intended to represent himself, Heinlein jokingly claimed it was Igli.
- Big Labyrinthine Building: The Mile-High Tower, where the bad guys hid the Egg. It's so elaborate, in fact, that hundreds of Star's spies died figuring out the route to its hiding place.
- Blue and Orange Morality: Star recounts to Oscar how she was shocked to find out that sex is a salable commodity on Earth. Elsewhere in the Twenty Universes, a woman's sexuality is considered an integral part of her spiritual existence and it can not be bought and sold, only partaken of as a gift of the woman. She's also unpleasantly surprised to find out that Oscar turned down the sexual advances of their host's daughters and wife the night before. While he was perfectly willing to bed the wife, the Oscar deflated at the thought of bedding the youngest daughter; she just looked too young for him and triggered his age taboo. Their host was so insulted that he turned down their gift that he expelled them from his home at first light. After the problem was explained, however, Oscar ended up with the host's wife and older daughter.
- Bothering by the Book/Obstructive Bureaucrat: Oscar remarks "Regardless of T.O., all military bureaucracies consist of a Surprise Party Department, a Practical Joke Department, and a Fairy Godmother department. The first two process most matters, as the third is very small; the Fairy Godmother Department is one elderly female GS-5 clerk usually out on sick leave."
- Brain Uploading: Of a sort -- the Egg contains the recorded memories of thousands of years of Emperors/Empresses, and part of each Emperor's job is to use the Egg to imprint himself with the memories of all his predecessors.
- The Call Left a Message: In this case, a newspaper ad.
- Congruent Memory: Rufo learned to shave by doing it on corpses, so he can only shave Oscar while he's lying down. He claims to have learned this from his time as an undertaker. Star says she can't remember him ever being an undertaker, but since both of them lie as easily as they breathe, it's hard to tell who's being honest there.
- Dagwood Sandwich: Oscar offers to create one for a girl he meets at a party on Center. Primitive Earth culture at least has this novelty to offer.
- Dangerously Close Shave: Related to Congruent Memory, above, Rufo and Oscar start a semi-serious Running Gag with the Deadly Euphemism, "shaving your corpse."
- Desperately Looking for a Purpose In Life: Oscar; nothing on Earth seems to properly suit him either before his adventure, or (most especially) after.
- Dinosaurs Are Dragons: The "dragons" that the party fights on one world are tyrannosaur-like in appearance but breathe fire. Oscar proceeds to hang a lampshade on this trope.
- Draft Dodging: Oscar tries very hard to avoid getting into the unnamed conflict in Southeast Asia, but eventually resigns himself to it as there are no other viable options. Interestingly, the conflict seems to be in Vietnam, although the book was published in 1963, well before the period of major U.S. combat involvement there began. Not strictly this trope as he wasn't actually drafted; it's just that after every other option was exhausted, the Army was the only thing left for him, and he joined hoping that the VA would pay for his college education after he mustered out.
- Dueling Scar: Oscar considers attending Heidelberg so he can earn dueling scars. He thinks they'll be worth extra pay from a defense industry job.
- Earth Is the Center of the Universe: Embarrassingly averted; Earth is such a backwater that Star's civilization hasn't even got an embassy there. It's just very convenient as a major hub in the Portal Network.
- Embarrassing First Name: Oscar was born "Evelyn Cyril". His nickname, "E. C.", or "Easy", isn't much better. He's quite pleased when Star dubs him Oscar.
- Finagle's Law: Pretty much seems to run Oscar's life from the moment he graduated high school to the day he meets Star.
- Flynning: Discussed and averted -- Oscar's final duel with the Eater of Souls is decidedly not play fighting.
- Fountain of Youth: Longevity therapy is standard in Star's culture (very similar in principle to that discussed in Time Enough for Love). She herself has lived several centuries and has Oscar treated the same way, unknowingly.
- Free-Love Future: Marriage in Star's society comes in infinite varieties and with infinite customs; the one rule she makes about it is that everyone has to respect everyone else's rules. In Center, the heart of the Empire, they work on a "toss your shoes" rule. Marriage is as simple as moving in, and if she wants you out, you'll find your shoes on the doorstep.
- Giant Flyer: The blood hawks.
- Goldilocks: Referenced by Oscar, who calls Jocko's wife and two daughters "The Three Bares" after they are offered (nude) to him.
- Good Bad Girl: Star.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: Oscar is named by Star for the scar on his face, earned during a bayonet fight with an enemy soldier.
- Heroes Prefer Swords: By Vietnam-era Earth history, swordsmanship is an obsolete art; the fact that Oscar knows it is one of the things that makes him attractive to Star as a potential Hero, and it turns out to be absolutely vital. Oscar remarks that all true heroes should have one.
- Hideous Hangover Cure: Star knows one, and the mnemonic for it is a Shout-Out to Macbeth: "Eye of newt and toe of frog..."
- Hyperspace Arsenal: Literally. The trunk that Rufo and Star bring with them is collapsible down to the size of a small pack but opens up into a massive armory. In a rare realistic treatment, the amount of energy required to accomplish this causes the thing to explode like a bomb when it's accidentally dropped into a swamp.
- I Have Many Names: Star has truckloads.
- In Harm's Way: Oscar's primary occupation. He calls it "being a Hero".
- I Shall Taunt You: Used on the indestructible construct Igli to get him mad enough to disregard common sense tactics.
- Magitek: From Oscar's point of view, all of Star's gadgetry and "witchcraft" is this. From her point of view, it's just science.
- The Milky Way Is the Only Way: Although Star rules the Twenty Universes, it is unclear whether any of them managed to get out of their local version of the Milky Way -- if they even have one, as the laws of physics are different in each one.
- The Multiverse: Inter-universal as well as interstellar travel is part of Star's technology. At times the lines blur between whether a planet is in a different universe or merely a different solar system.
- Mummies At the Dinner Table: Star relates a tale of a woman who had her deceased husbands stuffed and mounted and kept them in her house.
- Naked First Impression: Oscar first meets Star on Île du Levant, a Mediterranean island where casual nudity is accepted and indeed required.
- Named Weapons: Oscar's sword, "Lady Vivamus". He named it from the motto etched onto it, "Dum vivamus, vivamus!" ("While we live, let us live!")
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: The Eater of Souls, a witty, Faux Affably Evil construct set at the heart of the Mile-High Tower who waits for The Hero to come so he can dissect his character, shortly before dissecting his body.
- Pocket Dimension: Karth-Hokesh, where the Mile-High Tower is located. Not so much a universe as simply a place, as Star describes it.
- Portal Network: The basis of interstellar and intergalactic travel; Earth is important mainly as it's a major hub.
- The Quest: Subverted in that all of the journey through Nevia and on to Karth-Hokesh wasn't required -- they were perfectly capable of going from the Riviera directly to the Mile-High Tower without bothering with anything in between. Star deliberately took the long route in order to get Oscar used to being a hero along the way.
- Really Gets Around: Star, partly as a result of the Free-Love Future but also as an acknowledged relief valve for the enormous stress of running the Twenty Universes.
- Shout-Out: Numerous shout-outs to myth, legend and the few fantasy novels in existence in 1963, including references to Norse Mythology, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and Cyrano de Bergerac (the Never-Born).
- So What Do We Do Now?: What does a Hero do after beating the bad guy, saving the Twenty Universes, and marrying the Empress? Oscar finds himself asking this exact question.
- Standard Hero Reward: Deconstructed. Oscar's much happier out on the road slaying dragons than as the pampered, but ultimately useless consort of an Empress.
- Stellar Name: Star, of course.
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: When Oscar returns to Earth, he discovers that it's lost any appeal for him.
- The Strength of Ten Men: Oscar quotes, "My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure," sarcastically.
- Values Dissonance: What shuts down the feast at Jocko's in Nevia, and nearly gets Oscar, Star and Rufo killed -- Oscar reacts as a mid-20th-Century American when offered a chance to impregnate any one or more of Jocko's wife and two daughters: Squicked by the age of the younger daughter, he turns the offer down completely, inadvertently insulting Jocko's honor by accidentally implying that he and his clan are unworthy of raising the offspring of a Hero.
- Vertebrate with Extra Limbs: Horses with eight legs (which are a Shout-Out to Sleipnir, Odin's horse in Norse Mythology).
- Waterfall Shower: Oscar and Star bathe under several waterfalls in the area called the Singing Waters (so named for the sounds the water makes falling over them).
- What You Are in the Dark: Occurs almost literally to Oscar in the Mile-High Tower -- crawling through a lightless tunnel with rats for company. The fact that it may have been an illusion created by the Eater of Souls makes him no less brave for overcoming it.
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Oscar's father bestowed "Evelyn Cyril" on him out of respect for a deceased ancestor, but he remarks that it caused him to learn to fight before he learned to read.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Oscar has a terrible fear of rats. Naturally this comes into play at the climax of the quest.
- Will Not Tell a Lie: Star. She is, however, a master of partial truths and leading you to believe what you want to.
- A Wizard Did It: Oscar reflects that the technology in use by Star's folks is so advanced that it might as well be magic.