MAIA is set in the same world as Shardik, the Beklan Empire, a few years before the events of the latter book; some characters and situations overlap. Maia is a peasant girl "as pretty and about as cultivated as a gazelle," fated to become an heroic legend. Yet to call Maia merely an exotic fantasy is to say that War and Peace is a Russian war novel. Maia is more than the sum of its parts and a cliffhanger in the bargain that kept me turning its thousand pages to find what happened next, and nowhere along the way, bless him, does Richard Adams give you more than a few pages to stop and catch your breath. Never rambling or indulgent, Maia moves like a well-cut film: where one scene ends, the next takes up exactly where it should. To achieve this in a densely-populated narrative, Adams wisely keeps his story tightly focused on a few central characters.

Sold to Bekla as a slave, Maia meets Occula, a strong-willed black prostitute who has contrived for reasons of her own to be sold into the city. Occula takes the naive Maia under her protection as both are sold to Sencho, the city's High Counsellor, an obese voluptuary who has murdered his way from the gutter to the top. The Bekla Maia sees is a city recently overthrown by one faction (the Leopards), which puts forth Durakkon, a well-meaning but ineffectual High Baron against the rebels of the old Heldro order still prowling the edges of their usurped power. Behind the puppet front of the weak Durakkon, Sencho struggles for power with Kembri, the Lord General.

Beautiful, a willing concubine and a born dancer, Maia is soon recruited by Kembri for spying on the side, and she becomes a piece on the board in the plot-counterplot between Leopards and rebels. As Maia grows in popularity, she becomes a very expendable pawn while learning more of her own background, which is not entirely as it seemed. When she betrays the one man she has found to love (through Kembri's orders and her own humanity), Maia becomes the heroine of the empire. With new wealth and the popularity of a goddess, she attracts the attention of a far more formidable adversary than Kembri or any rebel: the Sacred Queen, Fornis.

Fornis is as fascinating as a cobra with legs, a Titian beauty, able and ambitious, and psychotically fearless. Every excess in her rapacious character stems from a trait that might have made her admirable. A natural leader, able to inspire her followers by example, equal to any risk or hardship, Fornis is as hypnotic as Hitler, with the same perverted needs and appetites. These appetites are nursed along by gritty Occula for her own purposes; yet she still tries to protect Maia, who is sure to be acclaimed Sacred Queen in Fornis' place by the populace and the rebels who need to use her. The title is a religious honor, now turned into real power by Fornis, who has no intention of stepping aside. Kembri wants his own daughter-in-law nominated for equally potent reasons. As a popular mascot, Maia was one thing (albeit a little too kind for Fornis' murky sexual tastes), but as a rival she's as good as dead. Although courageous and helped by a widening circle of friends high and low, Maia feels the noose tightening around her neck. She is betrayed again and again as she tries desperately to get herself and her lover out of the empire while it collapses about her in a welter of colliding armies. Planning Maia's death, Fornis is ready as always to dare the impossible, even the dreaded Curse of the Streels (a beautifully understated menace), but she must have her prized Occula with her -- which is exactly what purposeful Occula planned. . .

Maia is a delicious contradiction: a big, fat adventure read with no fat at all. Adams' artificial language is as skillful here as in Shardik or Watership Down. Very quickly the reader understands and accepts the foreign words for common things, contributing to the depth of the large tapestry. Fastidious purists (myself not among them) may cavil at dialogue choices. The various social strata of the Beklan Empire speak with recognizably English idioms, from Leslie Howard-Cambridge to Maia's Yorkshire glottals. Occula sounds much like her modern counterpart, a street-tough, gutsy black hooker, but none of this matters at all except to make the characters more immediate and real. You believe these people, larger than life as they are -- the calculation, the cynicism, folly, sick indulgence, desperation and heroism.

Adams has the good dramatic sense to play against the high romance of his theme. While maintaining epic sweep and pace, his totally realistic style gives the picture grain and depth. There are minor quibbles: Maia remains naive and impulsive long beyond the dictates of her circumstances, and there is a tendency to wrap up loose ends too neatly, but Maia's actions flow from real need, love and fear. So do Occula's and those of the others, for good or ill. What raises Maia leagues above the boundaries of exotic romance is Adams' characterization. These are people you have seen striding across your own times or even down the hall. Legendary setting does not obscure them. You know who and what they are and why they move. And you will remember them.