In a post-apocalyptic Scavenger World California, Gregorio Rivas is a musician with a past. The son of a tenant farmer, he was thrown out by the landowner after hooking up with the landowner's daughter, fell in with a predatory cult, won free, and started making a living as a musician in the licentious city of Venice, in the shadow of the notorious Deviant's Palace. After moving to the more respectable walled city of Ellay, he started getting occasional work as a "redeemer", rescuing youngsters from the clutches of the same predatory cult, and built a reputation as the best in the business before retiring to focus on his musical career.
When Rivas is approached by Irwin Barrows, the man who kicked him out all those years ago, to perform one last redemption, he knows he can't refuse: Rivas has never got over Barrows' daughter, and it's Urania who is now in need of rescue from the Jaybush cult.
Rivas's quest will take him where no redeemer has dared go before: not only up to the very walls of the cult's fortress, the Holy City, but inside them — and then beyond.
This novel provides examples of:
- After the End: Some past cataclysm blew large radioactive holes in southern California and led to a collapse of society and Lost Common Knowledge.
- Brick Joke: In the scene that introduces Rivas, we learn that he has hired people to act excited when he arrives at the music venue for a gig, and their cries of "Hooray, it's Gregorio Rivas!" are so rote and mechanical that the local parrots have learned the phrase by repetition. At the end of the novel, a parrot coincidentally cries "Hooray, it's Gregorio Rivas!" as Rivas drives back into town with Urania and Barbara.
- Character Name Alias: At one point, Rivas adopts the pseudonym "Pogo Possum", justifiably confident that none of the people he's talking to share his hobby of reading obscure books from the old times.
- Creator In-Joke: The standard Powers in-joke; the book has two epigraphs, one entirely authentic and one attributed to the fictional poet William Ashbless.
- Doppelgänger: The hemogoblin.
- Energy Economy: The dominant currency is a high-proof distilled alcohol: usable as a fuel, a disinfectant, or as plain ol' booze, hence much in demand.
- Epigraph: The novel is divided into two "Books"; the first has an epigraph from the poetry of Rupert Brooke, and the second has an epigraph from Ovid's telling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in The Metamorphoses.
- Fantastic Drug: A drug with the street name "Blood" (it's a reddish-brown powder that makes people think of dried blood) that's reputed to give the user a sense of warmth, happiness, and freedom from care.
- Fat Bastard: Rivas mistakes Norton Jaybush for a leather beanbag chair at first glance.
- Fingore: At one point, Rivas mashes his hand between two heavy objects to fend off a psychic attack, damaging it to the point that two fingers have to be amputated.
- He Knows Too Much: During the eponymous dinner at the climax of the novel, Rivas addresses the villain by his true name, and the villain notes that several of the dinner guests have now been let into a secret they can't be allowed to leave with and will have to be killed when the dinner is over. As the conversation continues through Rivas's other discoveries about the cult, the villain continues to casually note whenever another revelation has doomed a few more guests, until they get to the real reason the cult bans music, at which point the villain announces that the list now includes every single person in the room.
- Human Resources: The drug called "Blood" is produced by the cult, and a key ingredient is the actual blood of cult members who have communed with Jaybush too many times and had their minds permanently broken.
- Immortality Immorality: The leader of the cult is effectively immortal and incorrigibly selfish. At one point, reflecting on a species he drove to extinction on another planet, his only regret is that he didn't ration them better because they tasted good.
- Life Drinker: One of the secrets at the center of the cult is that the cult leader is draining his adherents' life force through the cult's ritual "sacrament".
- Living Legend: Greg Rivas has a widespread reputation as the greatest redeemer in the business. At one point during his infiltration of the Holy City, he overhears a worker there confidently assert that there couldn't really be any such person as Gregorio Rivas and that the cult just made him up as a bogey to frighten people into line.
- Loving a Shadow: Rivas realizes in the end that his obsession with Urania is this; the reason he never got over her was that her father forced them apart, but left to themselves they'd have drifted apart anyway. When they're reunited he finds that she's just a naive rich girl without much in the way of personality or accomplishments to recommend her.
- Meaningful Rename: Every member of the cult is given a new name when they join. Inverted near the end, when Sister Windchime renounces the cult and goes back to being Barbara.
- No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Dine: The eponymous dinner at the climax of the novel. The villain issues Rivas a formal calligraphed dinner invitation, and during a sit-down dinner with waiters and everything pitches him a We Can Rule Together offer. (Just try to ignore the guards stationed around the edge of the room who will kill you if you refuse...)
- "Not So Different" Remark: The villain suggests this to Rivas at the eponymous dinner, that they're both basically selfish and only interested in other people for what can be taken from them. Rivas has gained enough self-awareness during his quest to calmly admit that the villain has a point, but also to know that the quest has changed him and that although he may not be much different, it's enough to matter.
- Nu Speling: The writing that appears goes in for simplified and phonetic spellings; it's mentioned that although people still speak English, even people who are considered literate find old-time writing pretty much incomprehensible, or at least too much effort to bother with, because of all the strange spellings and superfluous letters.
- Parental Marriage Veto: In the backstory, Irwin Barrows exiled Rivas from the Barrows lands because he felt Rivas wasn't good enough for his daughter. In the present, though he depends on Rivas to rescue Urania, he's prepared to have Rivas killed if there's any sign they're going to get back together.
- Path of Inspiration: The cult of Jaybush.
- Phony Psychic: An early scene involves a fortune-teller whose shtick is built around half-remembered and misunderstood scraps of jargon from the old times, including "telephones", quantum mechanics, and stories about people hearing voices from the metal fillings in their teeth. Interestingly, although not all of her predictions have come true by the end of the novel, none of them have been proven false — even the prediction of a reunion with a long-lost lover followed by a wedding, since she never said the wedding would be to the lover...
- Puppeteer Parasite: Norton Jaybush, the cult leader, is actually the host of an alien puppeteer parasite which travels from world to world feasting on the life forces of their inhabitants. Its true form is a small but nearly indestructible crystal.
- Scavenger World: Some past cataclysm blew large radioactive holes in southern California and led to a collapse of society and Lost Common Knowledge. The current society is built largely around digging useful stuff out of the rubble of the past. Some people drive cars as status symbols, but they're drawn by horses because there's no gasoline any more.
- She's Got Legs: The first indication that Rivas is attracted to Barbara, though he tries to ignore it because he's still devoted to Urania, is that he can't help noting what fine legs she has.
- The novel draws a lot of imagery from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Rivas as Orpheus, Urania as Eurydice, and Norton Jaybush as the lord of the underworld.
- There are also multiple references to "Peter and the Wolf".
- We Can Rule Together: The villain makes this offer to Rivas at the eponymous dinner, noting that they're not that different and could work together for their respective selfish benefit. Rivas initially dismisses the offer as "insincere, impossible, and definitely, absolutely unattractive"; after the villain has elaborated on his offer, Rivas withdraws all three objections but says that he's still not going to take it.
- You Are Worth Hell: Discussed; at one point Rivas thinks about how he'd tell the story if he were writing a song about it, and considers that it would be suitably dramatic to end it with the redeemer failing to rescue his lost love and submitting to the cult himself just to be with her.