Darkover reread: The Winds of Darkover

Where Star of Danger was less interesting than I remembered, The Winds of Darkover was more interesting–and not only because I’d completely forgotten everything about it until I began rereading, at which point just enough came back to make clear that I’d read it before.

This is the first book where we get a female POV character, Melitta of Storn Castle. Melitta’s mountain home has been invaded by the bandit Brynat. Her older brother, Storn of Storn, has escaped into a telepathic trance; her younger brother is imprisoned; and her sister has been forcibly taken as Brynat’s wife. That means it falls to Melitta to escape the castle and seek help, guided by telepathic messages from her older brother.

Melitta is pretty much a standard issue Spunky Female Character, but given that we haven’t seen many spunky female characters in the earlier books (Dio Ridenow comes closest), she and her strong will to action were welcome.

(Again, some PG-13 content about sex and its politics on Darkover ahead)

This is very early 70s feminism, though, and there are some things that stand out now that maybe didn’t then. The biggest is that Melitta actively blames women who don’t share her spunkiness, to the point of asking her older sister how she could have “let” herself be raped. (“Had you no dagger?” Melitta asks, and then goes on to think about how she would have killed herself before letting Brynat have his way.) Women are not Good and Bad in this book, but they are Strong and Weak, and there’s only one real way of being strong. (Admittedly, this is a trap contemporary stories can still fall into, not understanding or else forgetting that in the real world, women have always been strong in such a wide range of ways.)

While Melitta makes her escape from Storn Castle, the Terran Dan Barron is having visions of, well, Storn Castle. Zoning out during one of those visions got him fired from his job as a flight controller, and so now he’s been sent off into the mountains to teach the Altons–including Lerrys Montray, who is now Valdir Alton’s foster son–how to grind lenses for telescopes in their fire stations. His visions grow stronger as he travels, and they too come from Storn of Storn, who eventually possesses Dan’s body in order to use him to meet his sister and help free the castle.

We’re told Storn can’t escape the castle and do all this for himself because he’s blind, which, whether or not it’s true (and given that these are telepaths, it wouldn’t necessarily need to be), reminds one that if this book is taking some early stumbling steps towards feminism, disability activism isn’t even on its radar. We’re told regularly that because he’s blind Storn is helpless, even an invalid, though being blind and being an invalid are two very different things. I was very aware, as I read, that 20 years and a lot of “problem” novels lay between this book and the Americans With Disabilities Act. (For a more recent take on blindness and telepathic magic in a low-tech world, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Bitterblue are pretty interesting–including and especially the afterword to Bitterblue where she apologizes for what she got wrong in the first book.)

Melitta and Dan eventually meet, of course, and once Storn’s control over Dan slips, they fall in love. Along the way they go back to Storn Castle to oust Brynat and his the bandits, with help from Castle Aldaran’s keeper (who, though this book takes place before The Bloody Sun, isn’t a cloistered virgin, because it turns out Aldaran isn’t wrong about everything).

They succeed by … waking the Sharra Matrix. You know, the thing that destroyed Lew Alton’s life, killed those he loved, and endangered the entire planet? Yeah. They wake Sharra, and it works, and … well, it just works. When at the end of the book Lerrys Montray and Valdir Alton show up with the obligatory belated cavalry, they do say words to the effect of, “You really, really shouldn’t have done that,” but that’s pretty much the extent of the consequences of waking one of Darkover’s most deadly weapons. (Unless, of course, this waking leads directly to events in Heritage of Hastur, and I’ve just forgotten.)

There aren’t any real consequences for Storn possessing someone else’s mind, either, even though we’re told repeatedly this is a major crime. Valdir just sort of shrugs and says that having to be blind again now that he’s in his own body is the worst punishment possible anyway. Which, well, see disability activism, above.

There are more random background women in this book, women who don’t exist to satisfy the desires of the men in the story, and we even briefly see Cleindori, Jeff Kerwin’s mother, who we learn is also Kennard’s foster sister. (Kennard is off-planet, being a Terran exchange student, falling in love, and changing the course of Darkovan history. But we only really know that first part in this book.)

Yet while women no longer seem to exist only to satisfy male desires, they do still seem to be obligated to satisfy them when they arise. Melitta thinks at one point about how if she even inadvertently aroused desire in a man she were traveling with, she’d of course be obligated to satisfy it, because anything else would be cruel. That may have been the book’s squickiest moment for me. Though it does come right after a scene where Storn thinks about how sleeping with his sister would be no big deal, because In The Mountains We Do That, but then remembers he’s in a Terran body, and that unlike brother/sister incest, asking Melitta to sleep with an alien would be way beyond the pale–which makes it a reader call whether or not both scenes should be taken with a grain of salt.

But The Winds of Darkover did have clean prose and decent plotting, and for all its issues in many ways I enjoyed it as the straight-up adventure yarn I was expecting to get when I read Star of Danger.

Next up is The World Wreckers, which I remember as being kind of cracktastic incoherent fun, and then Darkover Landfall, which I’m not sure I’m allowed to read until I have Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To … also at hand.

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