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

Darkover reread: Star of Danger

Star of Danger was written right after The Bloody Sun, but I read it much later. I remembered, when I did, thinking that for an early Darkover book, this was one of the better ones. What it set out to do, it did just fine. I recalled a straightforward and competent adventure story, an enjoyable read that did what it set out to do well.

I still think all of that is true, yet I actually found Star of Danger less compelling this time around. It’s a better written book than the ones before it, but also somehow a less interesting one: it doesn’t fail in the ways the earlier books do, but in part that’s because it doesn’t reach as high. It’s not a deeply ambitious book, and so it succeeds.

Larry Montray, a Terran teen living on Darkover with his father, longs to see the planet beyond the spaceport. He meets Kennard (who readers aready know as Lew Alton’s father and Jeff Kerwin’s mentor) when Kennard is still a teen. Danger and adventure ensues, and along the way Larry discovers his half-Darkovan heritage.

The gender issues in Star of Danger are minimal, mostly because it’s set in the sort of SF world where women just don’t exist, Larry’s mother having conveniently died in childhood and Kennard apparently having no female kin worth mentioning. There are a few problematic references: women are incapable of defending their homes and always get sent away with the children in times of danger; being expected to go anywhere with the women, or being told one is like the women, is a huge insult; and so on. (I can’t remember now if it’s this book or The Bloody Sun where it’s also explained that there are few women in the spaceport because married men don’t tend to be in the service–there being, apparently, no women who have careers of their own in the far future.) But that’s it. Mostly the most offensive thing Star of Danger does to its female characters is to ignore them. After the first three books, this is almost a relief.

Meanwhile, rereading Star of Danger clarified for me one of the things the Darkover series does very well, which I now see it did well from the very start: depict the tension between Terra (aka Earth) and Darkover in balanced and realistic ways. I’d been trying, only half realizing it, to figure out throughout my reading which culture MZB favored: Darkover with its determination to hang on to its traditional ways, or Terra, with its interest in Progress. I was instinctively trying to work out whether the Darkovans or Terrans were the “good guys.”

But even in these early books, it’s not that simple. The Darkovans are right about some things, and the Terrans are right about others, and that tension is fundamental to the stories. In Star of Danger, it’s the whole point: Both Larry and Kennard are entrenched in the attitudes of their own people; yet also intrigued by the other, alien-to-them culture they encounter; and ultimately it takes skills drawn from both worlds for the boys to survive.

That tension of two worlds in conflict, both flawed, both valued, will continue (if I remember the books at all well) to inform the entire series, and to give it life.

Darkover reread: The Bloody Sun

ETA: This is a reread of the original, 1964 edition of The Bloody Sun, which is the one I read first, not knowing a later edition was already available. I’m also planning to reread the 70s rewrite when I come to it in the chronology. Realized last night I forgot to clarify!

This isn’t the first Darkover book I ever read. It’s the second.

The first was Darkover Landfall, handed to me by a friend who’d been trying to get me to read Darkover for ages. When she asked what I thought of it afterwards, I must have told her the truth, because she shoved the Bloody Sun at me and said something like, “Really I should have given you this one first! It’s better! I only gave you the other one because it takes place first!” (Chronologically–Darkover Landfall was actually written later.)

So I gave Darkover one more try, and if The Bloody Sun wasn’t my first Darkover book, it was the book that hooked me on the series. From its second person prologue (“This is the way it was. You were an orphan of space. For all you knew, you might have been born on one of the Big Ships …”) I was thoroughly pulled into this world.

I continued to be pulled in every time I reread the book, and I was pulled in this time, too. I was struck as I read on past the prologue by how real Darkover feels in this book. Bradley gives a level of sensory detail that wasn’t in The Planet Savers or The Sword of Aldones, and she integrates those details into the narrative more smoothly, too. I can feel, hear, and smell Darkover in this book. I’m there.

I can also see why this was the sort of story that teen me loved. Jeff Kerwin, a loner born on Darkover (not on one of the big ships after all) but shipped off to Terra when he was 12, finds his way back to his birth planet, discovers his roots and his family, and finds a place where for the first time in his life he truly belongs, all with an appropriate amount of danger and angst along the way. It’s a classic sort of story, and there are reasons for that.

PG-13 content about sex and its politics on Darkover ahead

Darkover reread: The Sword of Aldones

From the very first sentence (“We were outstripping the night”), this is a stronger book than The Planet Savers.

The Sword of Aldones is the story of Lew Alton, who’s returning to Darkover, the world of his birth, which he fled some years earlier–and there’s already tension in that. Lew is the child of two worlds, Terra and Darkover, and the friction between them–which informs most of the Darkover books–feels much more vivid here than in The Planet Savers, which is maybe part of why this book, for all its flaws, feels like a real Darkover book. And while I never cared about Jay Allison, I cared about Lew from the moment I met him, with his angsty past and the Dark Backstory he was clearly fleeing.

Although, when three chapters later I was still meeting piece after piece of that Dark Backstory, waiting for the real story to begin, I maybe cared a little less. Continue reading “Darkover reread: The Sword of Aldones”

Darkover reread: The Planet Savers

I’ve started rereading of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, in chronological order (the order they were written, not the order in which they take place, which would be a different but also-interesting exercise).

That meant I started with The Planet Savers, written in the late 50s. I could say that this is the worst Darkover book ever written, but I’m not sure that’s really true.

I’m not sure this is really a Darkover book.

This book was written in the 50s, first appeared in Amazing Stories, and the edition that was published there is available via project Gutenberg. Which is how I know the editor of the magazine dubbed this story MZB’s “triumphant return” to the magazine, and her best story yet.

What I remember from my first read (when I think this was one of the last Darkover books I read, after having already inhaled everything else I could find) was that I hated the prose and the story in equal part, but took heart from the fact that the author over a couple decades, got from this book to some books I genuinely loved, because that gave me hope my early writing would turn into something more, too. (My first story sale was to a Darkover anthology, so Darkover has always been a little tied up in my own journey as a writer.)

The story–it’s more of a novella or novelette than novel–is about Jay Allison, a Terran physician working on Darkover who, because he spent his childhood among the planet’s tree-dwelling trailmen, who incubate a mild form of a virus that turns deadly among humans, is the planet’s only hope for mounting an expedition to convince the trailmen to come back to Terran HQ where they can donate their blood so Allison can develop a vaccine.

The problem is, Jay Allison has grown up into an arrogant jerk who hates all Darkovans and can’t possibly lead an expedition of them into the mountains where the trailmen are. So the obvious solution is … to bring out his repressed, nicer, younger, more impulsive personality, and let it go on the mission for him!

(Angst ensues!)