Marion Zimmer Bradley
Completed 1/18/2020, Reviewed 1/18/2020
This is my first MZB novel, and I was reassured by a lot of the reviews I read that although this is book nine in the Darkover series, this was the one to start with. It did stand on its own, with a fairly self-contained story, and characters introduced as if it were a stand-alone novel. The world building is also quite exceptional and the plot complex and interesting. Yet I didn’t feel that the sum of its parts added up to a satisfying whole. I chose this book because it is considered important in LGBTQ speculative fiction history in its portrayal of a gay main character in mainstream speculative literature. (I use “speculative” here because it’s something of a cross between science fiction and fantasy). The book is good, but not as great as I was expecting, or hoping, it would be.
The story is about two young men on the planet Darkover who are frustrated with the traditional ways of their society. Regis Hastur is the heir to the Hastur domain, the strongest domain of the seven domains on the planet. He doesn’t want to be. He wants to travel the stars and see the Terran galactic empire. Besides, he doesn’t seem to have the gift of psychic powers, known as laran, which is practically a necessity for a ruler. His grandfather, the regent, says he will allow him to go if Regis spends three years in cadet training. Regis agrees. The other young man, Lewis Alton is heir to the Alton domain, Regis’ childhood friend, and an officer in the cadets. The book tells of their time in the cadets, and then segues into a tale of the matrix of Sharra, a potentially evil power that a renegade domain wants to wield to overthrow the Terran presence and the Darkover power structure. Lew is initially seduced by a veil of goodwill by the domain, but he and Regis eventually must find a way to stop this power.
Regis is a fiery character, full of unrealized privilege. Going into the cadets knocks down his ego and helps to round him out. There he meets and is befriended by Danilo, a young man from a poor family who has a history of the men being right-hand men to the Hastur heirs. It is with Danilo that Regis’ homosexuality is brought to the surface. We also find that Regis’ closetedness is what’s holding back his laran powers. However, Regis is afraid of professing his love because Danilo is being sexually and psychically harassed by a commanding officer and also because Danilo comes from a conservative religious tradition. This causes a lot of conflict for Regis. It makes him a very well fleshed-out character.
Lewis is also a strong character, fighting with his own coming of age. His father tries to prepare him to take over the domain, initially by matchmaking, and eventually by sending him as emissary to the renegade domain. There, Lewis falls in love with their ruler’s daughter. But their love is taboo as she is made a Keeper, that is the central figure of the circle that controls the power of a matrix, which demands being chaste. Again, we have unrequited love, but in a different context.
If all this sounds confusing, it kind of is. The book is very complex, but highly readable. Everything from the traditions to the matrix is explained in great detail. I didn’t feel that I had needed to read any of the previous books to understand it. My main problem with the book was that in the end, I wasn’t satisfied with it. The characters were well-drawn, the world-building was tremendous, and the plot well thought out. But by the end, I was exhausted from it. I think MZB packed too much into it. At only 350 pages, the book felt a lot longer. Towards the end, I just wanted it to end. I was becoming bored with it, tired of waiting for Regis to come out to Danilo and tired of Lewis being trying to subvert the renegade domain’s use of the matrix of Sharra. That’s why I felt the whole didn’t match the sum of its parts. The tension just didn’t hold my interest.
I give the book three stars of out five. I felt it was a good book but would have been better if it could have held my attention better in the last quarter.