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The Ages of Chaos by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Recently DAW Books has been reprinting the earlier books of the Darkover series in omnibus format, combining two or three titles into a single volume. In the case of the earliest ones this was necessary for the simple reason that individually they are too short for the modern paperback fiction market. In the 1960's when MZB was first writing Darkover, 60,000 words was a long book. Now it is simply too short to be published as a freestanding novel, because readers don't feel they're getting their money's worth from such a skinny book at the prices publishers have to charge.

However, Stormqueen! and Hawkmistress were both published much later (1978 and 1982 respectively), by which point MZB had sufficiently established herself as a top-selling author in DAW's lineup that Don Wollheim was able to tell her to write the story at the length it needed to be. As a result, both of them came out at lengths that were considered quite thick, even daunting at the time -- but which are now considered to be at the very bottom of what is long enough to be published as a stand-alone novel.

Both novels belong in the period known as the Ages of Chaos, an era remembered only very darkly by the period of the books she originally wrote. On one hand, it was the pinnacle of Darkovan laran science and technology, when a culture otherwise feudal in its structures possessed the ability to build and fly aircraft, to communicate instantaneously across the length and breadth of the Seven Domains, and to do wonders of healing that challenge or surpass Primary World medicine even three decades after MZB originally wrote them. But it was also a time of horrific violations of basic human rights, an age in which the noble lines of the Comyn were bred like cattle in pursuit of ever more powerful psionic abilities, to the point that those abilities could be more than the human mind could bear and remain sane -- and those powers were used to create ever more terrible weapons of war, until it seemed possible that all civilization on Darkover might be destroyed (it should be remembered that MZB was writing these two novels during the Cold War, when the possibility that the US and USSR might destroy not only each other, but all human civilization here on Earth, was all too real -- the reviewer has vivid memories of looking out over the family farm during the winter of 1980 and wondering if the fields would ever be green with crops again, or if a final destructive war would leave them poisoned and untended).

Stormqueen! is the earliest in terms of internal chronology, being set just at the point in which the Towers' mastery of laran is peaking. Already Tower circles have mastered all the basic useful arts, and they are beginning to turn them away from the peaceful purposes of improving ordinary Darkovans' lives and instead making weapons such as clingfire which is eerily reminiscent of napalm as used in our own world's Vietnam War (a conflict that was still an open wound on America's collective psyche at the time MZB wrote this novel).

However, the great centers of laran science are only glimpsed in this novel, particularly in the beginning when Allart Hastur of Elhalyn is summoned from the monastery of Nevarsin high in the Hellers to resume his place and duties as a scion of the Comyn. Duties which include wedding the lovely Cassandra and serving alongside her for a time in the Tower of Hali. Rather, this story's action takes place primarily on the peripheries, and specifically in Castle Aldaran, seat of the Aldaran Domain which in the time of Regis Hastur and Lew Alton is considered a renegade domain, exiled for some forgotten crime, although some believe that it was in fact simple distance in a time after the ability to make laran-powered aircars were lost.

Lord Mikhail Aldaran is an old man, and his only heir is his willful young daughter Dorilys, child of his barragana (concubine) Aliciane, who died giving birth to her. After having lost every child of his lawful wife in infancy, Lord Mikhail has tended to dote on this lovely youngster, such that she has never had to learn discipline or wisdom. And that will sow the seeds of a terrible grief, for young Dorilys has a strange and terrible laran. So long as she remained physically a child, she was able to activate it only during moments of emotional intensity, but now she is rapidly approaching puberty, at which time she will come into the fullness of her talent, and if she cannot learn control by that time, she will become a living proof of the saying that an untrained telepath is a danger to herself and others.

For Dorilys bears the Rockraven Gift, the ability to perceive and manipulate electromagnetism. During her birth thunderstorms rolled around Castle Aldaran, for even her infant brain was already strong enough to respond to the pain of being squeezed through her mother's birth canal, even if she had no comprehension of what was going on. Since that time there have been other incidents, although at the time they were shrugged off as coincidence because nobody realized that a girl so young could possibly wield such powerful laran, even subconsciously.

The tragedy of a child gifted with a power that rapidly outstrips her ability to control it unfolds with a relentlessness that captivates the reader all the way to its inevitable end. For as much as Dorilys can be a spoilt brat when she is wanting something she cannot have, she can also be quite charming when she is in a good mood, sufficiently so that the reader will desperately want her to learn wisdom, to gain control not only over her laran but also over her moodiness and willfulness which are rapidly being reinforced by the hormonal changes of puberty. As a result, Stormqueen! is easily one of MZB's best Darkover novels

Hawkmistress takes place a few generations later -- exactly how many is hard to tell, since MZB never worried over-much about chronology between stories or even internal consistency within her stories. One possible clue is the mention of the ancient King Felix who is senile and dying after an unnaturally long life, whose loosening grasp upon the reins of power is blamed for the steadily increasing level of civil strife and disorder. It is possible that he is the same person as the young Prince Felix in Stormqueen! who was believed to be emmasca (intersex) as a result of his having so many genes from the chieri, the mysterious hermaphroditic natives of Darkover who in earlier times mingled their genetic lines with humans but have since come to be regarded as little more than legends. However, there is no clear evidence that the two characters are indeed one and the same individual, since it has been established amply that there are dynastic naming patterns in the great families of the Comyn. Thus it is completely possible that several centuries separate the two novels rather than a hundred years or less.

In any case, one thing is certain -- the ongoing strife within the Seven Domains is leading to a rapid deterioration of the political and social structures that will ultimately lead to the era known as the Hundred Kingdoms. Already local feudal lords are steadily augmenting their own power and independence from their obligations to the traditional overlordship of the Domains. All of them maintain as large of standing armies as the relatively primitive agrarian economies of their realms can support, and arm those forces with laran weapons of increasing deadliness, such that the napalm-like clingfire that was so important in Stormqueen! seems like a minor nuisance.

Unlike her two earlier novels of the old Darkover of laran weapons (the other being Two To Conquor, published in 1980), in which MZB focused primarily upon men and their battles for power, Hawkmistress returns to many of the feminist themes with which MZB wrestled in The Shattered Chain and Thendara House. Romily, daughter of one of those feudal lords who are striving to make themselves into independent little kings, has inherited the family laran of rapport with animals. She is a natural at taming the fierce wild hawks of her mountain homeland, and she rides even the most high-spirited horses with ease. But as she leaves girlhood behind and begins to bloom into a woman, her father grows displeased with her exercise of those talents, regarding them as unladylike, unsuitable for a woman of her rank and station in life.

When he tries to break her into the sort of meek, retiring woman he wants her to be, she finally decides she can bear the stultifying atmosphere of the women's quarters no longer. However, even the life of a tomboy in Castle Falconsward was sheltered enough that she has only the vaguest of notions of what lies beyond its boundaries. As a result, she has no more left it behind than she nearly falls into an even more relentless captivity.

After her narrow escape from a lecherous woodsman, she improves her masculine guise and finds employment as a keeper of sentry-birds for a troop of the Hastur king's soldiers. She soon gains their respect because of her obvious skill with these powerful creatures, and she enjoys being able to do gainful work without being continually condescended to and treated as second-class. However, Romilly soon wearies of the deceptions involved in passing as a boy among men, and reveals herself to a trusted superior. He then takes her to the Sisterhood of the Sword, an organization of women who fight alongside men.

Even there Romilly cannot find peace, for she chafes against the restrictions the Sisterhood of the Sword must accept in order to live and work alongside men in Darkover's patriarchal society. She has not forgotten the rough comeraderie she had enjoyed when she had masqueraded as a man and worked alongside them as an equal, and having to carefully keep herself apart from them and concern herself continually with propriety is like a diet of thin gruel after it. To complicate matters, her untrained laran threatens her sanity, for she cannot barrier herself reliably and is constantly at risk of being overwhelmed with the thoughts of the minds around her. Given that she is going into battle, this weakness is a major problem for her.

However, she has a terrible reason to find some way to surmount the difficulties of living with untrained laran -- she has befriended the son of the Hastur King Carolin, a man with powerful enemies. And her laran may well be vital to saving one of Lord Carolin's closest friends from a particularly vicious enemy.

Again the problem of chronology rears its head -- I don't know whether this King Carolin is the same individual who is mentioned in Deborah J. Ross's introduction to The Fall of Neskaya. That Carolin was supposed to have been a good friend of Varzil the Good, the Ridenow laranzu and Keeper who created the Compact as a way to put a stop to the horrific arms race which was creating laran weapons so powerful they were threatening to destroy all Darkover. Varzil and the Compact appear at the climax of Two to Conquor, but play no role whatsoever in Hawkmistress. Thus it is quite possible that the Carolin whom Romilly served is a different individual from the one who was such a close friend of Varzil the Good. Not only was MZB never overly concerned about maintaining anything resembling a consistent chronology, but she also was wont to intimate that time did not run on Darkover quite as it did on Earth, that perhaps as a result of some of the mysterious indigenous races it might stretch and contract or even loop in upon itself.

So sometimes it's best to just enjoy the books without worrying overmuch about trying to establish a logical and consistent framework. JRR Tolkien may have spent years trying to get every tiny aspect of his stories correct, but he had his professorial salary to keep a roof over his head and food on his plate. MZB lived by her pen through most of her life, so it was in her interest to get books finished and in the hands of her publishers even if they had inconsistencies with one another or even within their pages. So long as they told an engaging tale that kept the readers coming back, she was satisfied that she had done her job. If nitpickers wanted to grumble about inconsistencies, let them.

Review posted January 14, 2010

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