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The Alton Gift by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross

Cover art by Romas Kukalis

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel is the first to be set in the "modern" Darkover since the death of Marion Zimmer Bradely in September of 1999. It is one of a number of works for which outlines and other materials were found on MZB's computer at that time, and which were handed over to Deborah J. Ross to be completed under the direction of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Trust.

As a result, I approached this volume with some trepidation. There is always a degree of uncertainty when a new author takes over a long-running and much-beloved series by an established writer. If the pair-up is a good fit, it is possible that the new author's efforts will fit seamlessly into the original author's canon. But all too often, things go awry. The posthumous collaborators may prove unable to submerge their own interests or style in that of the original author, as we have seen in Spider Robinson's posthumous collaboration with Robert A. Heinlein which was filled with digressions on current political issues or the Dune prequels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson which often feel more like Star Wars than genuine Dune.

Fortunately this was not Deborah J. Ross's first posthumous collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley: she had already done three books set during the Ages of Chaos, the Clingfire Trilogy, not to mention numerous short stories in the old Darkover anthologies. However, those volumes had the advantage of dealing primarily with original characters, for whom the reader had no expectations created by previous stories. This latest volume would deal with major characters from some of the best-known Darkover novels, including Lew Alton himself, who had originally appeared in MZB's second Darkover novel, The Sword of Aldones.

Further complicating the situation was the sorry shape that the period of Darkovan history had been left in at the time of MZB's death. Due to her failing health, she had come to rely on another collaborator (albeit uncredited), Adrienne Martine-Barnes, to help her write the last three Darkover novels to be published under her name. These three novels, Exile's Star, The Shadow Matrix, and Traitor's Sun, were widely decried by Darkover fans for weak writing, shaky characterization, and major discrepancies with established material on Darkover. In particular, many readers cited the climactic battle in Traitor's Sun, in which the Darkovan characters casually broke the Compact, the covenant against the use of laran (telepathy) as a weapon, to crush the Terran army. The complete absence of any evidence that the characters felt any qualms about their violation of what up until then had been presented as a cornerstorne of their society's moral and ethical code was decried by many fans as evidence that the book, and perhaps all three of the books co-written by Adrienne Martine-Barnes, should be dismissed from the Darokover canon.

And that's all on top of the problem every writer faces who is attempting to add yet another volume to a long-running series. On one hand one must introduce new ideas, lest one appear to be merely rehashing old material in an endless effort to wring more money out of an aging cash cow. On the other hand, one must maintain consistency of feel and tone with the existing series. A writer cannot just add any new idea that pops into his or her head into an established series.

One of the most obvious solutions would be to ignore all or part of the material that had become problematic over the years. Even MZB herself often liked to forget her very first published Darkover novel, The Planet Savers. So it would not have been at all surprising if Ms. Ross had decided to simply toss out the objectionable Martine-Barnes collaborations, which had weasled away the reforms of The World Wreckers as untenable in the long run.

Instead, Ms. Ross has decided to tackle them head-on, and ended up making the Battle of the Old North Road and the violation of the Compact that occurred at it a central part of the plot. When it appeared that Darkover was in immediate danger of outright conquest by the Terran Federation, Lew Alton and his daughter Marguerida did what they felt to be necessary in order to protect their homeworld's independence, believing that the good they attained thereby would justify the violation of the Compact. However, in this volume they each discover that there is a price to be paid for any moral violation, no matter how justified it may be by expediency.

Unfortunately, the first half of it moves slowly, as Lew wallows in his own guilt and the other characters, including his grandson Domenic, seem to be going in circles dealing with the unrest in the city of Thendara. It's only when Lew finally goes to Nevarsin to experience his own Long Dark Night of the Soul, confronting the consequences of his actions in the form of a man he harmed and making amends as best he can, does the story finally really take off.

However, I was somewhat disappointed by the conclusion, in which the legal consequences not only of Lew and Marguerida's actions on the Old North Road were rather conveniently swept aside. Considering the care with which Ms. Ross portrayed Lew's personal redemption at Nevarsin, I had really expected some life-changing prices to be paid when he returned to Thendara and Comyn Council. Instead, it becomes so entangled in Dom Francisco Ridenow's scheming and the subsequent battle against the plague of trailmen's fever that everybody becomes far too willing, even eager, to forgive and forget about it at the end. Furthermore, several people's interpersonal problems are far too conveniently resolved by sudden bursts of self-understanding on the part of the people who were causing the difficulty, when there was no real foundation provided for that insight.

On the whole, it's a fun read, if lightweight. There are none of the hideous gaffes and crass stupidities that made me want to fling several of the various Dune prequels against the nearest wall, but then Darkover was never the literary edifice that the original Dune was. Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote Darkover to tell an enjoyable tale, not to address great social issues of the time. And even in her own lifetime, she admitted to freely sacrificing continuity between books in the interest of telling the best possible story in each book as she came to it.

Review posted February 1, 2009

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