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The Children of Kings by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J Ross

Published by DAW Books

Cover art by Matt Stawicki

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I first discovered Darkover, authors were just names on book covers. No doubt these people had lives beyond their writing, but it was an utter mystery to me, a closed book. To be sure, we learned about the lives of certain very famous writers in school -- Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Hemmingway, etc. -- but on the whole I looked at the books I read on their own merits.

How things have changed since then. First I discovered fandom through the old channels, the paper fanzines and APA's, the various conventions held around the country. And then came the Internet, which enabled readers and writers to create fannish communities no longer limited by slow exchange of letters or the ability to travel to distant cities and rent a hotel room.

So I began to have faces to attach to those names on the covers of books. I got to hear stories of successes and reverses, triumphs and disappointments, which went beyond the standard "such-and-such well-known book was rejected by x number of publishers before finally being accepted and becoming a rousing success." And the personal stories, of the lives and families they had beyond their author identities.

On the whole it has been a positive thing, but every now and then something comes out that casts a pall across my ability to enjoy an author's work. And the recent accusations against Marion Zimmer Bradley have fallen in that category, especially since they can never be legally resolved and will thus hang there forever. As a result, I approached this latest installment in the Darkover saga with reservations that went beyond my disappointment with Hastur Lord.

Which was probably part of the reason I had a lot of trouble getting into this novel. It didn't help that the first several chapters were all about Gareth's adolescent angst about being stuck in a holding pattern when he wanted to do real, important things like his heroes. He's the younger son of the Regent Mikhail, and thus very much a spare. There's no sign his elder brother Domenic is going to step down, even with his mysterious laran that enables him to perceive perturbations in the planetary geology of Darkover.

And then Gareth's grandmother, Linnea the Keeper of Comyn Tower, offers a way for him to have an Adventure and get to do real things instead of the endless boredom of court ritual. By this time I'd been getting thoroughly exasperated, and was almost ready to give up altogether on the book, so I was willing to give it a second chance as Linnea works together with Danilo Syrtis, her late husband's paxman and gay lover, to work up a cover story that will enable Gareth to travel in safety.

Gareth will pose as an apprentice lens-grinder, traveling into the Dry Towns to sell lenses for various purposes. He will use the name of Garrin, similar to his actual name but more typical of a commoner. The most difficult problem is the concealment of his matrix or starstone, the semi-living crystal that amplifies his laran. Psi gifts are unknown among the Dry Towners and viewed with suspicion, since laran is associated with the Comyn, the nobility of the Domains. If his starstone were seen, it would mark him out as someone of standing, and he might well be taken hostage by an ambitious or greedy Dry Town lordling in hopes of extracting a ransom from the Comyn.

However, Linnea has a solution -- a locket in the form of Nebran, the toad god worshipped throughout the Dry Towns as the Four Gods are in the Domain. It is the perfect size to conceal a starstone, and the materials have the additional benefit of damping psychic emanations. Thus Gareth will be able to carry his starstone on his Adventure without risking having it draw awkward attention.

Dom Danilo locates a trustworthy caravan master and makes the necessary arrangements to insert Gareth under his cover identity. Taking the role of a lowly apprentice proves to be more of an adjustment than he had anticipated, particularly when he has to take his turns at such lowly tasks as hauling water. But he reminds himself of his heroes stoically enduring far worse hardships, and manages to keep his cover.

Meanwhile, Linnea is dealing with trouble of her own in the Circle of Hastur Tower. It's a very different storyline from the YA storyline of Gareth's grand Adventure on the caravan to Carthon and the Dry Towns. I'm not entirely sure how well the two of them work together, especially as Linnea's storyline intersects with that left dangling in the poignant ending of Hastur Lord. And as she discovers that trouble is afoot, she wonders if she made a big mistake in letting Gareth play at adventure.

And she may well be right, because Gareth isn't quite as adept as he thinks at maintaining his cover identity. Worse, he stumbles over a cultural difference in a place where such missteps can be deadly rather than merely embarrassing.

However, he's able to repair his error enough that he isn't immediately killed, and instead is rescued by one of the boys he worked with on the trail. Rakhal takes him to a walled compound which hides a beautiful garden behind a blank facade. It is that of Cyrillion, the caravan master, and Gareth can tell that there is some relationship between them.

There, over a meal, Cyrillion lays bare all of Gareth's missteps which betrayed the falsity of the identity he had been using. With little choice, Gareth makes a clean breast of matters, revealing himself as a scion of the Hasturs, and Cyrillion avers that he must go straight back to the safety of Thendara. Adventures are well and good in stories and plays, but Cyrillion has no desire to be responsible for a princeling who wants to run away and seek Adventure on the road.

However, Cyrillion won't be returning to Thendara immediately, so Gareth gets a few days to explore the exotic streets of Carthon, where the Domains and the Dry Towns meet and the culture is a mix of both. And in doing so, he hears rumors of forbidden energy weapons being used somewhere in the Dry Towns.

Suddenly everything changes, and Cyrillion relents on his insistence that Gareth must return to Thendara forthwith. Instead, he is now willing to help Gareth pursue this breach of the Compact, and even allows his own daughter Rahelle, in her disguise as the boy Rakhal, to be his guide.

Now Gareth's journey is no longer a grand Adventure, but a dangerous mission he must take not merely for personal honor, but for the safety of his homeworld. His first stop is Shainsa, where he pays his respects to Lord Dayan who rules there. He's hardly been in the city more than a few hours before he has a frightening encounter with a drunk and belligerent man, and has to find a way to end it without one or both of them dead.

From Shainsa he and Rahelle make a long and arduous journey into the deep desert to find the source of the forbidden energy weapons. Their path takes them past small oasis villages quite different from the great cities of Shainsa and Ardcarran, to a secluded place where a spacecraft sits. It's a shuttle for a much larger interstellar spaceship in orbit.

Gareth decides to infiltrate their crew by getting hired as a native porter. It's a risky approach, but the spacers are taken in sufficiently that they begin giving him some responsible positions. A capacity which enables him to overhear the crew talking among themselves and learn a fair amount about the situation in orbit and in the galaxy at large.

The Terran Federation has fragmented into bickering factions, with some Navy units becoming little better than pirates, and others becoming oppressive tyrants, trying to rebuilt the Federation's former glory by hammering other planets into submission. Sometimes the two are hardly distinguishable. The crew Gareth has fallen in with are part of a group of freedom fighters who are trying to ship weapons to help other planets maintain their independence from these new feudal overlords who would rapaciously strip-mine their economies. However their ship, the Grissom, ran afoul of one of these semi-piratical forces and is trying to effect repairs.

Here's where I stopped for the longest time. I was really worried that they'd turn out to be wolves in sheep's clothing, or that the ship would just be destroyed to make a plot point. I was reading a library copy, and didn't want to damage it by slamming it into a wall. However, I also knew I shouldn't monopolize the book by sitting on it forever, so I finally resolved to force my way through to the end.

I'm happy to report that no, the author did not make Gus Grissom a butt-monkey by proxy through his namesake spaceship. However, I did find the ending rather muddled and confusing, and I'm not really sure if I want to read any further volumes in this series.

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Review posted October 15, 2016.