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The Fall of Neskaya by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross

Cover by Romas Kukalis

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The 1999 death of Marion Zimmer Bradley brought about the end of an era, and it was feared, the end of Darkover. In fact, the last few Darkover books published under her name seemed sadly wanting, a far cry from the days of such powerful works as Heritage of Hastur, The Forbidden Tower or The Shattered Chain, and many people placed the blame upon uncredited collaborators. Names were even named. As a result of what was seen as badly flawed collaborations, especially the credited Mercedes Lackey collaboration for Rediscovery, there was some question of whether it might be better for all concerned if Darkover were to be allowed to die along with its creator.

Instead, it was decided that the torch should passed to an established writer who had a long and close relationship with Ms. Bradley, and who wrote a number of excellent stories in the Darkover anthologies before an unfortunate misunderstanding ended them. Deborah J. Ross's first novel-length effort in the Darkover universe shows strong promise, and we can only anticipate what she will be able to do once she hits her stride and is comfortable with developing and expanding the Darkover universe.

Rather than try to pick up the post-World-Wreckers storyline which had been in progress at the time of MZB's death, which had been heavily criticized for being completely false to the spirit of Darkover as established by the earlier novels, Ms. Ross takes us back to the time of the Hundred Kingdoms and Varzil the Good. It's a period that was spoken of darkly in some of the early Darkover novels, as a time when the Comyn were bred like cattle for their laran powers and terrible sorcerous weapons nearly brought the entire world to the brink of destruction.

We first glimpsed Varzil the Good in The Forbidden Tower, when Damon Ridenow undertook a time-search at grave risk to himself and met the long-dead laranzu in order to recover the secret by which a Keeper could be released to safely function sexually. At the time we knew only that he was vital in the creation of the Compact, that rule restricting allowable weapons of war which was equal parts law and honor code.

In Two To Conquor we actually got to see the time at which Varzil the Good was active and trying to put an end to the horrors of laran warfare before they completely destroyed everything the combatants were fighting for. However, the story was focused primarily upon Bard mac Fiona, by courtesy called di Asturien, and Varzil himself was a periphery character, more talked about than actually seen. Only at the very end, when Bard accepts the Compact on behalf of Asturias, does Varzil really enter the story.

In The Shadow Matrix, the middle novel of that problematic storyline that was in progress at the time of MZB's death, Margaret Alton and Mikhail Lanart-Hastur were summoned backward in time by Varzil the Good in order to foil a plot to build a super-weapon that most readers will recognize as a crude nuclear weapon. However, many longtime fans of Darkover considered that entire episode to be so absurd that it could not possibly represent authentic Darkovan history and should be ejected from the canon of Darkover.

Thus, while the period isn't a complete tabula rasa, it's not something that has a huge weight of established canon into which any new stories have to be fit. And to be quite honest, MZB herself was never hugely obsessed about the self-consistency of her Secondary World. Unlike JRR Tolkien, who could afford to spend years tracking down minute inconsistencies and working out the philosophical underpinnings of his world for the simple reason that he had his professorial salary to keep a roof over his head, MZB lived entirely by her writing for most of her adult life. And that meant she had to get stuff turned in on time, even if it meant that there were some logic holes and outright contradictions here and there. So is it any surprise that the pieces of her world don't quite fit together, and she had to evoke such ideas as time not running quite straight as a result of the native non-humans in order to overcome some glaring problems.

The title of this volume, The Fall of Neskaya, indicates that it will deal with the disaster that befell Neskaya Tower during the worst of the laran wars right before the beginning of the Compact. The simple stone structure that stands in Neskaya at the time of the Terranan is known to be but a replacement for a Tower of blue stone which was destroyed utterly in an event so profoundly terrible that its effects still echo through society centuries later.

However, Ms. Ross begins the story far from those centers of power, in a holding in the High Hellers so small as to be insignificant. This is after all the time of the Hundred Kingdoms, in which the Seven Domains have become so completely balkanized that every petty lordling considers himself sovereign of his own realm, though he be able to ride across it in an afternoon, and is willing to spend blood and treasure to maintain that independence.

Coryn Leynier is one of the several sons of the lord of Verdanta Castle, a tiny realm that has been feuding for generations with Storn and several of the other mountain kingdoms. While he struggles to help his family on the fire-lines against a raging forest fire, he is overcome with strange symptoms which a visiting laranzu identifies as early threshold sickness. Without training in his budding laran he will go mad and very likely die.

So it's off to Tramontana Tower for Coryn, so he can get the training he desperately needs. Even as he's traveling, his symptoms grow steadily worse -- one of the particular strengths of the Darkover books that Ms. Ross has preserved is MZB's awareness of just what overland travel in a pre-Industrial society means -- the slow slog over rough roads at paces that can be made even more agonizingly slow or stopped altogether by rain or snow, such that it takes days or even weeks to travel distances that we moderns consider trivial.

By the time Coryn finally encounters Lady Bronwyn of Tramontana Tower, his condition is rapidly becoming critical. It is only by exerting himself to the utmost that he is able to maintain some slender grasp upon his sanity.

Meanwhile, the laranzu who identified Coryn's budding laran is returning to his real master, Lord Damian of Ambervale. An ambitious man, Lord Damian is trying to build his own small empire in the Hellers, partly by conquest and partly by advantageous marriages. And having a powerful laranzu as his half-brother has opened some very interesting possibilities for a man who is willing to break all the laws of war to his own advantage.

Possibilities that Coryn discovers four years later. By this time training has made the younger man into a formidable Circle worker in his own right, and he is in the midst of a very important chemical process when a reminder of home sends him into an unthinking rapport with his family, only to catch them in the throes of illness and death.

It's lungrot, a particularly vile artificial disease reminiscent of the cibiscosis in Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. And it's the doing of Lord Damian, who decided to go ahead and move when his laranzu brother Rumail was caught trying to build the illegal trap-matrix which was supposed to have saved Coryn's sister by putting her in a sort of suspended animation. But Lord Damian is willing to sacrifice the girl in order to grab Castle Verdanta. And those ambitions inevitably drag Coryn away from the cloistered service of Tramontana Tower and back into the ugly politics of a balkanized world.

In the second part of the novel we are introduced to Taniquel Hastur-Acosta, niece of King Rafael Hastur. It seems like quite a jump from Coryn's troubles, until we remember that Acosta was one of the rivals Lord Damian was trying to balance against the various other tiny kingdoms that surrounded his would-be empire. And soon enough he appears, up to yet another act of treachery.

So suddenly Taniquel is on the run, her slain husband's posthumous son and heir in her womb. Lord Damian intends to force her to wed his son as a bid to legitimize his conquest, but she is determined to have no part of it. So she braves the dangers of the open road alone, not wanting to endanger any of her late husband's loyal subjects by asking their assistance.

And it is of course a path that will take her straight to Coryn, who saves her from a lung fever she caught on her travels. He is on his way to Neskaya, where he will be trained as an under-Keeper, and she is heading back home to Thendara in hopes of rallying the Hastur-kin to recover Acosta for her unborn son. Although at first they go their separate ways and nothing seems to come of it, the threads of their lives remain entangled rather like two quantum particles.

And Ms. Ross weaves those threads so deftly that the final confrontation and its consequences have that same terrible inevitability that we so often see as we're reading history, seeing forces that seem unrelated to one another all come together as if they were foreordained. The way she works with the possibilities of evading the truthspell, the laran lie-detector spell upon which so much of Darkovan society rests, makes me think about some of my own philosophical ponderings about the nature of historical truth and the proper balance between purely factual accuracy and supporting the social narrative -- does there come a point where one should actually falsify facts that would undermine the lines between the acceptable and unacceptable, or in doing so do we end up sowing seeds of cynicism about the authority of history and society's moral compass?

On the whole, it is a good beginning, although as of yet Varzil the Good has not appeared in the storyline. Of course this is the first of three, even if the principle storyline does reach a conclusion rather than a stopping point -- one of MZB's big pet hates was the sneaquel, the book that instead of coming to a proper conclusion ends with a setup for the next volume, as though the author didn't trust the reader to want to keep reading and had to force the issue.

Review posted March 30, 2010.

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