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A Flame in Hali by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross

Cover art by Romas Kukalis

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel concludes the Clingfire Trilogy, the first posthumous collaboration of Marion Zimmer Bradley, creator of Darkover, with Deborah J. Ross. Because the modern Darkover storyline was left in such a shambles at the time of MZB's death, it was decided not to immediately try to rectify that situation. Instead, Ms. Ross went back in time to the closing years of the Hundred Kingdoms period to tell the story of Varzil the Good and the creation of the Compact, the law and moral code which limited combat to hand weapons and put an end to centuries of horrific laran warfare.

However, the first volume, The Fall of Neskaya, did not even have an appearance by Varzil. Instead it dealt with events taking place a generation earlier, events which would create the bitter feuds and resentments against which his life's work would play out. It was only in Zandru's Forge that Varzil finally made his appearance, struggling to win his place in Arilinn Tower and ultimately becoming one of the leading Keepers on Darkover, using his influence with King Carolin to promote the Compact.

And all the time he was threatened by the machinations of Eduin Deslucido, son of the notorious renegade laranzu Rumail, who alone of their infamous line survived the events of The Fall of Neskaya. Sworn to avenge the family at whatever cost, he sought first to murder the young prince Carolin and make it an accident. Foiled by Varzil's chance arrival, he was only barely able to make it look like an accident and thus departed from court under a cloud rather than being executed for an attempt on the life of the heir to the throne. Foiled, he turned his attention to finding Queen Taniquel and her descendants, and due to careless talk discovered that one of his colleagues in Hestral Tower was the last living child of the hated Hastur Queen who spoiled the hopes of a Deslucido empire.

He had no sooner succeeded in sabotaging the matrix screen she was to work with and reducing her to a brain-damaged ruin than Varzil arrived to demand an accounting of the events. In the midst of an attack upon the Tower, Eduin vanished and was presumed dead.

Of course things don't always turn out so easily, as we discover in this volume. Eduin had survived, being driven slowly mad by the compulsion planted in his mind by his father. A broken man, he's living a hand-to-mouth existence of destitution in Thendara, spending as much time drunk as possible so he doesn't have to remember. And then a mysterious benefactor sets him back on his feet -- Saravio, a former laranzu and Tower-trained matrix worker who was injured in a terrible psychic accident and now believes himself to be the agent of Naotalba, bride of Zandru of the Seven Hells.

Off they go together in a wild and sometimes convoluted chase across Darkover. At first their wanderings are somewhat aimless, but as Saravio's condition steadily worsens, Eduin gains the upper hand and his compulsion resurfaces, driving him to hunt down those who thwarted him in his previous efforts to avenge his family upon the Hasturs who brought them low. However, now that King Carolin is far too well guarded for any assassination attempt to be feasible, that compulsion becomes increasingly focused upon Varzil the Good, who thwarted Eduin's earlier attempt upon Carolin's life.

Varzil's continuing storyline runs parallel to it, increasingly focusing on his relationship with his talented but headstrong sister Dyannis. Because she is so extremely talented, she has never really had to apply herself and really develop discipline. Generally she has always been able to achieve what she wants -- until it comes back to bite her during a riot on the edge of the cloud-lake of Hali. The impetuous young woman uses her laran to conjure the illusion of a ferocious dragon, panicking the rioters and causing both physical and mental injuries.

In fact, the rest of that storyline is less that of Varzil than it is of the emotional and moral growth of Dyannis to the discovery of just how deeply flawed her character has become as a result of her lack of self-discipline, and the steps she takes to correct it. Hard labor rebuilding a Tower ruined by a disastrous clingfire attack is an important component of the transformation, but even when she has reformed herself, she's still hesitant to acknowledge the transformation. If anything, she's even more critical of her past mistakes now that she's aware of the consequences of her heedless actions -- and thus she is particularly reluctant when her brother judges her worthy of Keeper training, becoming the second woman Keeper.

One of my concerns about Zandru's Forge was the way in which it was tied in with Hawkmistress!, a novel that I had always considered to belong to a much earlier period of Darkovan history than Varzil the Good. On the other hand, the events of Two To Conquer was always presented as being contemporaneous with the efforts of Varzil the Good to establish the Compact, and one of the important climactic moments was the firebombing of the Tower at Hali, during which the matrix workers within it kept their minds open and transmitting through the relays so that everyone with any telepathic potential would know soul-deep the horrors of laran warfare. That act was portrayed as absolutely critical to the complete acceptance of the Compact, to the point that it became a fundamental part not only of the Darkovan legal code, but of its moral code as well. However, it was at most peripheral to the primary story of Bard mac Fiona and his Terran double Paul Harrell and how they together tried to carve out a di Asturen empire.

In the climax of this novel, the situation is reversed. The Kilghard Wolf is mentioned several times as being a force to be reckoned with, at times endangering the estates of Varzil's Ridenow kin, but never actually plays a significant role in the story. However, as Dyannis returns to Hali Tower to begin her training as an under-Keeper, we realize that the story is moving inexorably toward the destruction of Hali and that momentous decision to inflict upon every telepath in all of Darkover the horrors of a clingfire attack -- and really makes it work.

And most of all, she makes it feel like real Darkover, like it was there all along, implicit in Two to Conquer and in the earlier glimpses of Varzil and his time that we'd gotten in such books as The Forbidden Tower. It doesn't feel forced like Marguerida's trip backward in time in The Shadow Matrix, which always felt like the uncredited collaborator's imagination had run wild with some ideas while the aging and ailing MZB was no longer able to restrain her (rather like some of the recent Pern books, which feel like Anne McCaffrey has lost control of her creation, or the truly awful Dune prequels, sequels and interquels written by Frank Herbert's son).

Some people may complain that it isn't as good as Heritage of Hastur or The Shattered Chain, but quite honestly, very few of the original Darkover books, even those written when MZB was still hale and in good health, reached the high-water mark those two books set. Many of the early Darkover books were written when MZB was still learning her craft, and made up for lack of the finer points of plotting and characterization with the sheer exuberance of the storytelling. And quite honestly, to tell a rocking good story that would entertain her readers was always her first priority. If it also managed to touch on important issues, that was gravy.

Review posted May 2, 2010.

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