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The Forbidden Circle by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is another of DAW's recent effort to bring back the earlier Darkover novels in omnibus format. When Marion Zimmer Bradley originally wrote them, the novel market was focused on much shorter works than current audiences expect. As a result, putting together two or three closely related novels and presenting them as a single volume makes economic sense, and at the same time it can bring out the closer connections of those particular Darkover books, as opposed to their general membership in the overall Darkover universe.

Throughout her life, Marion Zimmer Bradley insisted that Darkover was not a series. By that she meant a sequence of books that need to be read in a particular order because each one is dependent upon the books that went before. She was thinking in particular of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books, but she also was mindful of numerous other science fiction writers' stories. One thing that had particularly annoyed her was reaching the end of a novel to discover that rather than properly concluding, it proved to be a setup for the next novel. As a result, she always resolved that each of her novels would be complete in and of itself, and no reader of hers would ever be stuck having to buy the next book to see where the story went. (This position, which she held forth on in several notable essays, was one of the reasons that the last three Darkover novels to come out entirely under her name have such a strong feeling of having been written primarily by an uncredited ghostwriter -- instead of being complete in themselves, they form a clear series that really needs to be read in its entirety, in sequence).

However, although she insisted that every novel of hers would conclude at the ending, she did write several novels that were direct sequels of other novels, finding in the solution for the first the seeds of new problems that would move the characters to further action. Although the sequel volume is complete in itself, reading it after the one that spawned it can give the reader a deeper and more complete experience. And the two novels in this volume are a particularly strong example of that situation. Perhaps because of it, this volume starts with a brief note that Marion Zimmer Bradley once wrote on the matter of Darkovan chronology and the relationships between the various books.

Thus we begin The Spell Sword, the story of two men, one Terran, the other native Darkovan, who were thrown together to fight an inhuman menace. Both of them always felt out of place in their lives, unable to integrate themselves into the expectations of their respective societies. Andrew Carr always had an itch to go beyond the fields he knew, an itch that got him into the space force and brought him to this strange planet where the locals have steadfastly refused the importation of Terran technology, but clearly have some secrets of their own. And while he was on a mapping expedition, his plane crashed, leaving him trapped in a deadly blizzard -- until he's aroused by a vision of a beautiful young woman with fiery red hair. who calls herself Callista.

Damon Ridenow is a Comyn, strong in the laran of his class and clan -- but he was sent down from the prestigious Arilinn Tower because he was too sensitive to survive extensive work with the matrix jewels by which such powers were manipulated. Thus he is leading a force of Guardsmen when they are set upon by a mixture of physical and mental attacks. Unable to respond adequately with sword or with matrix jewel, he flees the battle -- and thus curses himself as a coward, for all that by fleeing he was able to bring the fullest report yet of what enemy they may face, what enemy has taken control over the darkened lands where the cat-men roam.

Meanwhile, Andrew forges his way through the storm to find refuge, guided from time to time by his visions of the lovely Callista. Thus, when he arrives at last to see a woman who appears to be her, he instead gets sharp words of annoyance, for she is in fact Callista's twin sister Ellemir. And once they get past the initial shock and the hasty accusations, they realize just what a serious situation they have their hands on. For all that he is an offworlder, Andrew can reach Callista when her own blood-kin cannot. But he has only the sketchiest understanding of what is going on, and language and cultural barriers make it difficult to convey enough of the situation to enable him to make the necessary paradigm shifts.

And then things take a marked turn for the worse when Dom Esteban, lord of the Alton Domain and one of the foremost swordsmen of the time, is badly wounded in an attack not dissimilar to the one Damon narrowly escaped. Although he survives, it is soon clear that he has been left a paraplegic, his legs and feet useless. Suddenly their options are narrowing with terrible rapidity, even as the danger grows more dire, with madness stalking the darkened lands and cat-creatures pursuing the villagers in their nightmares. But Dom Esteban reminds all of them that he is an Alton, and the Alton Gift is forced rapport, and he has sufficient training to use it in a controlled way, ethically. With Damon's permission they will modify a sword to contain one of the matrix jewels that control telepathic power, and use it so that Dom Esteban will be able to give his skill with a sword to Damon, whose hand with a blade is at best adequate.

As a result, the climactic final battle takes place simultaneously in the seen and unseen worlds, and as a result of Andrew's full psychic awakening, he teleports himself to Callista's side within the Caves of Corresanti where she has been held by the Great Cat, the leader of the cat-men. This creature has acquired a very powerful artificial matrix, apparently left over from the Ages of Chaos, and was using it with wild talent and no controls. As a result, Andrew and Callista are able to overhead its nervous system and break the hold of the cat-men and their darkness over the land.

Thus our intrepid Earthman wins his beautiful Space Princess, and Damon Ridenow secures his reputation as a hero that will ensure he can marry his own beloved Ellemir. A perfect happily-ever-after ending to a sword-and-planet adventure in the best tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators, but with more sophisticated characterization and writing.

The sequel, Forbidden Tower, came about as the result of one of MZB's friends pointing out that the happy ending of The Spell Sword, in which Andrew and Callista were reunited for their Happily Ever After, was the second time that MZB had ended a Darkover novel with the Earthman winning the heart of a Keeper. Of course Jeff Kerwin of The Bloody Sun was actually a Darkovan, but was taken to the Spacemen's Orphanage by his Terran foster-father and thus became culturally Terran. But in both cases you have a couple who are going to have to negotiate a lot of culture gaps in their relationship, which is going to make that happily ever after just a little harder to achieve than is the case for the typical couple.

Those questions got MZB to thinking about just what it meant for Callista to lay down her oath as Keeper and become Andrew Carr's wife. In some of the chronologically later novels that MZB had written early in her career, a Keeper had become just another kind of matrix worker, albeit with heavier responsibilities and thus more extensive safeguards, but none of the mystical overtones that we see even in The Bloody Sun in which Jeff Kerwin is asked whether he has held Ellorie sacrosanct in his heart, with the implication that any whiff of desire for her would be defiling. And in The Spell Sword Damon Ridenow had taken it for granted that a human antagonist would have attempted to sexually violate Callista in order to nullify her powers, but that such an action was not necessarily easy as it might be for an ordinary woman, since a Keeper was trained to protect her virginity by calling down lightnings on a would-be attacker.

If a Keeper was trained to take such drastic action against a man who intended to ravish and defile her, what would this mean for her ability to engage in consensual sex after having given back her oath of perpetual virginity to wed? There seemed to be an assumption that of course giving back her oath would result in the loss of all those special Keeper powers, but would it really be that simple? Or might the lessons be so deeply burned into muscle and nerve that they couldn't be set aside?

So MZB set forth to tell the story of Andrew and Callista's marriage. By the time she finished it and had it ready for publication, she had already written Heritage of Hasture and The Shattered Chain, two substantial and soul-searching novels that moved Darkover beyond its sword-and-planet roots to tackle major questions about human relationships and their nature. While in The World Wreckers she'd been able to address issues of homosexuality only through the science-fictional motif of the monoecous alien chieri who could function as male or female (rather like the people of Gethen in Ursula K LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in these two novels she addressed the issue directly, giving her readers sympathetic portrayals of gay and lesbian love in the context of caring relationships. Of course in Heritage of Hastur she contrasted the self-giving affection of Regis and Danilo with the abusive behavior of Dyan Ardais, but given some of the prejudices of the time (which alas still persist in certain claims of homosexual "recruitment," which are all the more ridiculous in the face of the growing scientific evidence that sexual orientation is the product of organic hardwiring of the brain), it was necessary to show the reader a clear and unmistakable distinction between a loving gay couple and a sexual predator.

Emboldened by her success in those groundbreaking novels (Heritage of Hastur was nominated for a Hugo, although MZB found the hoopla surrounding the award so disgusting that she requested that none of her novels ever be considered for an award again), she set forth to explore an element of Darkovan society that had always been suggested -- polyamory and polyfidelity. She'd always considered monogamous marriage to be a relatively late development in Darkovan culture, arising primarily out of the need to make dynastic marriages for patrilineal inheritance of Domain headship and kingship. Because of the small genepool of the original Lost Colony, group marriage became common as a way to prevent gene-lines from being lost to incompatible pairings. This was reinforced with the development of telepathy among the ruling class who would become the Comyn, since sexual frustration would be disruptive to the ambient telepathic atmosphere of a group working in close quarters, particularly in what would become the Towers.

As a result, Andrew gets an even greater Fish Out Of Water experience as he begins to settle in and fully integrate with Darkovan society. At first he notices the obvious differences, but it's not long before he discovers that every aspect of human relationships can be fraught with peril. For instance, he's quite surprised after Damon and Ellemir lose their baby that Ellemir should welcome him to her bed, with Damon's approval. She has to explain both the genetic and cultural rationales behind it -- she and Damon are very close kin and probably share too many harmful recessives, so it makes sense to bring a non-related male's genes into the mix instead, and socially it's important that this male be a trusted friend who will be present in their life rather than a random stranger, particularly in a culture where "stranger" often shaded off into "enemy." Still, it's hard for Andrew to overcome his deeply-ingrained Terran view that to impregnate the wife of one's best friend is one of the worst betrayals -- a view Ellemir finds shuddersome, evidence of a cold and unfeeling culture with which she'd rather have nothing to do.

Of course the telepathic bonding, which becomes four-way as all four of them begin experimenting with the use of laran outside of the Tower system, does at times help smooth over the cultural missteps by allowing each of them to perceive the other's reaction within its original cultural context and to see that no harm was intended, even if the response is alien to one's own belief system. But telepathy is no cure-all, and can sometimes lay bare responses that one might otherwise prefer remain hidden, as when Andrew picks up Damon's arousal upon seeing him undressed in their private quarters. Damon has to reassure Andrew that he meant no harm, that he is not a lover of men, but simply appreciated Andrew's masculinity as a mirror and complement of his own, part of a happy family of two twin sisters and their husbands who were becoming as brothers. Yet at the same time he could not keep a bit of his own astonishment at Andrew's homophobia from leaking out.

One of the things MZB really succeeded with was integrating Damon's exploration of matrix technology with Callista's struggle to overcome her Keeper training and be able to have a normal physical and emotional relationship with Andrew. Unfortunately, one thread that never really worked was the storyline relating to Dezi, the unacknowledged son of old Lord Alton, who was simultaneously very talented and very bitter. He appears during Damon's early experiments, until his resentments get the better of him and lead him to a major ethical violation that results in his removal from their circle, at which point he disappears from the narrative for a while. Only near the end does he reappear for a final confrontation.

According to an essay by the author, Dezi was a late addition to the storyline, when she began to consider it to have actual potential as a published novel, rather than just a private project to answer her own "what happened afterward" questions. She apparently did not feel that the novel had a proper plot, and added the character in order to satisfy what she perceived as a need. In this case, I would suggest that her judgment may have been off. Certainly there is plenty of conflict in the struggles of Damon to master the skills of a Keeper and of Callista to overcome the training she had to shut down her sexual faculties in order to function as a Keeper, and that the Dezi thread is at best superfluous and at worst a distraction.

This novel is also notable for the introduction of Varzil the Good, the ancient Ridenow Keeper from the Ages of Chaos who first introduced female Keepers, believing them less prone to political meddling. However, the glimpse we get of him during Damon's Timesearch is very much at variance with how he is portrayed in the later credited and uncredited collaborations, to the point that I find it difficult to suspend disbelief while reading those novels. At points those versions of Varzil read more like fanfic than a continuation of the original character.

Table of Contents

  • A Note on Chronology
  • The Spell Sword
  • The Forbidden Tower

Review posted February 1, 2013.

Buy The Forbidden Circle: The Spell Sword / The Forbidden Tower from Amazon.com

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