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Hastur Lord by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross

Cover art by Shutterstock

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Marion Zimmer Bradley died in 1999 after years of ill health, her imagined world of Darkover was in sorry shape. Although her fertile mind had continued to develop storylines, her body was no longer capable of the strenuous work of actually transforming them into publishable manuscripts. As a result, several different collaborators (some credited, others not) were brought in to help her, with varying degrees of success. Many long-time fans were disappointed with the results, feeling that the new books were no longer really in the spirit of the old Darkover. This was particularly true of the series that had been in progress at the time of her death, which had completely thrown out a number of conventions that had been established from the beginning of the series -- the Terran Empire had become a Federation without any sort of explanation, and key characters felt free to ignore the Compact for political expediency, when it had always been portrayed not merely as legally binding, but morally as well, a code of honor as well as law.

As a result, Deborah J. Ross, a longtime friend of MZB, was brought in as an official and credited posthumous collaborator to complete the manuscripts that were found in various states of completion among her notes. However, rather than immediately address herself to the problems that had been created by those last three novels, Ms. Ross started by writing a trilogy set in the Darkovan past, dealing more fully with the story of Varzil the Good and the establishment of the Compact, and tying together Hawkmistress and Two to Conquor. Only when she had established her credentials did she address the major problems left at the end of Traitor's Sun with The Alton Gift, in which she dealt with the consequences both personal and political of that final confrontation with the Terran Federation and Darkover's resultant isolation.

In this volume she has sought to explain how matters got from the situation we saw at the end of The World Wreckers to that in the beginning of Exile's Song. One of the major turning points of The World Wreckers was the replacement of the hereditary Comyn Council with a meritocratic Telepaths' Council, which was portrayed as being a positive change to a progressive form of governance for Darkover, one that would simultaneously preserve its unique characteristics (the laran gifts which originally had been a distinguishing trait of the Comyn nobility but after generations of casual liaisons had been spread throughout the genepool of the Domains) and give Darkover a more progressive form of government which would help smooth the transition into full membership in the Terran Empire. But in Exile's Song it had simply been swept away as unworkable and the old Comyn Council had been restored, almost as if someone had decided that they liked the old political arrangements of Heritage of Hastur and other classic Darkover novels, and really didn't want to have to deal with the ramifications of major transformative change in the nature of the Darkovan state.

And quite honestly, the explanation we get in Hastur Lord for the failure of the Telepaths' Council and the re-establishment of the Comyn Council (albeit much reduced after the assassinations of the World Wreckers) makes historical and sociological sense. Pre-industrial societies generally do not have sufficient surplus to enable all children to receive a sufficient education to equip them to have a voice in their own governance if the society is at all complex. Very small social groups such as a band of nomadic hunter-gatherers or herders or a single village can operate on a primitive democratic basis for the simple reason that everybody knows each other and has a good grasp of the problems that affect everyone, but in a state-level society the complexities of governance become such that it has to be concentrated in the hands of a specialist class who receive the necessary education to perform the tasks of governance. Although such arrangements generally mean the loss of unknown amounts of human potential, particularly when they become hereditary and persons of ability born into other classes do not even get the chance to rise, the loss is generally regarded as a regrettable necessity of the slim margins on which the society operates.

With that in mind, it becomes obvious that the high hopes that were raised by the establishment of the Telepaths' Council were, like so many idealistic dreams of major social change, doomed from the beginning to founder and fail. Just because someone had the genes for some degree of telepathy did not necessarily mean that person would have the necessary training to be able to carry out the functions of governance. While it would be good to get all people with psionic potential into Tower training so that they could develop their abilities and not risk going mad, thrusting them into leadership roles results only in confusion and the inability to settle on any rational policy or course of action -- and as the situation is becoming increasingly unstable, that power vacuum needs to be filled, and if it isn't filled by someone responsible, it's going to be filled with someone who lusts after power for its own sake.

And the source of that instability is the transformation of the Terran Empire into a Federation by the Expansionists, a group who seem to see planets such as Darkover primarily in terms of Lebensraum for their constituencies, without any concern for the welfare of their current inhabitants. The precise nature of the political shifts are left rather vague, since the focus of the novel is entirely upon politics in Thendara, and we see it primarily through Lew Alton's reports from the Senate and Terran Legate Dan Lawton's increasingly conflicted position as his twin loyalties are pulling him in opposite directions, a situation exacerbated by the steadily increasing instability of his wife Tiphani, who was brought up on a very religious planet and has become increasingly obsessed with issues of sin and salvation.

And just as all this is happening, the aging Regent Danvan Hastur dies (which confused me a little, since I was under the impression that he was already out of the picture by the time of The World Wreckers, although I didn't have my copy of it to hand in order to check). But not before revealing to his grandson and heir Regis that there is another. Yes, Regis' father Rafael had a second son, a by-blow and emmasca (intersex) who was secretly taken to the monastery at Nevarsin and raised as a cristoforo monk. And now, after all these years, Danvan wants Regis to bring him back to Thendara and give him a place among the sadly-diminished Comyn.

This is the part of the story with which I'm most uncomfortable. The basic plot is structurally sound, and it could have worked quite well as a stand-alone original-universe novel with original characters, and it is a very powerful indictment of the dangers of theocracy, even a theocracy established by a genuinely devout and unworldly person. But as a Darkover novel, and particularly as a novel intended to bridge the gap between The World Wreckers and Exile's Song, it feels forced, as if one or the other of the authors felt the need to create and insert radically new elements into the story that do not grow from the existing storyline, and which even more notably seem to have no real effect upon the situation that is present in novels that are chronologically subsequent to it but written earlier, as would logically be expected from some of the extreme actions that Rinaldo takes in the course of the novel. It is as if, at the end of the novel, all memory of him and his actions are wiped from history and from the memories of all the characters involved. To use the language of twentieth-century totalitarianism, he had become an unperson.

And this problem points up one of the besetting difficulties of writing prequels and interquels to an established series, and particularly a long-running one with a large number of existing books and a very large fan base with very definite ideas about what should be considered canonical. Because the new book must justify itself on its own merits, it cannot simply rehash established material, but must continue to develop the story with new material -- but whatever new things it adds must develop organically from what has gone before, and feel as though it belongs naturally to the storyline and always was there, lying beneath the surface of the books that were written earlier but fall later in the internal chronology of the Secondary World. It is very easy to fall into the trap of that which is good is not original and that which is original is not good.

Which of course raises the question of when it is time to lay a long-running series to rest. It's not an easy question for me to raise, because I can really tell that Ms. Ross loves and respects Darkover, and is writing these novels for the love of further exploring and developing the wonders of the world of the Bloody Sun -- unlike certain other people who have been churning out very badly written additions to much-beloved series, books which have the feeling of being churned out solely for the money and often abandons established canon with such flagrant regard that it feels like they are showing deliberate contempt for the original author's creation. I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing her grasp of the real Darkover by suggesting that maybe its time to let go, to leave the existing books to stand.

Yet I wonder if Ms. Ross herself has realized it at some subconscious level, with the minor subthread in which Regis takes his daughter Kiristelli to the Yellow Forest to be hidden among the chieri, the mysterious Elder Race who made Darkover its home long before a shipload of Terran castaways crashlanded on it and had to make it their home, becoming the ancestors of the Comyn. His intention is to keep her safe from Rinaldo's well-meant but increasingly badly executed plans for the reforming of Comyn society -- but when Regis returns to take her back home, he finds that he cannot find his way back into the Yellow Forest. The gateway has closed, whether through some dimensional shift or merely some laran trickery of his mind, and Regis is left with no choice but to accept that she has gone beyond his reach and he will have to let go of her.

Unfortunately, even if she were trying to say that this is going to be the end, it is quite possible that economic realities of publishing will not permit Darkover to end. If the books continue to earn well, the publishers and MZB's heirs will want to see new Darkover books written and published in order to maintain their income stream. Lets just hope that they will continue to be of high quality, and not get to the point they feel like they were churned out solely for the money.

Review posted March 30, 2010.

Buy Hastur Lord: A Novel of Darkover from Amazon.com

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