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Heritage and Exile by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Recently DAW has been reprinting the Darkover novels in new omnibus editions that combine two or three novels from the same period of Darkovan history or dealing with the same theme. In the case of the older Darkover novels, they are being combined for the simple reason that individually they are not long enough to sell in today's market. When they originally came out in the 1960's, science fiction novels generally ran in the range of 60,000 to 80,000 words, but by the close of the twentieth century, it had become expected that a novel would be at least 120,000 words long. Readers wanted more bang for their buck, and short novels simply weren't seen as worth their prices.

However, Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile were written relatively late in MZB's career, when she had gained a sufficient reputation that editors were willing to trust her to write at the length the story required, and the market had become such that longer novels were welcome. As a result, they are each long enough to stand alone in the present market, but bringing them together into a single volume does help to underline the way in which they are two parts of a single narrative chronicling key moments in the lives of two of the most important people in the later era of Darkover, namely Lew Alton and Regis Hastur.

Both of these characters go back to the earliest stages of the creation of Darkover, to that huge and sprawling novel that MZB wrote in her youth and eventually cut down into The Sword of Aldones. Interestingly enough, it was actually her second novel to be published, coming out only after she had attained success with The Planet Savers, which also had a major role for Regis Hastur. And while it was flawed in many ways, there was an exuberance to the imagined world that, when combined with the wounded Lew Alton's grim drive, gave the story a visceral power such that decades later MZB reported having fans bring her tattered copies of the original paperback printing to sign.

Over the years MZB had written a number of novels dealing with other periods of Darkovan history, exploring the stories of some of the people who in various ways contributed to the Sharra Rebellion. But it was only in 1975 that she finally came out with the story of exactly what had gone down during those desperate days and just how a group with such high hopes could instead bring about such catastrophic ruin.

She had originally written The Sword of Aldones in the first person from Lew Alton's point of view, and she had come to regard Lew as a sort of masculine alter ego, the yin side of her personality. However, in subsequent Darkover novels she had shifted to tight third person, which had the advantages of being in fashion in science fiction and permitting a much broader scope of storytelling than a point of view that was confined to what a single character could experience. As she sat down to write the story of the Sharra Rebellion, she realized that she really needed to write in third person in order to get the scope she needed to tell the whole story with its complex interplay of two very idealistic young men, one finding his purpose and the other finding disaster.

Yet she did not want to lose Lew's voice altogether, so she decided to write his chapters in the form of a journal. This device permitted her to write those sections of the story in his own words rather than those of a neutral narrator. It also gives those sections a certain immediacy, because we are swept right into Lew's conviction that he really can bring back the old laran technologies that were lost in the Ages of Chaos and thus allow Darkover to relate to the Terran Empire on an equal footing rather than as a client world.

With a group of like-minded young people in the renegade Domain of Aldaran he discusses the possibilities. Eventually they settle upon trying to replicate the aircars that were driven as much by the force of the operator's mind as by aerodynamics. Rather than try to fabricate one on the old design, they decide to use a surplussed Terran helicopter that lacks an engine. But to do the work they need a matrix of suitable size.

Large matrix stones are not easy to come by, but the mysterious Kadarin soon produces a handsome specimen set in the hilt of a sword of ancient workmanship. He tells Lew that he found it in one of the settlements of the forge-folk, where it was worshipped as a goddess and apparently helped to power their metalworking. Lew examines it briefly and realized that it is an unmonitored matrix, its activities not appearing on the screens of any of the various Towers, and thus lacking certain important safeguards that are essential to all modern matrix technology. But Kadarin argues that it will be all the better, since their project will remain a secret until they are ready to reveal it and thus no one can steal all their hard work.

Lew organizes his circle, choosing Marjorie as Keeper on the basis that she has the fewest bad habits to unlearn. But as they set to working with the Sharra matrix, evidence mounts that all is not well. Strange voices whisper through their minds as they perform a routine practice session, attempting to turn the rotor of the helicopter enough to raise it a few feet above the ground. Ordinary disagreements among the members of the circle burst into arguments for no apparent reason. And Kadarin grows steadily more ambitious in a dark and feral way.

Meanwhile, Regis Hastur is coming to grips with his place in the world. He briefly toys with the idea of traveling in the Terran Empire, but is cautioned of the practicalities by his grandfather Danvan, who has raised him since his father was killed. In any case, Regis is of the age when young men of the Comyn, the Darkovan nobility, are expected to serve in the cadets during Council season, guarding the capital city of Thendara. The training may not be quite so rigorous as full military training, but it still involves many of the same factors, including the development of habits of obedience and teamwork.

Regis' aptitude with a sword attracts the attention of Dyan Ardais, the armsmaster, who singles him out for special training. Although Regis is honored to be considered worthy of individual instruction, the privilege also makes him uncomfortable. More than once he wonders if Dyan is sounding him out for something more, something that goes far beyond what is appropriate between teacher and student.

Then another cadet, Danilo Syrtis, is accused of having struck Dyan. It's an open and shut case, and Danilo is to be drummed out of the cadets. Or is it, Regis wonders, and he sets to investigation. He soon discovers the ugly truth -- Dyan had been propositioning Danilo, who as a cristoforo (a member of a sect that is descended from Christianity) is horrified by homosexual advances. Dyan used his laran to pressure Danilo until the youth could take it no longer and lashed out.

Feeling honorbound to clear Danilo's good name, Regis sets off to visit his family. And in doing so he is swept up in the chaos Lew has unwittingly unleashed in his well-meant efforts to restore the old matrix technology of Darkover's past.

Heritage of Hastur was such a success that it was nominated for a Hugo, and although it did not win (and MZB was so disgusted with the hoopla surrounding the nomination that she requested that none of her future works be considered for awards), it gave her sufficient prestige that she was able to write a number of other significant books. She explored issues of women's rights and responsibilities in The Shattered Chain, and in Stormqueen she delved into the heyday of matrix technology that had only been hinted at in her earlier works.

Yet she grew increasingly dissatisfied with The Sword of Aldones. Given the pivotal place it held in the history of Darkover, it was in very sorry shape as a work of fiction. In fact, she was becoming embarrassed about how badly she had handled the story, so when she was given the chance to rewrite it, she decided to grasp the opportunity with both hands. Rather than merely rework the existing text, she started afresh with the basic sequence of events and wrote a completely new text in the style of Heritage of Hastur which she titled Sharra's Exile.

The story of Sharra's Exile follows the same basic outline of events as the original: Lew Alton comes back to Darkover after having spent years in exile in the Terran Empire, trying to find healing for the terrible injuries he suffered during the Sharra Rebellion. As the sole surviving member of the Sharra circle, he has been carrying the cursed matrix with him because it is somehow bound to him and trying to part himself from it for too long is painful. So long as he was off Darkover, it had remained quiet, but now that he has returned it is beginning to respond to locations keyed to it, and the image of the Form of Fire appears at various times and places.

However, the treatment is very different. In addition to Lew's own narrative, there are alternating chapters written in the third person, telling of the activities of Regis Hastur and other Comyn who become entangled in the reawakening of Sharra. As a result we get a much broader picture of the events and their impact upon the people who got sucked into them. However, this is a novel about which I am profoundly ambivalent.

On one hand, the technique is far more masterful and precise. Yet at the same time the more restrained storytelling loses some of the goshwow sensawunda that was present in The Sword of Aldones. Gone are the references to ancient spaceships still leaking radioactivity, left from a profoundly ancient time when Darkovans roamed the stars. Gone is the Forbidden City whose gates Linnea opened for Lew and Marjorie, and the road like a groove in the terrain that was cut by unknown means in the lost past. All those fascinating references have vanished without a trace and Darkover's history has become far more regularized.

Still, this is not to say that Sharra's Exile is inferior to The Sword of Aldones. Rather, it is different, and as such will appeal to a different audience. The Sword of Aldones appeals to that "golden age of science fiction," the teenage boy who loves tales of derring-do on strange worlds full of wonders and doesn't worry overmuch about consistent worldbuilding, tight plotting or careful story logic, while Sharra's Exile will be appreciated as the reader gains maturity and spends more time thinking about the intricacies of plot logic.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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