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The Saga of the Renunciates by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

By her own admission, Marion Zimmer Bradley created the Free Amazons solely for plot purposes. At the time she was a brand new author who had no plans to publish any sort of series. She just wanted to challenge the protagonist of her first published novel, The Planet Savers with a competent woman in a position of authority over him, so that he would have to overcome his latent fears and work in a team with her in order to accomplish the mission. So she introduced Kyla Raineach, wilderness guild, for Jason to bounce off of.

Later, in The World Wreckers, she had two more Free Amazons as bit characters. It was a fairly minor scene, but it was just enough to whet the fans' interest in them as a Darkovan subculture. However, for many years MZB firmly resisted the calls for a novel dealing with the Free Amazons, feeling that such a novel would be popular for all the wrong reasons. She did not wish to provide amusement for a certain kind of reader who would find it titillating to read about women living together, and particularly women who were attracted sexually to other women.

However, the image of Kindra the Free Amazon leader kept returning to her mind. She was lurking outside a stronghold, preparing for some kind of dangerous mission -- but what? The germ of an idea refused to grow into a story until the Comyn lady Rohana Aillard bubbled up from Ms. Bradley's subconscious and demanded to have her story told. With that new information, the long-awaited Free Amazon novel could be written.

It begins in Shainsa, one of the Dry Towns, the desert region beyond the borders of the Domains which have long had tense relations with the people of those seven realms. A group of newcomers have arrived and are setting up camp, and as such have attracted the attention of the various idlers and ne'er-do-wells who linger around the city gates, never making quite enough of a nuisance of themselves to attract the wrath of the Great House. When they discover that these newcomers are a band of women, their attentions quickly escalate to catcalls and vulgarity of the sort common among ill-bred men.

However, the women resolutely ignore their attentions and keep setting up camp in a manner that shows near-martial discipline. Or at least until one of the loafers grows bold and tries to seize one of them, getting a nasty cut for his trouble. And from the scolding the woman receives from her leader for having defended herself we learn that they are on a mission of deadly importance, one that must remain secret, and by calling attention to herself she may well have imperiled it.

Domna Rohana's sister Melora was a trained leronis, one of those women of the Comyn whose psionic abilities were unusually strong and who could use them to do for Darkover what technology did for most worlds. Some years ago she had been kidnapped into slavery by Jalak, ruler of the Great House of Shainsa. In this desert land such a tyrant is hardly distinguishable from a bandit chieftain, and frequently carries out raids against his rivals in order to maintain his standing in the intricate system of honor the desert people prize, rather like the honor of Arab raiders.

When Melora was first captured, several of her kinsmen had tried to rescue her. The first two vanished without a trace. The third, her beloved cousin Valentine, was tortured before her eyes in the most horrendous way possible, and fragments of his body were then sent back to the Domains as a warning to anyone else who might seek to rescue her. After that she resigned herself to her fate, not wanting to have further blood shed on her behalf, or that of her young daughter Jaelle.

But now she is pregnant again, this time with a son. Determined not to provide Jalak with an heir of Comyn blood, she used her laran to reach out to Rohana, to beg some kind of rescue. Her daughter is rapidly approaching the age at which she will be chained in the Dry Towns manner and given into a marriage that is hardly distinguishable from chattel slavery, quite possibly to a man far older than her, who will value her primarily for the tie to so powerful a man as the tyrant of the Great House of Shainsa.

Thus Rohana has hired this band of Free Amazons to liberate Melora from duress vile. Because Rohana's telepathic connection with her sister is essential to the success of the mission, she has been permitted to accompany them in the guise of one of their own. All of this is developed quickly, with careful attention to the telling detail of these two very different cultures, to the point we can fairly see the sandy expanses beyond the walls of Shainsa, the Arabian Nights courtyards within the Great House, all these things that make the setting almost familiar, yet at the same time alien. It may resemble the Middle East, but no, it is not Arabia, or any other place on this Earth.

The attack on Jalak's stronghold goes well enough, and the Free Amazons liberate Melora where her kinsmen failed. But they are not home free yet. There are many miles of trackless desert to cross between Shainsa and the safety of the Domains, and Melora is heavily pregnant. She goes into labor at a tiny oasis, and the strain of her flight takes its toll. Melora dies giving birth to a son. Her daughter Jaelle's laran has awakened, and the vulnerable young woman's first telepathic contact is with her mother's dying mind, leaving her with an enormous load of survivor guilt.

Thus it is a very traumatized young lass who travels with them the rest of the way to Thendara, seat of the Comyn, to meet Lorill Hastur, Chief Councillor of the Domains. It's an uncomfortable meeting, but from it emerges one very definite thing -- Jaelle wants no part of the life of a Comyn lady. She wishes to be fostered among the Free Amazons, and specifically by Kindra, leader of the team that rescued her from Shainsa. It's a choice that Lorill Hastur is reluctant to accede to, and then only with the condition that before she be permitted to take the Oath and bind herself to the Free Amazons, she must spend a year after her majority living under her kinswoman's roof, so that no one be able to say that she abandoned the heritage of the Comyn without understanding what it meant.

If we thought that the rest of the novel will tell the story of Jaelle's upbringing and life among the Free Amazons, we are quickly disappointed. The second part of the novel takes up a number of years later and introduces Magdala Lorne, a Terran anthropologist working in the Imperial spaceport in Thendara. She was raised on Darkover, in Port Chicago in the Hellers. There contact between Terran and Darkovan was casual and comfortable, utterly different from the situation here in Thendara in the lowland Domains. Magda is chafing under the restrictions Darkovan society places upon women.

Everything changes when the Lady Rohana arrives, concerned that her son Kyril is missing. He bears an astonishing resemblance to Magda's ex-husband, Peter Haldane. Thus they are able to resolve the immediate problem, that Kyril may have taken employ with the Terrans as a lark, as a case of mistaken identity.

However, the connection is renewed some time later when Lady Rohanna returns to Thendara with worse news -- she has received a message demanding that her family ransom Kyril. However, Kyril is safely at home -- which means that Peter has been captured by a notorious bandit chieftan, Rumal di Scarp, who believes him to be Kyril. If Peter is not ransomed before midwinter, he will be killed. If he is discovered to be a Terran, he will be tortured, then killed.

There is no one to negotiate for Peter's freedom but Magda, and the restrictive customs of Darkover makes that unthinkable. But Lady Rohana explains that she knows a way: the Free Amazons are women who move freely among men without scandal. Lady Rohana has been permitted to go on a mission in the guise of one of their number. She knows enough of them to help Magda masquerade as a Free Amazon.

However, Lady Rohana doesn't know nearly as much about the Free Amazons as she thinks she does. When Magda encounters a group of real Free Amazons, her disguise comes apart and she is revealed for what she is. The penalty for such deception is severe -- the lie must become truth. Magda must take the Oath of the Renunciates (their proper name -- Free Amazons is a slang term, and somewhat derogatory, if at times crudely admiring) and become one of their number.

But even that doesn't free her to resume her mission to rescue Peter. She must go to present herself before the elders of the Guild and argue her case -- a trip that will take far longer than the Midwinter deadline. She briefly considers backstabbing Jaelle and continuing on her journey, although it will mean that she will never again be able to work on Darkover, at least not beyond the walls of the Terran spaceport. But then they are waylaid by several of the bandits, who've come back to take revenge after being humiliated, and as the two women fight shoulder to shoulder to preserve their freedom, Jaelle's latent telepathy reaches Magda's mind and she realizes just how dire the situation is.

Now the two women, Darkovan and disguised Terran, are working together to complete the mission to negotiate Peter Haldane's ransom and rescue. And even when they successfully outwit Rumal di Scarp, their travail is not yet over, for they end up stranded at Castle Ardais, home of Lady Rohana, and of her son Kyril, who proves to be a selfish, entitled jerk, a spoilt boy who grew up into a self-centered man who expected everyone to cater to his whims, and who is showing strong evidence of being an alcoholic.

When they return at last to Thendara, they're both changed women, and not exactly in ways their superiors approve. Magda feels obligated to fulfill the terms of her Oath and to spend the year of training required of all new Renunciates (as we learn more about them, it seems almost like they are a sort of order of nuns, albeit of a secular variety). Needless to say, the administration of the spaceport is not happy to hear that one of their most valued Intelligence operatives is going to be going away for a year -- until it is made clear to them that this is an opportunity to get one of their people into an organization and subculture about which they know next to nothing, and most of that inaccurate or downright wrong. Furthermore, they will be getting an additional line into the culture of Darkover, since Jaelle n'ha Melora has decided to exchange freemate pledges with Peter Haldane and live in married quarters within the spaceport.

In all, it was a satisfying ending to a long and complex novel -- yet it so clearly begged for another novel, telling what happened next to these women who were each to become immersed in a very alien culture. Several years later, MZB and Jacqueline Lichtenberg (creator of the Sime~Gen Universe) tried to collaborate on the story -- MZB would write about Magda in the Guildhouse while JL would write about Jaelle among the Terrans. However, the effort soon foundered as MZB felt increasingly dissatisfied with JL's take on the Terran Empire and its headquarters. (Given how much the womens' uniforms bring to mind those worn by the women characters in the original Star Trek series from the 1960's, one might wonder whether MZB felt that JL was treating the Terran Empire too much like the Federation).

They amicably agreed to abandon the project, and it appears that all texts and notes from it were subsequently destroyed. Yet that "what happened next" continued to nag at MZB's mind, and in time she returned once again to the story of what happened to Magda and Jaelle after they switched places. Thus was born Thendara House, the direct sequel to The Shattered Chain.

While the first novel was a story of breaking free of oppressive social strictures and discovering ways to create functional systems of boundaries, the second novel of the Renunciate Saga is a story of culture shock. Both women are strangers in strange lands, having to sort out the spoken and unspoken expectations of their new environment. Magda's is complicated by the need to conceal her Terran origins, which means that nobody will realize that her mistakes are made out of ignorance rather than malice. Only the house mother knows, and she cannot intercede on Magda's behalf when misunderstandings occur, which mean that trivial errors become sources of festering hostility.

Meanwhile, Jaelle is finding the strain of keeping the Renunciate's Oath within the context of Terran cultural standards a nearly unbearable burden. Even something so small and routine as a standard pre-printed name badge is a problem, since the Terrans simply assume that she will take her husband's surname. This runs directly contrary to the Oath, which plainly states that a Renunciate shall be known by the name of no man, but only as the daughter of her mother. Her new supervisor tells her that it would be too difficult to change established procedure and she should go along to get along. She does, albeit with reservations.

Worse yet is the uniform she must wear, which offends her Darkovan sense of modesty. When she gets hassled by some ignorant Terrans, she soon learns that she is not permitted to respond to the affront with force. Instead she must call upon Security, which is too close to violating the part of the Oath about not calling upon men to defend her.

Things get even more interesting for Magda when a survivor of domestic violence comes to the Guildhouse for refuge. Although the Guild mothers are willing to let Kietha stay without obligation until she has recovered from her most recent beating, Kietha insists that she wants to take the Oath immediately.

Her vengeful and possessive husband soon arrives to take his wife back by force of arms. (A situation that's all too familiar here in the Primary World, where women who flee their husbands are often stalked and even outright murdered by these selfish and entitled men who cannot bear the thought of their wills being thwarted). With two hired swords at his side he demands that the Renunciates hand Kietha over immediately. When the Guild mother refuses, the fight begins and Magda is drafted into the defense of the Guildhouse.

As she is in the middle of this desperate battle, she hears voices whispering in her mind, calling on her to slaughter relentlessly. The next thing Magda knows, she has slain a surrendered man, disgracing her sword and her sworn sisters. Her Oath is called into question and she faces expulsion from the Renunciates. Worse, because her Darkovan socialization is incomplete, she doesn't have the body language responses by which native Darkovans communicate that they are genuinely contrite -- and no amount of words can communicate that she is devastated when her body language doesn't.

As everything looks hopeless, the very woman who'd been harshest in criticizing her speaks up on her behalf. Camilla, the emmasca who had served as a mercenary soldier alongside men during the darkest years of her life, admits that she did not think of the risks when she called Magda to help defend the Guildhouse. She was thinking only of Magda's proven skill with arms, and not of the emotional effects of the training sessions new Renunciates go through during their housebound year. It is sufficient to turn the judgment in Magda's favor, and she will continue her training.

Meanwhile, Jaelle's situation is becoming steadily more complicated. Because she spent her earliest years in the Dry Towns, she agreed to serve as an advisor for a man training on a mission to infiltrate that region -- which means digging up memories she'd buried deep in the back of her mind, with all the painful emotions tied to a life she left behind under such terrible circumstances. Meanwhile, her personal life is beginning to unravel. She and Peter have not been able to fully bridge the cultural gap between them, and when she realizes she's pregnant, it puts even more strain on a relationship that never had a strong footing. Worse, it means that the Comyn are taking an interest in her -- she is one of the few surviving members of the Aillard Domain, a family who trace their lineage mother-to-daughter. Lady Rohana begins to pressure her to think of her daughter's future, and particularly the possibility that she may have inherited the family laran.

It is in this maelstrom of conflicting emotions that both women go into the Midwinter Festival celebration. When the man Jaelle's been tutoring discovers that a man thought lost is in fact living among the Comyn and hares off after him, straight into the teeth of an oncoming snowstorm, Jaelle feels an obligation to rescue him or die trying. And thus everything comes to a head and their lives are broken and remade once again, in a way that dovetails most interestingly with The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower.

The third novel of the Renunciate trilogy, City of Sorcery, takes up some years after Thendara House. By this time both Magda and Jaelle have found their places in Lord Damon Ridenow's circle of matrix workers, and have received sufficient training in their laran to be able to use it at will rather than having it take over when they are in an emotional crisis. They haven't completely cut their ties with the Renunciates, and are helping to build an organization known as the Bridge Society, through which women on both sides of the fence, Terran and Darkovan, are working together for the betterment of both worlds.

And then a mapping plane goes down without a trace in the Hellers, the giant mountains that form the boundary of settled Darkover. It's a region of treacherous winds, and the crash and loss of all aboard is seen as something that should've been expected.

Except one of the crew members, Lexie Anders, suddenly reappears at the gates of the Terran spaceport, stark naked and suffering from well-nigh total amnesia. Normal hypnotic methods have failed to pierce whatever trauma has reverted her to a childlike state, so Magda attempts to use her laran to punch through.

Lexie seems to recover, but it's clear that something is deeply amiss with her. And then she vanishes, and leaves behind only rumors of a hare-brained scheme to seek out a legendary city of wealth and wisdom that is supposed to lie somewhere beyond the Hellers. It's tended by a mysterious Sisterhood who are forbidden to kill and who will take in anyone found worthy and teach them their secrets. At first glance it seems like a feminist, Darkovan take on Shangri-La from James Hilton's Lost Horizon -- except that an alert reader will remember those moments in Thendara House when Magda caught glimpses of mysterious figures in the Overworld, a Dark Sisterhood that watched over the Renunciates but did not act.

When Magda approaches the other Renunciates, they make references to the beginnings of their Order in the union of two organizations: the Sisterhood of the Sword, a company of women mercenaries, and the Sisterhood of Silence, which was more conventual in nature, being devoted to Avarra the Dark Lady of death and childbirth. The modern Order of Renunciates were primarily a secular organization, but some element of its old spiritual roots lingered behind the community of women working as equals among men, providing refuge for women fleeing domestic violence, and the like.

Still, Magda feels a certain obligation toward the women who have struck out on this quest, and gathers up a company to pursue them and if necessary rescue them. Thus begins a quest story that will lead them past Nevarsin and its monastery to the uncharted lands beyond. It is a journey into madness, to gatekeepers who may be madwomen or outright treaters, to demands to prove one's loyalty by killing one's fellows, and finally to death and destruction for some of their number.

I've always felt it the weakest and least satisfying of the three novels of the Renunciates. Part of it may be that it is primarily a quest, and ends on a rather ambiguous note: Magda is on the threshold of her reward, but we never get to actually see her claim her happy ending, only its promise. After the multiple layers of lies and falsehoods that had to be penetrated to get to this point, like the nesting layers of a a matryoshka doll, how are we to feel confident that yes, this one is the solid one, if we do not actually see Magda enter the city and experience enough of it with her to know that yes, she has reached her Promised Land and it won't melt away into illusion right after the final page is turned and the novel ends.

But there's also the feeling that it is only weakly tied thematically with the other two novels of the Renunciates trilogy, and is comparatively a lightweight. The first two novels had richly imagined worldbuilding and plots that centered upon the struggles of women who didn't fit neatly in traditional feminine roles to make a place for themselves where they could develop talents and aptitudes that are more typically the province of men. In the third, there's almost a feeling that it happens to be about the Renunciates primarily because it is a continuation of their storyline, but the fundamental quest could be carried out by any characters.

I originally read The Shattered Chain many years ago, when I was in my teens. At the time, I was continually hearing sharp words from certain adult authority figures about how feminism is all selfishness, and I took it to mean that these individuals saw women who wanted to step beyond the traditional feminine roles of wife and mother as trying to have things both ways, to enjoy the privileges of men while also enjoying the privileges and protections of women. As a result, I found the formal renunciations of the Oath to be a fascinating attempt to address just that accusation and create a society of women who are showing that no, they aren't trying to have their cake and eat it too, but are taking the responsibilities that men shoulder along with the privileges.

But as the years have gone by, I have seen that the objection goes far deeper than merely trying to have the best of both worlds. Instead, many of these people view traditional gender roles as something timeless and non-negotiable, like the roles in a play. That we are to be evaluated solely on our performance of the role to which we have been assigned, irrespective of our own individual talents and weaknesses. If our own natural talents lean in a different direction, this view of life holds that the mismatch does not absolve us of the obligation to fulfill our assigned role -- and thus trying to insist that we should be able to do things that work with our talents instead of against them is insisting on our own way, and thus being selfish rather than sacrificing our authentic self to fit better into the roles we are given. So gender becomes almost like caste in the Laws of Manu -- tight, rigid boxes into which we must squeeze at all costs.

So re-reading the trilogy in the light of that understanding has meant seeing some elements very differently. The extreme hostility of many characters to the Renunciates no longer seems so irrational, to the point of being unhealthy. Instead, it is the reaction of a person who sees gender roles as something fundamental and ontological to non-compliance with them. To such a person, there is no such thing as a misfit -- anyone who isn't conforming is willfully and perversely rejecting their ordained role in life, and thus is an enemy of the social order.

Table of Contents

  • The Shattered Chain
  • Thendara House
  • City of Sorcery

Review posted October 9, 2015.

Buy The Saga of the Renunciates (The Shattered Chain, Thendara House, City of Sorcery) (Darkover) from Amazon.com

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