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Traitor's Sun by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas Kukalis

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Traitor's Sun is the last Darkover book written before Marion Zimmer Bradley's death, and the third of a trilogy of three books dealing with Lew Alton's daughter Marguerida as an adult. Unfortunately, due to Ms. Bradley's declining health in the latter days of her life, the actual writing and much of the plotting was taken over by an uncredited collaborator, later revealed to be Adrienne Martinne-Barnes. As a result, many longterm Darkover fans found these novels particularly problematical, with major defects in plotting and characterization, not to mention elements that were regarded as major breaks from the established canon of Darkovan culture and history, to the point that some readers complained that these novels read more like bad fanfiction.

One of the most noticeable problems with these three novels is the completely unexplained change in terminology from Terran Empire to Terran Federation. To be sure, Ms. Bradley had never been overly specific about the nature of the Imperial polity, beyond there being an Imperial Senate to which Lew Alton was Darkover's representative for a time. However, that merely suggests some degree of modeling upon ancient Rome, rather than any specifics -- was the head of state a hereditary Emperor of some stripe, or an elected President, whether under that style or some other title such as Consul or Archon? In the original Darkover novels it wasn't a problem because the conflict between Darkovan and Terrannan was never a political one of clashes of government policies, but a social and cultural one of the values and customs that inform the actions and priorities of the characters.

Also, many of the characters and situations as described in these three novels just don't read quite like authentic Darkovan characters (whatever that means when one is talking about a fictional world). Take for instance Hermes-Gabriel Aldaran, who's taken Lew Alton's place as Darkover's representative in the Senate -- when he appeared, he just left me cold. Part of it could be the difficulty one faces with any addition to a long-running series, needing to avoid simple rehashes of the earlier novels but to keep the new elements in harmony with the existing material. Yet there seems to be a deeper problem, a lack of substance in the character -- he's a point of view character, yet we don't get any sense he has an internal life beyond the immediate needs of each scene in which he appears, parctiularly the delivery of information about the political situation in the Terran Federation, including the dissolution of the Senate (shades of the original Star Wars movie there) which sends him fleeing home, and then his concerns about how his stepchildren will adapt to Darkover, which has changed from when he last lived there.

And change there is. Relations with the Terranan have gone bad since an incident over the installation of proscribed video screens in Old Town bars. The new Station Chief, a nasty little guy by the name of Lyle Belfontaine, has closed the spaceport to all but Federation employes. And then Regis Hastur, Regent of the Seven Domains, has a massive stroke.

This is a scene I've never been comfortable with. It feels forced, like the author felt the need to throw some crisis at the protagonists in order to create story-driving conflict rather than it growing organically out of the story-world. Furthermore, it seems to provoke mostly a lot of ineffectual fretting on the part of the protagonists, which is so at odds with the take-charge attitudes that always marked Ms. Bradley's protagonists in the classic Darkover novels.

Part of the problem is the markedly low information density of the writing in this novel, particularly as compared to the novels that mark the high point of her career -- Heritage of Hastur, The Forbidden Tower, The Shattered Chain. If you read any of these novels closely, particularly the third, which starts by tossing us straight into a Free Amazon trading party in the notoriously mysogynistic Dry Towns, you'll notice how almost every sentence introduces us to several important bits of Darkovan culture, often seamlessly with the interactions of the characters (it's a really great exercise for writers looking to improve their worldbuiolding and information-feeding skills). In this novel (and the two that preceded it) it can take us several paragraphs to get key information about the situation, which makes it feel more like something written by a rather clumsy fanfic writer who was firmly reminded of the importance of including the necessary background information for even a brand new reader to get their bearings in the world. I hate to use the word ham-handed, but there's a certain clumsiness and superficiality in these scenes that leave me with an impression of clumsiness in the writing that would be forgivable in a writer's first or second book (read The Planet Savers or Sword of Aldones to see where Marion Zimmer Bradley started from) but which is disappointing in a senior figure of the field.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing in the Terran base. Lyle Belfontaine, who's as much a caricature of a Napoleon Complex as a character, is in a fury about what he perceives as the insult of being ordered to withdraw all Terran forces from Darkover in thirty days. Solely to assuage his own ego, and without any meaningful resistance form anyone else in the Terran legation hierarchy, he decides to provoke an incident that is somehow going to secure the position and the fame that he regards s his rightful due.

The bulk of the novel is all these various characters bouncing along the various points of what's very much a set-piece plot as they move toward their inevitable final confrontation. There's some development of interesting new forms of laran, and we get to learn about the subculture of Darkover's bands of traveling players, but none of it has the richness and depth I loved in the classic Darkover novels.

Everything comes to a head as the Comyn, the Darkovan telepath aristocracy, takes Regis Hastur to the rhu feadå, the holy chapel at Hali, to be laid to rest in an unmarked grave alongside his forbears. For Lyle Belfontaine it's a perfect opportunity for a decapitation strike that will leave Darkover's native leadership in such disarray that he can bring in Federation forces and impose order, force this recalcitrant planet into the mold that best suits the policies of the Expansionists.

Except he has left himself unprotected from the telepaths he so despises, thus giving Lew Alton and a few other key Darkovan leaders an opportunity to thwart his ambush. And here's where I find my suspension of disbelief strained to the limit, in the sheer casualness with which the heroic defenders of Darkover contravene the Compact and the Monitor's Oath. In the classic Darkover novels these two things were always portrayed as foundational to Darkovan ethics, lodestones of the Darkovan moral compass, something only a shameless renegade would breach. Yes, societies that are engaged in a war to the knife will breach their ethical rules to survive, but this generally happens only when the society is in extremis, its back against the wall (as can be seen in John Ringo and Tom Kratman's Watch on the Rhine, in which the Germans draw upon the expertise of the Nazi SS veterans only when the alternative is extinction), and while there's been a lot of ugly brinksmanship between the Comyn and the Terran Sector Chief, but nothing that poses an immediate threat to Darkovan survival as a culture, not even anything at the level of the assault of the World Wreckers a generation earlier.

The novel ends with the Terranan withdrawing, leaving Darkover to itself. It reads almost like Marion Zimmer Bradley was wanting to forcibly draw her series to a close, although it is known that she left notes for a number of other novels of the world of the Bloody Sun.

Review posted July 24, 2012

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