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Zandru's Forge by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross

Cover art by Romas Kulikas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Marion Zimmer Bradley died in 1999 and Deborah J. Ross was brought in by the estate to finish the number of Darkover novels in progress that were found among MZB's notes, it was decided not to immediately continue the modern-Darkover storyline that had just produced a sequence of three novels that were lambasted by longtime Darkover fans. Instead, Ms. Ross went back to the era of the Hundred Kingdoms to write the story of Varzil the Good, the Keeper who was the architect of the Compact, the law and honor code which restricted warfare to hand weapons only.

In the first volume of the trilogy, The Fall of Neskaya, Varzil didn't even appear at all. Instead, that volume dealt with an entirely different cast of characters, who in this volume are revealed to be the generation right before Varzil's. A generation whose enmities did not die with them, as is revealed in the prologue, in which the renegade laranzu Rumail Deslucidio places upon his son Eduin the charge to avenge his family against the Hasturs who destroyed the empire they nearly built.

In the first chapter we finally meet Varzil, who desperately wants to be admitted into Arilinn Tower. So desperately that he is willing to sit on their doorstep all night in freezing weather in order to prove the sincerity of his ambition. However, his father is adamantly opposed to any such thing for his dreamy son, so the Keeper has little choice except to send him home until such time as his father comes around and sees things otherwise.

Thus it is with heavy heart that young Varzil returns with his family to their home at Sweetwater in the Ridenow lands. But they have no more than arrived when they get the horrible news -- Varzil's elder brother Harald has been captured by the catmen and taken into the caves that border the Ridenow lands (the same caves in which the Great Cat and his followers will make their home and spread destruction in The Spell Sword). Although everybody else thinks it is hopeless, Varzil refuses to give up hope so quickly, and heads out on a rescue mission.

Even in the earlier books of the Darkover series, the Ridenow Gift was always clearly identified as the ability to form a rapport with nonhuman intelligences. And Varzil proves to have it in full as he contacts the catmen who captured his brother and several Ridenow retainers, and is able to successfully negotiate with them. It is no mean accomplishment, since the catmen do not speak either of the human tongues, casta or cahuenga, so he has to communicate with them through images and emotions.

However, this success is more than adequate proof to Varzil's reluctant father that the son who had been such a source of frustration should not be kept from his dream. So back Varzil goes to Arilinn, this time with his father's blessing, to train as a laranzu and matrix worker. There he meets Carolin Hastur, prince and nephew of the aging King Felix. Carolin, called Carlo by his friends, is there only for a season, to train his laran and to give him experience in matrix work that will better equip him to understand that particular aspect of the lands over which he will one day rule when his childless, emmasca (intersexed) uncle perishes.

When I first read The Fall of Neskaya, I wondered whether the King Carolin who was described in the brief Author's Note was the same one in Hawkmistress!. At the time I was dubious, since Hawkmistress! really didn't feel like it was contemporaneous with Two To Conquor, in which Varzil the Good explicitly appeared.

However, as Varzil and Carolin travel to Hali to court, the appearance of Carolin's ambitious cousin Rakhal, as well as their friend Orain, make it all too clear that yes, this is indeed the same Carolin as the king in Hawkmistress, and the story is being set up to intersect with that one. I am not entirely comfortable with this artistic choice, since it seems almost too pat. I considered the deliberate interconnecting of far too many characters who had been previously unconnected to have been one of the major flaws of Rediscovery, the earlier credited collaboration with Mercedes Lackey.

However, I have to note that Deborah J. Ross makes the intersection work well enough that I actually feel like Varzil's presence was always right there in Hawkmistress!, just unseen because of the limitations of Romilly MacAran's point of view. That might change if I read both books concurrently and was really looking for discrepancies -- and even then I'm inclined to give Ms. Ross a pass simply because it's so clear that she's trying to tell an enjoyable story.

Of course the story of the civil war between King Carolin and the usuper Rakhal is only one thread in this complex novel. There is also the story of Eduin the mole, sent to destroy the Hasturs in vengeance for the harm they did his father and uncle. After he tries and fails to kill Carolin, and that only because Varzil comes in at an opportune time and foils the assassination attempt (although Eduin makes it look like an accident, so he's merely under a shadow rather than condemned and executed for his actions), he's sent to Hestral Tower, where Felicia has gone to become the first woman Keeper, Arilinn being far too conservative for such an innovation. Felicia has already proven her strength by holding together a vessel of partly-refined clingfire during a catastrophic accident, and she is now working on a project to help focus a young laranzu's Rockraven gift of weather-sense.

But Felicia has a secret -- she is in fact the last surviving child of Taniquel Hastur-Acosta. When she is chosen to be the first woman Keeper, one of her so-called friends is so excited that she has to blab about it. Right to Eduin, not knowing that he's sworn to destroy the Hasturs. There's an old saying, "loose talk costs lives," but this was just a little too convenient a happenstance. In fact, it was one of the most serious weaknesses in the book -- even more than any sense of forcedness in the scenes in which the novel is made to dovetail with Hawkmistress!. I really wish Ms. Ross could've found a less obvious way for Felicia's secret identity to leak to Eduin, something that would feel a little more like natural carelessness and not just plain plot-convenient stupidity.

Of course Eduin then decides to turn the matrix lattice with which they're working into a trap-matrix tuned specifically to destroy Felicia. He's already conveniently arranged to have other duties when it will actually be used, so he won't be in close proximity when it goes off.

However, he didn't count on the emotional bond that has developed between Felicia and Varzil, which alerts the latter in a critical moment. Certain that something has gone terribly wrong, Varzil takes a grave risk to travel instantaneously through the relays by laran teleportation. But it is already too late, for the backlash of the matrix has burned out Felicia's nervous system, leaving nothing but the most minimal brainstem function keeping her corpse in a hideous semblance of life. Anguished, Varzil wants to use every method at the Tower's disposal to try to save her. But in the end he has to face the facts and let her go.

But he's no sooner begun to search for the reason for Felicia's death than he discovers that the Tower has stored a sizable amount of clingfire against future use. He convinces the Keeper of the Tower to help him destroy it safely -- just as it is demanded by agents of Rakhal's rebel army. The terrible confrontation, involving as it does the military use of laran, only reinforces Varzil's belief that laran warfare must be stopped before it destroys all of Darkover -- thus bringing his storyline back into the one with Carolin's efforts to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.

Like the first volume of the Clingfire Trilogy, this one ends with a clear triumph which makes it feel like it concluded rather than simply reaching a convenient stopping point. However, there are also plenty of threads left hanging that can be picked up for the third volume.

Review posted April 29, 2010.

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