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Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, the first volume of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, is a mindfuckingly brilliant piece of work.

It is a story told many times before, of rebellion and war and political intrigue and the battle for hearts and minds, but never told in such a casually alien way. Lee drops us into a universe that does not work the way ours does, a universe built not on physics and facts, but mathematics and belief, into a political environment where a rebellion in which a heretical calendar that has been adopted in one captured fortress changes the way that technology works in the space around it, where the essential skills needed to fight the rebels are not just leadership, tactics, and battle skills, but intuitive mathematics and the ability to think flexibly while maintaining total loyalty to the ruling hexarchate and the consensus reality enforced by the orthodox calendar and the rituals that derive from it and structure every aspect of life.

Kel Cheris - Kel being her designation as one of six personality types recognised by the hexarchy - is that rare person, a battle commander who can function with originality within the rigidity of her society, who can recalculate the equations that shape reality within a hair's breadth of heresy without crossing the line.

But Cheris is young, and has never commanded a large scale operation. To face the calendrical rot spreading out from the rebel base in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, Cheris will need the strategic skills and experience of a long dead mad general whose consciousness has been preserved, whose advice can only be accessed by grafting his personality to her own - and whose secret agenda may result in her destruction.

I can not begin to give the alienness of the hexarchate's universe a fair description. The book must be read, the universe entered wholeheartedly, to experience what Lee has done in his worldbuilding in this novel. Yet at the same time, the humanity and depth of the characters makes the strangeness real, even if it is never quite understood.

A truly astounding first novel.

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Finally, there is a collection of Eleanor Arnason's short fiction set among the alien Hwarhath, appropriately titled Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. What makes the collection even more delightful to read is that Arnason has framed it as an anthropological investigation of Hwarhath culture and the response of the Hwarhath to contact with humans through their stories, and has fleshed out the volume with scholarly analyses of what these tales tell us about the Hwarhath.

As the Introduction, supposedly written by Rosa Haj of the Independent Scholars Union, explains:

"As far as can be determined, the stories in this collection were all written after the hwarhath learned enough about humanity to realize how similar (and different) we are. Our existence has called into question many ideas about life and morality that most hwarhath would have called certain a century ago. With two exceptions, the stories don’t deal with humanity directly. Instead, the authors are looking at their own culture through lenses created by their knowledge of us. Reading this fiction, we can begin to learn about our neighbors in known space. We may even learn something about ourselves."

I had read most of the stories collected here at one tine or another, but it was most enjoyable to read them again, and to savour the ones I had missed until now. And to ponder the ways in which transgressions both change and preserve societies.

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Becky Chambers' debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, is a delicious read. It focuses on the experiences of the multi-species crew of Wayfarer, a tunnelling ship specifically designed to create the equivalent of stable wormholes between planets that facilitate intergalactic travel. Captain Ashby Santoso and his crew are a motley bunch, the ship mostly held together by the eccentric brilliance of her two human techs, Kizzy and Jenks, and the ship's AI Lovey. The most indispensable crew member is their Navigator Ohan, a Sianat pair - one body, two entities, one a symbiotic infection that enables the Pair to perceive the otherspace they tunnel through. The actual flying of the ship is done by pilot Sissex, a cold-blooded but extremely affectionate Aandrisk. The ship's doctor, a six-legged Grum who answers to the name of Dr. Chef, doubles as the cook and gardener. Rounding out the crew is Corbin, another human, who is responsible for maintaining the production of the algae used to fuel the ship. Into this mix comes Rosemary, the ship's new clerk, whose ability to navigate the bureaucracies of multiple worlds will make the Wayfarer more likely to win and effectively complete higher-end contracts.

The first of these is a very valuable contract - requiring them to travel in normal space for a full year to the home planet of a species newly welcomed into the Galactic Commons, and then "punch" the tunnel back to GC space.

The story unfolds slowly, giving us time to enjoy discovering the depths and mysteries of the characters, and their cultures. It's in some ways a different kind of space story, one that's more about the people undertaking a tricky mission and how that affects their relationships over time than it is about action and adventure - although there's a fair bit of that, too.

I'm looking forward to more from Chambers - maybe even more tales of the good ship Wayfarer and her crew.

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Nnedi Okorafor's novella Binti is, like all of Okorafor's writing, a many-layered narrative that centres black peoples and black culture in a future that is much richer for it.

Contact and communication between different people is key in much of Okorafor's work. In Binti, she tells the story of a gifted young woman who breaks the traditions of her reclusive people to accept an invitation to study at a university renowned throughout the galaxy. But to reach Oomza Uni she must first navigate the human society of the Khoush, who are one of the dominant human cultures, and then survive an unexpected and tragic encounter with the Meduse, an alien people who are at war with the other known species in the galaxy.

Binti's cultural traditions and personal gift for bringing things into harmony allows her to become the first non-Meduse to communicate with the war-like species and reach an understanding of the reasons behind their aggression.

Backgrounding Binti's story and all the issues of contact interactions between peoples, traditions, cultures, and species are alluring glimpses of a fascinating future where mathematics and metaphysics overlap, and starships are grown from genetically modified shrimp. I find myself hoping that Okorafor revisits this future.

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Rediscovery (co-written by MZB and Mercedes Lackey, pub. 1993) tells the story of the rediscovery of the planet Darkover by the Terran Empire, more than 2,000 years after the original colonists crashed there. The crew of the survey ship that finds the planet try to follow basic First Contact rules, but when the flyer they send down to make an exploratory visit crashes during a storm in the Hellers, and the powerful young leronis Leonie Hastur senses their plight and sends a telepathic warning to the nearby Aldaran Comyn, that intention evaporates. Fortunately for the Terrans, crew members Elizabeth Macintosh and David Lorne have some telepathic ability, which enables Kermiac Aldaran to communicate with them. Before long, it's been verified that the Darkovans are descended from the colonists of a Lost Ship, the planet has been assigned Restricted Status - meaning a spaceport can be build if local government agrees, and limited trade may be permitted - and Lord Kermiac has granted the Terrans land to build their port near the village of Caer Donn. Lorill Hastur, Leonie's twin brother, is sent by the comyn of the other domains to investigate the situation.

There are, of course, many complications, including a secondary plotline involving Lorill Hastur, Leonie's twin brother, another Terran telepath, Ysaye Barnett, and Leonie, who is in telepathic contact with both of them during much of the novel. This ends in death for Ysaye and complete withdrawal from outside telepathic contact for Leonie after Lorill and Ysaye are inadvertently exposed to kiresith pollen intended as a trap for Elizabeth.

Meanwhile Elizabeth and David, now married and planning to remain on Darkover as Spaceport personnel, are captured for ransom by bandits while on a field trip. When the Terrans rescue them using aerial weapons that violate the Compact banning weapons that operate at more than an arm's length distance, setting off a dangerous forest fire in the process, only the Aldarans - who do not follow the Compact - remain interested in contact with humans. And so the first Terran spaceport on Darkover is built in the Hellers, at Caer Donn, and the pattern of relations between the Empire and the six Domains of the Comyn is set.

With respect to sexual politics, we see clearly the patriarchal family structure that has developed on Darkover, with occasional references to the exceptions (or escapes) to the restricted place of women in Darkovan society - life in the Towers, or life as a Renunciate (Free Amazon). Leonie lives in a secluded world where women have power as Keepers, and the Keeper of Arilinn has power at the highest levels as the representative of the Towers. But all other women must have a man to acknowledge their legitimacy or they are without any place in society. All the Darkovan women we see at Aldaran are in some way connected to, legitimated and protected by men - Lady Aldaran, Mariel, Felicia, Thyra. Indeed, the worst thing one can say of a child is that her father is unknown. And as women under the protection of a man, they cannot function as equals. Kermiac tells Elizabeth: "to tell the truth, I am not accustomed to discussing serious business with women."

Terran society, however, appears relatively egalitarian. Because the novels were not written in chronological order, in Rediscovery (written in 1993) which takes place several generations earlier than The Bloody Sun (written in 1964), the Terran Space Service is more integrated, with more women in positions of authority (Ysaye Barrett is the senior computer analyst, Aurora Lakshman is the Chief Medical Officer).

Contraception is freely available, as is abortion, at least within the Service. While sexuality in the Service seems to be a matter of personal choice, it's clear that the various planets in the Empire have varied cultural norms with respect to sexual behaviour. Ysaye comes from a culture that values monogamous marriage and frowns on contraception and abortion. On the other hand, various references are made to planets like Vainwal, where sex work is legal and attitudes seem very permissive.

One of the particularly enjoyable aspects of this novel for me is that many characters who play major roles in the saga of Darkover are shown here as they were before the events that made them crucial characters in the history of Darkover - Leonie and Lorill, but also Kadarin, and Thyra. Jeb Scott will eventually marry Felicia Darriel, and father Rafe and Marjorie Scott. Kermiac's younger sister Mariel will marry Wade Montray; their daughter Elaine will marry Kennard Alton. Elizabeth and David will stay on Darkover and raise their child Magda Lorne. In this book, written well after many of the novels dealing with the generations of contact with the Terrans, Lackey and Bradley have worked into the narrative a host of references to things to come. The narrative itself is rather on the thin side, but for the devoted fan of Darkover, the joy of seeing how it was in the beginning makes Rediscovery a book worth reading.

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Thendara House (pub. 1983) is a direct sequel to The Shattered Chain - it details the events immediately following on Jaelle n'ha Melora's freemate marriage to Terran (but Darkovan born and raised) Peter Haldane, and the entrance into the Thendara Guild House of Terran Intelligence Agent Magda Lorne (known among her guild-sisters as Margali n'ha Ysabet) for six months of training and seclusion.

For both women, it is a time of self-discovery. Jaelle, who has repressed her early life in the Dry-Towns, and who has lived since then among Renunciates, finds that her relationship with Peter raises those early memories. She is faced with an internal struggle between the deep, repressed conditioning that drew her to Peter - who is slowly revealed as a domineering and potentially abusive mate - and her identity as a Renunciate - a struggle that is only exacerbated when she realises that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Magda is challenged to question her Terran values and sense of privilege, and is brought face to face with the reality that she is more deeply attracted to women than she is to men.

In addition to struggles with conditioning and culture shock, both women are dealing with the adult onset of powerful laran - Jaelle because of the resurgence of her childhood memories, which were shut down along with her laran when she experienced her mother's death while in rapport with her, and Magda as a result of her increased contact with other telepaths, including Jaelle.

Thendara House is not only a sequel to The Shattered Chain, however. It is also part of the story of the Forbidden Tower, in which both Magda and Jaelle will play a part. For both women, the connection that leads them to Armida is Andrew Carr, now known as Ann'dra Lanart.

Jaelle, in her role as cultural consultant in Terran Intelligence, is tasked with helping a visiting Terran official, Alessandro Li. Li is a Special Representative of the Senate, sent to investigate whether Cottman Four should retain its Closed World status or be reclassified, and to make recommendations about a Legation. Li is at first very interested in finding out all that he can about the Comyn and the rumours of telepathic abilities among the Darkovan ruling class. When the wreckage of Andrew Carr's downed plane is discovered and it is learned that Carr survived the crash, Li becomes fixated on finding out what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Magda meets Andrew when, along with a number of other Renunciates, she travels to the Kilghard Hills near Armida to help in fighting a fire. While they do not know each other, she recognises him as Terran - and vice versa. She believes him to be an Intelligence agent in deep cover, and later on, when she meets Alessandro Li, she innocently mentions seeing an agent at Armida. Li makes the connection between this unknown Terran and the missing Andrew Carr, and when all other attempts to contact Carr are thwarted, he sets out alone, unaware of a severe storm coming, to travel to Armida and confront him.

When Jaelle discovers what he has done, she determines to go after him, knowing the danger he is in. Peter attempts to stop her, threatening to have her declared temporarily insane due to her pregnancy, and placed in restraints. Jaelle lashes out and Peter is rendered unconscious (though Jaelle believes she has killed him). Jaelle, in emotional turmoil and psychic distress, heads out after Li, stopping briefly at the Guild House where she tries to see Magda. Magda, unfortunately, is in a meeting with the House Guild-Mother, and doesn't learn that Jaelle was asking for her until much later. Reaching out with her untried laran, she is able to discern where Jaelle is headed and why. Coming suddenly to understand that she is in love with Jaelle, she rides out after her. Magda finds Jaelle just in time for them both to find shelter from a sudden flood, but they are trapped by the rising waters. Jaelle miscarries and once more, Magda's laran enables her to reach out for help. A rescue party led by Andrew arrives, having also found and rescued Alessandro Li. During Jaelle's recuperation at Armida, both women realise that they have grown beyond both the limitations of their respective cultures, and the oppositional renunciations that form the essence of the Guild. Possessed of powerful laran, the next step for them is to join the Forbidden Tower - thus bringing together in Jaelle and Damon Ridenow the parents of Cleindori Aillard.

In Jaelle's experiences, we see through her encounters with other Terrans and with the cultural assumptions inherent in the way life and work are structured in the Terran Zone, the sexism of the Terran culture.

From the Terrans, Jaelle must deal with having her identity elided in a way that goes against her Renunciate's oath - among the Terrans, she is no longer Jaelle n'ha Melora, but Mrs. Peter Haldane. She is Haldane's wife, Haldane's girl, even Haldane's squaw. On the other hand, she encounters men in the Terran Service who accept her competence without question and work beside her without concern that she is a woman.

However, because Peter is Darkovan-raised and (as we are reminded several times) psychosexual development is fixed before adolescence, Peter's responses in intimate relationships are more typical of a Darkovan man who has acclimatised to Terran surroundings, than of a citizen of the Terran Empire. As Peter and Jaelle embark on their marriage, we see how the patriarchalism of Darkovan society affect relationships between men and women. Jaelle herself comes to think that it is the Darkovan in Peter, not the Terran, that creates problems between them: "Maybe it is not the Terran in Peter I find objectionable; maybe it is his Darkovan side which insists I must be no more than his wife and mother of his children… other Terran men are not like that."

Jaelle faces endless criticism from Peter over her inability to behave like a good wife, in either the Terran or Darkovan sense. When she acts "inappropriately" due to culture shock or the need to preserve her sense of autonomy, he lectures her on how this reflects poorly on him:
"I'm working under Montray now, and I'm in enough trouble with him without having him think—" he stopped, but to Jaelle, surprisingly, it was as if he had spoken aloud what was in his mind; think I can’t manage my wife.

As their relationship worsens, Jaelle comes to see that for Peter, love is equivalent to possession, and that he expects her as a matter of course to see to all his needs: "...and suddenly she knew him as Magda had known him, he really believed that he could treat her as valet, comrade-in arms, personal servant, breeding-anima, and somehow repay it all just with the ardor of his lovemaking..."

Nor is Peter's sexism limited his attitudes toward Jaelle. Because her heightened laran enables her to sometimes read his thoughts, Jaelle gains awareness of how he thinks about the new head of Intelligence Cholayna Ares, and his former wife and colleague Magda.
Not fair, dammit, I spent five years setting things up so that when Darkover got an Intelligence service I'd be at its head, and now some damned woman walks in and takes over. Bad enough playing second fiddle to Magda..."
When she finally tells Peter that she no longer wants to remain married to him, he responds that he will not allow her to leave - asserting his belief that she belongs to him and cannot break their connection without his permission, despite the fact that in Terran marriages, a married woman is not property, as she is under Darkovan law.
She detected a glimmer in his mind of logical resentment; women were damned unreasonable creatures, yet a man was at their mercy if he wanted children, and how else could they have any immortality? It almost made her pity him. “Don‟t be silly, Jaelle. I‟m not going to let you divorce me, not with a baby coming. I owe it to my child at least, to protect and look after his mother, even if we‟re not getting along too well.”
Thus in the short space of a few months, the intimate portrayal of the deterioration of their relationship brings into sharp relief the glimpses we have had previously of the traditional Darkovan marriage and the attitudes that shape it.

Magda's experiences in the Thendara Guild House mirror in some ways the early years (late '60s and early '70s) of the feminist movement - in particular the use of consciousness-raising groups to become aware of - and change - internalised sexist conditioning and to examine gender roles, institutionalised sexism, and nature of the differences between male and female. The other significant themes explored through Magda's life as a new Renunciate are lesbianism and transgender issues (through the emmasca character Camilla).

As a newly sworn Renunciate, Madga is expected to go through a period of training and seclusion, during which she may only leave the Guild House with permission of on the Elders of the House. At one of the first group meetings, the Guild Mother tells her and the other trainees "... you will learn to change the way you think about yourselves, and about other women.”

During her time in the Guild House, Magda comes to realise how pervasive same-sex attraction is on Darkover - and not just among Renunciates, although same-sex relationships between women are taken more seriously in the Guild than outside it, where such relationships between women are seen as adolescent fancies or secondary relationships, insufficient to keep a woman from her primary function, to marry a man and bear children.
Men may swear such oaths. And yet for women, such an oath is always taken, it seems, as a thing for untried girls, and means only, I shall be bound to you only so long as it does not interfere with duty to husband and children…”
In this perspective, it would appear that the frequent accusations against Renunciates, that they are all lovers of women and seduce honorable wives away from their husbands, refers not to the fact that many of them are in fact lesbian or bisexual, but that they value such relationships - and indeed, all relationships between women, sexual or not - as highly, or even more highly, than they do relationships between women and men. It is not that they love women, but that in doing so they choose not to be available to men.

Through the struggles of both women to find their true selves and desires, MZB explores much of the feminist analysis and praxis of second wave feminism of the 60s and early 70s. The nature of the patriarchy, the role of cultural conditioning, attitudes toward child bearing and rearing, alternative family structures, instititionalised sexism, the effects of sexism on men, the question of living separate from men as much as possible, even the debates over the role of lesbians in the movement, all have their expression in the inner journeys of Magda and Jaelle. It would be a rare woman of that era who did not see something of her own experiences and struggles somewhere in the pages of this novel.

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Sharra's Exile (pub. 1981) is an extensive revision of Bradley's second Darkover novel, Sword of Aldones (pub. 1962), and the immediate sequel to The Heritage of Hastur. In Sharra's Exile, the consequences of the Sharra rising on all the participants are examined, and a final resolution is finally found to the threat of another Sharra rising.

Lew and Kennard have been offworld for five years. Kennard is aging and in poor health. Lew has learned that using Sharra has distorted his very genetic structure -Terran regeneration techniques can not restore his hand, and when he meets and falls in love with Diotima Ridenow, a Darkovan Comynara travelling offworld, their child is born premature and fatally deformed, which strains the relationship past the breaking point.

Then comes news from Darkover - the Comyn Council is preparing to void Kennard's lordship of Alton and, ignoring both Lew as his declared heir and his younger son Marius, choose a new lord of Alton. But before Kennard can return to defend his claim, he suffers a fatal stroke - and his dying act is to use the Alton gift of forced rapport to compel Lew to go back to Darkover and secure Marius' rights.

With both Lew and Sharra on Darkovan soil again, Sharra wakes, and the former members of the Sharra circle are drawn to it. Kadarin steals the Sharra matrix from the Alton residence in Thendara; Marius is killed in the attack. Meanwhile, rumours about a child of Alton blood are circulating; the child - a girl named Marja - is found, and proves to be Lew's child by Thyra, conceived while he was drugged and under Kadarin's control.

Meanwhile, the question of Terran-Darkovan relations is still a key issue, with several factions - including the Ridenow Domain - pushing for closer ties and others urging less involvement. The isolationists have gained influence over the young and mentally unstable Prince, Derik Elhalyn, who has, behind the Council's back, made a treaty with the Aldarans, to be sealed with a marriage between Beltran of Aldaran, and Callina Aillard, underKeeper of the Comyn Tower in Thendara.

Lew, after consulting the two Keepers - Callina Aillard and the unbelievably ancient Ashara - learns that the only force that can stand against Sharra is the ancient Hastur relic, the Sword of Aldones. But the Sword is guarded in an ingenious fashion. It lies within the Comyn Chapel, the rhu faed, which is so shielded that only one of Comyn blood can enter - but the Sword itself is warded such that no one with the slightest hint of Comyn blood or laran power can touch it. Callina and Lew use a giant matrix screen to "call" to them a person who will be best suited to help them reach the Sword. This person is Kathie Marshall, a Terran nurse from the planet Vainwal, who was present when Diotima and Lew's child was born, and who is also a perfect double for Linnell Lindir-Aillard, Camilla's half-sister, Lew's foster sister, and the betrothed of Derik Elhalyn.

In an attempt to bring Lew back under Sharra's control, Kadarin and Thyra attend the Midsummer Festival in disguise, but Regis, who has discovered that he has an instinctive gift that can counter Sharra's influence, manages to keep Lew from succumbing. Sharra strikes out, killing Linnell; Prince Derik, weakened by a mysteriously spiked drink, dies in the psychic backlash.

Callina, Lew and Kathie succeed in retrieving the Sword of Aldones from the rhu faed, but Lew is seriously wounded when Kadarin and Thyra try - and fail - to take the Sword from them. A Terran helicopter, authorised by Regis, arrives in time to transport Lew, Callina, Kathie, and - under arrest - Kadarin and Thyra - to Terran Medical, where Regis heals Lew with the power of the Sword.

Using the powers of Sharra, Kadarin teleports himself, Thyra and Lew to the forecourt of Comyn Castle. Lew is almost drawn into Sharra, but Callina and Regis arrive, and challenge Sharra's power, weakening its hold over Lew. A psychic battle begins, Aldones against Sharra, with Lew torn between them, unable to lend his power to either side. Suddenly Dyan Ardais arrives, and, driven by his ambition, arrogance, and jealousy of Lew, joins Sharra and cuts the ties that draw Lew to its fires. The final battle is joined, with Kadarin, Thrya and Dyan sealed to Sharra, and Regis, with the support of Callina and Lew, wielding the Sword of Aldones. In the end, Sharra is broken, Kadarin and Thyra drawn bodily into the vortex of its passing, and both Callina and Dyan lie dead or dying on the cobblestones. Only Lew and Regis remain alive, and Regis' hair has turned white.

As the novel ends, the loss of so many of the Comyn and the collapse of the treaty with Aldaran forces Darkover into a closer relationship with the Terran Empire. Lew, reconciled with Diotima, goes back into space with his wife and daughter, to serve as Darkover's first representative in the Empire Senate. And Regis, once more, takes up the Hastur mantle as Lew goes out among the stars.

This is in many ways a novel of character and relationship rather than plot. All of the large cast of characters - including many who do not appear in the summary above, such as Lerrys and Geremy Ridenow, Merryl Aillard, Danilo Syrtis-Ardais, Dan Lawton, Jeff Kerwin (aka Damon Lanart-Aillard), Gabriel Lanart-Hastur and his wife Javanne, Danvan Hastur, Rafe Scott - are interrelated by blood, fosterage, love, hate, loyalty and power. And it is through these relationships that we see the changes occurring in Lew and Regis, and in the structure of Darkovan society.

Sharra's Exile has little new to tell us about Darkovan society, but much to say about how flesh and blood people interact within that society.

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The Forbidden Tower (pub. 1977) is the story of the creation of the "heretical" circle of telepaths who, choosing to work outside of the Towers of Darkover, challenge the two most strongly held beliefs that underlie the Tower system - that a Keeper must be essentially asexual, and that only the members of the ruling Comyn caste have enough laran to work in the Towers.

The novel begins where The Spell Sword left off - with the clearing of the catmen and the planned union of Damon Ridenow to Ellemir Alton, and of Terran Andrew Carr to Callista Alton, formerly a Keeper of Arilinn under Leonie Hastur. Much of the main plot of the novel deals with the fusion of these two couples into a fourway bond, linked telepathically, emotionally and sexually. There are two main obstacles to this, and MZB deals with both in great detail. First, the realisation that not only has Callista been conditioned to have no sexual awareness or response, but that early in the training, Leonie performed a kind of psychic neutering on her, so that it would be impossible for her conditioning to ever be undone. Second, the painful misunderstandings and problems of culture shock brought about by the differences between Terran sexual mores and those found in a society of telepaths. In order to overcome the first, Damon must engage in the dangerous discipline of timesearch to find clues to a centuries-old tradition that could restore Callista's frozen sexuality. And only endless love and patience can overcome the second.

At the end of the novel, the four of them, fully bonded, are faced with a telepathic duel to prove Damon's right to namr himself Keeper and to direct the way his Tower will operate according to his own conscience and not the laws of Arilinn.

While largely focused on deconstructing the rigid role of Keeper and the assumption that only the Comyn can be effective telepaths, many of the Darkovan attitudes toward sexuality are clarified through the exploration of the differences between Terran and Darkovan sexual culture.

Darkovan society is to some degree polyamorous, and despite the strongly patriarchal nature of family relationship, women appear to have some sexual autonomy, but on strict class lines. As well, women must be discreet, and if unmarried, must be careful about pregnancy. The greatest shame seems to lie in bearing a child who has no acknowledged father. Some of the contradictions are shown in this account Ellemir gives to Callista about her sexual experience:
“It was that winter,” said Ellemir. “Dorian begged me to come and spend the winter with her; she was lonely, and already pregnant, and had made few friends of the mountain women. Father gave me leave to go. And later in the spring, when Dorian grew heavy, so it was no pleasure to her to share his bed, Mikhail and I had grown to be such friends that I took her place there.” She giggled a little, reminiscently. Callista said, startled, “You were no more than fifteen!” Ellemir answered, laughing, “That is old enough to marry; Dorian had been no more. I would have been married, had Father not wanted me to stay home and keep his house!” Again Callista felt the cruel envy, the sense of desperate alienation. How simple it had been for Ellemir, and how right! And how different for her! “Were there others?” Ellemir smiled in the darkness. “Not many. I learned there that I liked lying with men, but I did not want to be gossiped about as they whisper scandal about Sybil-Mhari—you have heard that she takes lovers from Guardsmen or even grooms—and I did not want to bear a child I would not be allowed to rear, though Dorian pledged that if I gave Mikhail a child she would foster it. And I did not want to be married off in a hurry to someone I did not like, which I knew Father would do if there was scandal."
There is some indication, however, that the circumstances in which women may engage in pre- or extra-marital sex are partly for the convenience of men. There is a reluctance among Darkovan women to engage in sex during pregnancy. As Callista explains, “Biologically, no pregnant animal desires sex; most will not endure it. If your women have been culturally conditioned to accept it as the price of retaining a husband's sexual interest, I can only say I am sorry for them! Would you demand it of me after I had ceased to take pleasure in it?”

While a man may take a concubine or mistress at his pleasure, and it is expected that he will do so if his wife is unavailable or unable to provide sex, it is considered not quite proper if he brings into the household a woman who is not acceptable to his wife. The kinswoman of one's wife is traditionally one of the more acceptable choices in such circumstances.
"This is our custom. If you were one of us, it would be taken for granted that my sister and I should… should share in this way. Even if things were — as they should be between us, if there was a time when I was ill, or pregnant, or simply not… not wanting you… It is very old, this custom. You have heard me sing the Ballad of Hastur and Cassilda? Even there, even in the ballad, it speaks of how Camilla took the place of her breda in the arms of the God, and so died when he was set upon. It was so that the Blessed Cassilda survived the treachery of Alar, to bear the child of the God…”
There is also a sense that men's desire should not be allowed to go unfulfilled, and that women are responsible for seeing to this when they arouse a man's sexual interest.
In both The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower, Callista tells Andrew that she is responsible for the fulfilment of desire he feels toward her. “I have been taught that it is… shameful to arouse a desire I will not satisfy."

Despite the suggestion of some choice in sexual expression, it is also clear that women, like children must always be under wardship - except, of course, for the Keepers. Women in the Towers are under the wardship of their Keepers - at one point, Leonie states that it is her responsibility to find suitable marriages for women who have given oath to her as Keeper and have worked in the Tower (this does not include young women who are sent to the Towers for a few years training in the use of laran) if they later choose to leave. Women outside the Towers are seen always as under the authority of father, husband, brother, or other kinsman.

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The Heritage of Hastur (pub. 1975) and its immediate sequel, Sharra's Exile (pub. 1981) are in some ways the heart of the Darkovan cycle - they mark the end of the Comyn and the sociopolitical structure of Darkover as it was and, as Regis Hastur comes into his own, the beginnings of a new Darkover (which would be penned, not by Bradley, but by her successors Adrienne Martine-Barnes and Deborah J. Ross from outlines and notes).

The Heritage of Hastur details the events surrounding Regis' coming of age, amid the unleashing of Sharra, the powerful matrix we saw before in The Winds of Darkover. It is also a key part of the ongoing conversation about the position of Darkover within the Terran Empire. In all these strands of the narrative, the one common theme is responsibility for and abuse of power. In a sense, the true heritage of Hastur - and all Comyn are called the children of Hastur - is a heritage of extreme privilege and power, and its potential for abuse, as much as it is a heritage of responsibility. As Danvan Hastur acknowledges, "In the far-back days, we were given power and privilege because we served our people, not because we ruled them. Then we began to believe we had these powers and privileges because of some innate superiority in ourselves, as if having laran made us so much better than other people that we could do exactly as we pleased."

As the novel opens, relations between Terrans and Darkovans have once more grown tense, and the key issue is the Compact - an agreement banning all long-distance weapons that holds sway throughout the six lowland Domains. The Empire has technically agreed not to allow such weapons to be taken out of the Terran Zone in Thendara, but Terran officials do not really take the agreement seriously, or enforce it rigorously, and they have allowed the sale of range weapons in Alderan territory - realising that the compact exists to protect all Darkovans from the devastating matrix weapons - like Sharra. Again, this conflict adds to the themes of responsibility, power and abuse that inform all the narrative strands of the novel.

This narrative focuses on two young men - Regis Hastur and Lewis Alton - whose circumstances and experiences are in some ways counterpointed, but in other ways parallel. Regis is the grandson of Danvan Hastur (and great-grandson of Lorill Hastur), heir to the most powerful family on Darkover, the hereditary Regents of the Crown - a vital role, as many of the Elhalyn, hereditary Kings of Darkover, have been incompetent or even mad in recent generations. But Regis doesn't want to be the de-facto ruler of Darkover, he longs for the stars. Unlike the Comyn he is destined to lead, he appears to be almost completely lacking in laran - testing indicates he has the potential, but that it has been blocked from normal development.

Lew Alton is also the heir to a powerful Domain, but unlike Regis, he has had to fight to be recognised. He is the son of Kennard Alton (last seen as a boy in Star of Danger) and Elaine Montray, who is half Terran, half Darkovan, but of the outcast Aldaran Domain, who Kennard met and fell in love with on Earth. Although Kennard married Elaine di catenas - the most formal style of marriage - the Comyn refused to acknowledge his marriage and Lew has always been treated by most as a bastard, carrying both the barbarian blood of the Terrans and the traitor's blood of the Aldarans. In order to have his son declared as his heir, Kennard was forced to prove before witnesses that Lew carried the Alton Gift of forced rapport by forcing rapport on him - an act that might have killed Lew if he did not in fact have the gift. Only in the Towers, where Lew proved to be a powerful and skilled matrix technician, has he felt truly welcome, although he has won some degree of acceptance among the Guards, where he serves as an officer and his father's second - the Altons being the hereditary commanders of the Guard.

The events of the novel do in fact begin in the Guard, where Regis is beginning his duties as a cadet, where Kennard is Commander and both Lew and Kennard's cousin and childhood friend Dyan Ardais - the Lord of that Domain - are officers, as is Regis' brother-in-law (and Lew's cousin) Gabriel Lanart-Hastur. Also in his first year as a cadet is Danilo Syrtis, son of a minor Comyn house whose older brother was paxman and sword brother to Regis' father - both of whom were killed by bandits carrying Terran weapons.

As new cadets, Regis and Danilo initially become friends, but are driven apart by the actions of Dyan. As cadet master, he has the power to make any cadet's life a living hell, and when Danilo refuses his sexual advances, Dyan uses not only his official power but also his laran to torment the young man. At the same time, Dyan attempts a gentle seduction of Regis - the difference in his approach to the two being that he sees Regis as a social equal and Danilo as a social inferior. Before too long, Danilo has rejected Regis' friendship and, driven to desperation by Dyan's action, draws a knife on Dyan and is sent home in disgrace.

Meanwhile, Kennard has asked Lew to travel to Aldaran to investigate the situation with respect to Terran weapons there, under the pretext of visiting his Lord Kermiac and his other Alderan kinfolk. When Lew, who has seen Dyan in action before, witnesses the public disgrace of Danilo and senses what was behind Danilo's reaction, goes to Kennard in protest, his father will not listen to him. Lew leaves for Aldaran, but with a heart filled with anger and disgust at the abuses of power he has witnessed. Arriving at Castle Alderan he is welcomed into the family as the grandson of Kermiac's sister Meriel. Here he meets his cousin, Kermiac's son Beltran, Kermiac's wards, Thyra, Marjorie and Rafe Scott, and the mysterious Raymon Kadarin, and is drawn into their plan to recreate the old pre-Compact matrix sciences, using the Sharra matrix. As he works with Kadarin and the others, training them to be a working circle, he and Marjorie begin to fall in love, despite the fact that Lew has determined that Marjorie is the one best suited to serve as the circle's Keeper.

Regis, having completed his first year of training, travels to visit his sister; en route, he stops at Danilo's home, where the two renew their friendship, and Regis, learning what really happened to him, swears to make it right. On his return to Thendara, despite being ill with threshold sickness, a malady that often strikes telepaths whose laran has awakened, he confronts first his grandfather and then Kennard with the knowledge of Dyan's abuse. Kennard, reading his mind and the images he carries from Danilo's mind, is shocked, but accepts Dyan's guilt. He also realises that Danilo is a catalyst telepath, a rare gift thought to be extinct, and contact with him can stimulate latent laran - and that contact with Danilo is what has woken Regis' powers.

With the promise that justice will be done, Regis returns to Syrtis with Gabriel who is to take Regis to Neskaya for laran training and then bring Danilo back to Thendara, but they discover that Danilo has been kidnapped by the Aldarans. Gabriel returns to Thendara to report the crime. Regis promises to wait for Gabriel at his seat in Edelweiss, but instead, he pauses long enough to name Gabriel and Javanne's youngest son his heir, and sets out to find Danilo.

In Alderan, Lew is horrified when he learns that Beltran has kidnapped Danilo, particularly since he himself, having guessed Danilo's gift, had speculated about asking Danilo to join their circle and use his gift to help more latent telepaths find their powers. Kermiac chastises Beltran, and when Regis arrives, assures him that both he and Danilo are guests under his roof and will come to no harm, and will be allowed to leave when the weather is better.

Lew comes to the realisation that working with Sharra is corrupting all of them, awakening lust for power and dulling their consciences, he decides that they must return Sharra to the forge folk and find another way to bring about their goals. But when Kermiac dies suddenly, Beltran imprisons Regis and Danilo, and tries to force Lew to continue working with the Sharra circle. Marjorie rescues the three captives, and they flee Aldaran Castle. Lew and Marjorie set out to bring word of the Sharra circle to Arilinn, while Regis and Danilo head toward Thendara. Lew and Marjorie are recaptured, and Lew is drugged and, now controlled by Kadarin, returns to the Sharra circle. As Sharra rages, destroying the city of Caer Donn and the Terran Spaceport there, telepaths across Darkover feel the impact, and a force is sent from Thendara to stop the fires, no matter what. Regis and Danilo meet the party, led by Kennard and Dyan, on the road, and head back with them toward Alderan.

Marjorie convinces Kadarin to let Lew recover from the drugs, and together they decide that Sharra must be stopped, even if it takes their deaths - and the deaths of everyone in the Sharra circle - to close the dimensional gateway that fuels it. As they enter the circle and prepare to attempt it, Kennard finally reaches Lew and adds his power to theirs. The gateway is sealed, but Lew is gravely wounded and Marjorie close to death; with the strength of desperation, Lew manages to teleport himself and Marjorie to Arilinn, but it is too late for Marjorie.

Despite the closing of the gateway, the Sharra matrix remains too powerful to be left on Darkover where its power could be raised again; Kennard decides to leave Darkover, taking the matrix and Lew with him, hoping that Terran medicine can heal wounds that Darkovan psi power cannot. The Terrans, now aware of just what kind of long-range weapons the Compact was made to control, promise to do their part in keeping it. Dyan accepts responsibility for his abuse of Danilo, and names him heir to Ardais as recompense. And Regis relinquishes his dream of the stars and takes his place as the Hastur heir on the Council. Hard lessons have been learned - at least for a time.

The Heritage of Hastur is the first of the Darkover novels to deal extensively with male homosexuality. It is also the novel that many readers point to as one that embodies Bradley's personal philosophy as an enabler of the sexual abuse committed by her husband, and an abuser herself. I am going to first discuss attitudes toward male homosexuality in general as presented in the novel, and then look at the instances of sexual abuse and how they are dealt with. But first, I want to summarise certain aspects of what has been revealed so far about Darkovan attitudes toward sex in general.

Sexuality on Darkover has two aspects, social, and reproductive. Social sex is by necessity non-reproductive, as it is a great disgrace to produce a child without a father to claim it. It occurs between men, between women, and between men and women. It is common in the Towers, but is also found outside of them. It is a personal matter, and is expected to take second place to the duty of proper procreation.

Reproductive sex is heavily controlled, because a child without an acknowledged father has no place in the community. Paternity is also important, especially among the nobility, because of the role that inheritance rights play in a feudal society. In Heritage of Hastur, we learn that having at least one heir, if not more, is a legal necessity for an adult male in direct line to the overlordship of a domain.

Thus men are expected to concern themselves with having heirs, and for this they need recognised relationships with women whose fidelity can not be questioned. These relationships span a wide range of options, including a highly formal style of marriage, legal concubinage, a form of common-law marriage, and the taking of mistresses. As long as the man is sure enough of the paternity of his child to acknowledge it, the mothers are not stigmatised and the children have a place in the family and in society. The higher the social status of the woman, the more likely it is that she will be married formally to a man of equal or higher status.

Women are often married young, well before the age of 20, unless they are marked for some training in a Tower, in which case their marriages may be put off for two or three years. Man may also be betrothed, or even married, at an early age. When discussing sexuality, it is important to remember that on Darkover, adulthood arrives early - around the age of 15. At this age, Darkovans take on adult responsibilities - they start work, get married, have children, begin training in Towers or in the Guards, whether they want to or not. As Regis says in speaking of the expected actions of a Comyn son: "It's all planned out for us, isn't it, Lew? Ten years old, fire-watch duty. Thirteen or fourteen, the cadet corps. Take my turn as an officer. Take a seat in Council at the proper time. Marry the right woman, if they can find one from a family that's old enough and important enough and, above all, with laran. Father a lot of sons, and a lot of daughters to marry other Comyn sons."

Nor are matters any different for women, as Lew thinks while watching Regis' sister Javanne at a party: "Javanne was dancing again. Well, let her enjoy herself. She had been married off at fifteen and had spent the last nine years doing her duty to her family."

Among the Comyn, sexuality and telepathy are strongly linked. Laran generally develops in early adolescence, and as Bradley constructs the physiology of psi, sexual and laran "energies" travel along the same "channels" in the body. As well, it is often mentioned that for telepaths, living in close contact is like "living with your skin off" - in a state of intimacy unimaginable among non-telepaths. It's also mentioned that telepathic men are often uninterested, or even impotent, with "head-blind" women. Telepathy both mimics and intensifies sexual bonding. As Lew says, in explaining why he refuses to marry at the command of the Comyn:
How could I tell Hastur, who was old enough to be my grandfather, and not even a telepath, that when I took a woman, all her thoughts and feelings were open to me and mine to her, that unless rapport was complete and sympathy almost total, it could quickly unman me? Few women could endure it. And how could I tell him about the paralyzing failures which a lack of sympathy could bring? Did he actually think I could manage to live with a woman whose only interest in me was that I might give her a laran son? I know some men in the Comyn manage it. I suppose that almost any two people with healthy bodies can give each other something in bed. But not tower-trained telepaths, accustomed to that full sharing.
With the exception of the cristoforos, whose attitudes toward sexuality, and particularly sexual expression between persons of the same sex are based on a remnant of Christian religious belief, Darkovans appear to have a relaxed attitude toward male homosexual expression - at least as long as the persons involved are either young, or if older, have done their duty to society by marrying and fathering children.
It was not considered anything so shameful to be an ombredin, a lover of men. Among boys too young for marriage, rigidly kept apart by custom from any women except their own sisters or cousins, it was considered rather more suitable to seek companionship and even love from their friends than to consort with such women as were common to all.
The Heritage of Hastur explores two instances of homosexual contact that may be characterised as abusive. The first, which occurs within the timeline of the novel, involves Danilo Syrtis, who comes to the attention of the sadistic hebephile Dyan Ardais while a cadet. While Danilo is not physically forced into sex, when he rejects Dyan's attentions, the older man responds with what essentially constitutes mental rape, by using his laran to infiltrate Danilo's mind - something telepaths are sworn not to do. There is a clear suggestion that Dyan has done this before, and that he has also had relationships with other young men, who may have been willing but were also under his authority as an officer of the Guard. Among his Comyn peers, his relations with consenting young men are not seen as problematic, but they clearly see his telepathic assault as wrong. In this context, it is important to remember that Darkovans are considered adult at 15, and capable of consent. By Darkovan standards, Dyan is guilty of abuse of power, but not of child abuse.

The second instance involves a single incident from the past, between 12-year-old Regis and Lew Alton, who is, as Bradley states in the text, "five or six years older than Regis." (It's interesting to note that reviewers have tended to cast Lew as ten or more years older than Regis.) Lew and Regis are foster-brothers, and Regis loves and worships Lew like the older brother he has never had. Lew is a telepath, Regis at twelve is just beginning to develop his laran. The two are out on the firelines together, in a situation of great stress.
And Regis had known Lew was afraid. He'd touched Lew's mind, and felt it: his fear, the pain of his burns, everything. He could feel it as if it had been in his own mind. And Lew's fear hurt so much that Regis couldn't stand it. He would have done anything to comfort Lew, to take his mind off the pain and the fear. It had been too much. Regis couldn't shut it out, couldn't stand it. But he had forgotten. Had made himself forget, till now.
Struggling with the simultaneous onset of puberty and telepathy, feeling Lew's distress and wanting to comfort him, Regis makes an effort to offer comfort that is both psychic and sexual in nature; Lew, not yet trained to control his telepathy, hurt and afraid and in need of comfort, responds in kind. Is this child abuse? Is Lew a homosexual pedophile? There is certainly no indication in the text that Lew has more than a minor interest in males as sexual partners; in fact, when he thinks of expressing his sexual desires, it is women he considers. Regis is the one who is drawn more to males than to females, who falls in love with Danilo. Regis is 12, Lew is no older than 18. The situation is, to my mind, ambiguous. Nor is it pictured as without consequence, for it is the intensity of the connection that causes Regis to block out the memory, and with it, his developing laran - until it is awakened three years later by the young man who will be his next lover.

It has become almost an article of faith in our society today that persons under some magic age - 16, 18, even 21 - are children, lacking in judgement and agency, incapable of freely consenting to sex. The problem is, that there is no sharp divide between childhood and adulthood and that not all people are alike or develop at the same rate. Even very young children are sexual beings, and it is not unnatural for age peers to engage in sex play. As children enter puberty, sexual interest increases, and many adolescents engage in sexual exploration. Consent is a situational thing. Can two 5-year-olds consent to "playing doctor"? Can a 12-year old consent to sexual exploration with a 13-year-old? A 15-year-old? A 17-year-old? A 25-year-old? The boundaries of free consent are fluid - at some point on this spectrum, the age range becomes too great, and issues of power and influence come into play, but at what point?

I think of my own personal experience. My first consensual sexual relationship occurred when I was 12, with a girl who was four years my senior. It was one of those boarding school romances - and anyone who tries to suggest that same-sex boarding schools are not full of same-sex sexual exploration doesn't know what they are talking about. Was my relationship fully consensual? As I look back, some 50 years later, my memories are of love, desire, longing, wanting to be with my lover as much as possible - to the best of my recollection, I was quite active in trying to seduce her, gain her affection. I was willing, and the only harm I took from the relationship came later, when my lover's parents pulled her out of school and put her into an institution because they discovered her same-sex desires.

This question of consent is particularly important for young people who are queer, because we may not always have age peers able to experiment in the ways we need to. Often we don't exactly know what we are or what we want, only that it is something different - and it may well be that the only people we can find who know what we want are older than we are, having gone through the stages of coming out to themselves that we are only just beginning. Regis' early experience with Lew may well read quite differently to such people, who have had to take different paths to owning their sexuality than most straight people do.

For my part, I read the narrative thread that deals with Regis' sexuality as a coming out story, with Regis and Danilo as a young gay men reaching an understanding and an acceptance of who they are and who they love. That's what made me love this book when I first read it, some 40 years ago, and that's still how it affects me.

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The Spell Sword (pub. 1974), tells the story of the beginning of the Forbidden Tower, introducing Ellemir and Callista Alton, Damon Ridenow, and Terran Andrew Carr. It begins when Carr, on a four-day layover at Thendara spaceport, goes out into the Trade City for some fun and patronises a "fortuneteller." In her "crystal ball" - probably a matrix - he sees a vision of a young woman which so captivates him that he immediately applies for a permanent posting on Darkover. Following a crash in the Hellers, while on a Mapping and Exploration Survey flight, he is contacted telepathically by Callista, the woman whose image he saw. She is being held captive - where and by whom she does not know, but she is able to help him to survive the storms of the Hellers reach safety at Armida, the house seat of the Altons. Meanwhile, Callista's twin sister Ellemir has called for help from their Tower-trained kinsman Damon after Callista's abduction while on a visit home from Arilinn Tower, where she is UnderKeeper to Leonie Hastur. Damon, having survived an attack by the catmen, sentient non-humans native to Darkover, deduces from the details of the raid on Armida that the catmen have not only abducted Callista and somehow blocked her from contacting them, but are also responsible for a strange blight in the nearby region of Corresanti. When Andrew arrives, his story, once told and accepted as true, fills in the remaining blanks.

Immediate rescue is out of the question, as there are few men-at-arms at Armida and Damon is not a warrior. While they wait for the arrival of Ellemir and Callista's father, the powerful Dom Esteban Alton, the telepathic rapport brought on by their searching for Callista and their attempts to train Andrew's latent laran to the point where he can help them find Callista has led to a deep emotional contact between all three of them, but particularly Damon and Ellemir. Meanwhile, Callista's total reliance on Andrew for any shred of human contact seems to be wearing down the barriers she built as Keeper, and Andrew is falling in love with her.

All seems lost when Dom Esteban is ambushed on his way home by the catmen and severely injured, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. However, Dom Esteban has the Alton gift of forced rapport, and he is able to use this gift to control Damon's reflexes, giving the younger man all the skill and experience of an expert swordsman. With Damon now able to lead Esteban's guardsmen, and Andrew's connection to guide them, Callista is rescued and the leader of the catmen, who has been using a huge unmonitored matrix left over from pre-Compact days, is defeated and the immediate menace ended.

The Spell Sword is a relatively short and plot-focused novel, but like most of MZB's novels, it explores aspects of relationships, sexuality, and gender roles. One theme that runs through much of MZB's Darkover writing is the intense nature of communication between telepaths, and how closely linked it can be to love and sexual desire. Both Andrew and Damon have been reluctant to enter into serious relationships, Andrew because every contact her has had, has seemed somehow lacking in something important, and Damon because he has been fixated on Leonie for years, at least in part because of the close rapport they had when he was a matrix worker at Arillan. Telepathic contact between Callista and Andrew, and between Ellemir and Damon, is enough to create an intense emotional and sexual bond in a matter of days, if not hours.

Interestingly, we see indications that while young Darkovan women are generally treated as though they were untouchable - Damon has to caution Andrew that on Darkover, men do not look directly at young women who are not their kin - this may be more appearance than fact. We have seen that women in the Towers, with the exception of Keepers, enjoy sexual autonomy. It must be assumed that if a woman who has worked in a Tower decides to retire and marry, the possibility of her bearing children with laran outweighs and issues of a possible lack of virginity. But when Damon begins to think of Ellemir as a lover, it is clear that he does not expect her to be virgin.
So young, Ellemir was not. She was old enough to care for this vast Domain when her kinsmen were away at Comyn Council. She must be nearly twenty years old. Old enough to have a lover; old enough, if she chose, to marry. She was Comynara in her own right, and her own mistress.
It may be that Damon's Tower experience has made him less insistent on sexual purity in a potential bride; certainly there are other passages and incidents in the Darkover novels that indicate that a woman who has been raped or who has been sexually involved with a man of a lower social status is often seen as defiled and disgraced. On the other hand, it also appears that a woman who becomes mistress or concubine to a man of higher rank is not, as long as he openly acknowledges her and any children she may have with him.

We also see confirmation of the tradition of group marriage and polyamory that dates from the very beginnings of Darkovan history - at one point Ellemir says "when she [Callista] went to the Tower, and was pledged, I knew we could never, as so many sisters do, share a lover, or husband."

The necessity for the absolute virginity of a Keeper is mentioned several times - an interesting irony since it is these four people, and later the child of one of them, who will prove that such virginity is not necessary at all. Damon tries to explain the tradition of total chastity among Keepers to Andrew:
... it's a matter of nerve energies. People have only so much. You learn to protect your energy currents, how to use them most effectively, how to relax, to safeguard your strength. Well, what uses most human energy? Sex, of course. You can use it, sometimes, to channel energy, but there are limits to that sort of thing. And when you're keyed into the matrix jewels—well, the energy they will carry is limitless, but human flesh and blood and brainwaves can stand only so much. For a man it's fairly simple. You can't overload with sex because if you're too heavily overloaded, you simply can't function sexually at all. Matrix telepaths find that out fairly early in the game. You have to go on short rations of sex if you want to keep enough energy to do your work. For a woman, though, it's easy to, well, to overload. So most of the women have to make up their minds to stay chaste, or else be very, very careful not to key into the more complex matrix patterns. Because it can kill them, very quickly, and it's not a nice death.”
However, the combination of powerful laran and the sensitivity to mesh completely with others that makes a woman so valuable and revered as a Keeper seems to be a liability for a man. Damon suffers from insecurity and concerns about his masculinity so severe that it actually keeps him from being able to allow himself competence in masculine areas such as weapons training because he has been told by Leonie that he could have been a Keeper had he been a woman.
... you are too sensitive, you cannot barricade yourself. Had you been born a woman, in a woman's body,” she added, laying a light hand on his shoulder, “you would have been a Keeper, perhaps one of the greatest. But as a man," faintly, she shrugged—“you would destroy yourself, tear yourself apart. Perhaps, free of the Tower, you may be able to surround yourself with other things, grow less sensitive, less”—she hesitated, groping for the exact word—“less vulnerable. It is for your own good that I send you away, Damon; for your health, for your happiness, perhaps for your very sanity."
This underscores the occasional glimpses seen in this and other of the Darkover novels of a certain degree of contempt shown by Comyn men who have devoted themselves to the Guard or have gained some recognition for weapons skill toward men working in the Towers or lacking inclination or skill to be trained fighters. It is clear that the strict imposition of gender roles impacts men as well as eomen in Darkovan society.

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Darkover Landfall (pub. 1972) is the series' origin story. In this novel, set 2,000 years before contact, a space ship carrying colonists to an established Terran colony is thrown light-years off course by some gravitational anomaly and crash-lands on an uncharted world. The survivors make attempts to repair the ship, but without the ability to recreate the technologies required, even the crew - most of whom are highly resistant to the idea of being planetbound - accept that their only hope is to build a viable colony.

The portrayal of gender roles in this novel is wildly contradictory. There are professional women among both the crew and the colonists, who perform their tasks with competence and autonomy. The society they come from has, at least technically, adopted gender equality - "Do I have to read you the Terran Bill of Rights? No law shall be made or formulated abridging the rights of any human being to equal work regardless of racial origin, religion or sex--" - although we also learn that female colonists are normally required to give up some of this equality for the good of the colony.

Women - at least women on settled planets and in space - appear to have a fair degree of reproductive freedom. Contraception is readily available - indeed, compulsory on shipboard, as FTL flight is apparently harmful to children. While abortion is at one point described as "unthinkable" due to the universal availability of contraception, when it is discovered early on that the standard contraceptives are not working, due to the effects of being on an alien planet, one of the doctors worries "... we've been relying on hormones so long that no one knows much about the prehistoric kind any more. We don't have pregnancy-testing equipment, either, since nobody needs it on a spaceship. Which means if we do get any pregnancies they may be too far advanced for safe abortions before they're even diagnosed!" Later, one of the women who finds herself pregnant feels comfortable in approaching one of the medical staff to request its termination,

However, the attitudes of the men whose viewpoints we are treated to are overwhelmingly chauvinist, to use a phrase that was in common usage when the book was written.

Rafe MacAran, one of several POV characters, on being informed that one of the necessary personnel to accompany him on an exploratory expedition into the nearby mountains is astrogator Camilla Del Ray, protests "May I ask what for?" MacAran said, slightly startled. "Not that she isn't welcome, though it might be a rough trek for a lady. This isn't Earth and those mountains haven't any chairlifts!" Later, after learning two more women will be on the expedition, he thinks "Hell of a way to start a trip! And here he'd been, despite the serious purpose of this mission, excited about actually having a chance to climb an unexplored mountain--only to discover that he had to drag along, not only a female crew member--who at least looked hardy and in good training-but Dr. Lovat, who might not be old but certainly wasn't as young and vigorous as he could have wished, and the delicate-looking Heather." Ironically, MacAran also thinks to himself that he's "no male chauvinist."

As tenuous a concept as gender equality seems to be in this version of the early Terran Empire, it disappears completely under the supposed necessities of establishing a viable colony. Once it is obvious that there will be no way to repair the ship, restrictions on reproductive freedom are imposed based on regulations regarding government-sponsored colonies. When Camilla Del Ray requests an abortion, she is told "Surely you know that in the Colonies abortions are performed only to save a life, or prevent the birth of a grossly defective child, and I'm not even sure we have facilities for that here. A high birth rate is absolutely imperative for at least the first three generations—you surely know that women volunteers aren't even accepted for Earth Expeditionary unless they're childbearing age and sign an agreement to have children?"

Camilla's horrified reaction to being told that she must bear an unwanted child is answered by a patronising set piece that enshrines as "scientific truth" the notion that all women really want babies more than anything else.

"Camilla," Ewen said very gently, "this is biological. Even back in the 20th century, they did experiments on rats and ghetto populations and things, and found that one of the first results of crucial social overcrowding was the failure of maternal behavior. It's a pathology. Man is a rationalizing animal, so sociologists called it "Women's Liberation" and things like that, but what it amounted to was a pathological reaction to overpopulation and overcrowding. Women who couldn't be allowed to have children, had to be given some other work, for the sake of their mental health. But it wears off. Women sign an agreement, when they go to the colonies, to have a minimum of two children; but most of them, once they're out of the crowding of Earth, recover their mental and emotional health, and the average Colony family is four children--which is about right, psychologically speaking. By the time the baby comes, you'll probably have normal hormones too, and make a good mother. If not, well, it will at least have your genes, and we'll give it to some sterile woman to bring up for you. Trust me, Camilla."

Bye, bye, any pretense at gender equality and reproductive autonomy. Of course, it does make sense that a high birth rate and as much genetic diversity as possible would be vital to an isolated community's viability - but can't it be framed in some other fashion than medical authorities and legislators making pronouncements specific to women about forced repeated pregnancies? Why not a general meeting where the issues are discussed and men and women voluntarily agree to contribute as fully as possible to the production of a genetically diverse base population?

Another aspect of sexuality that is a common theme in the Darkover novels is that of polyamory, whether it be the open sexuality of the Towers or the custom of legal concubinage that develops among the Comyn families. In Darkover Landfall, it is the influence of the hallucinogenic pollen from the kirseeth flower that causes several instances of sexual play between multiple partners. However, by the end of the novel, the need for a diverse gene pool means that people are beginning to form polyamorous families and women are bearing children by several men.

Over the course of the series, we see that there are several different views of homosexuality on Darkover. The largest source of homophobic sentiment appears to be found in the teachings of the Cristoforo religious sect. In Darkover Landing, we meet the originator of the Cristoforos, Father Valentine Neville, a Catholic priest of the Order of St. Christoper of Centaurus. In the novel, Father Valentine participates in group sex with six other men while under the influence of kirseeth, and in the fog of recovery, murders the other men because he can't face the enormity of his sin.

The events of Darkover Landfall set the stage for the kind of society that will develop over the next two thousand years on Darkover. The importance of children, the tendency toward polyamorous relationships, the sacrifice of female autonomy to the needs of community survival, the use of matrix jewels to enhance psi ability, relationships between human and non-human inhabitants of the planet - all these will be seen again throughout the series.

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The World Wreckers (pub. 1971) is, in terms of internal chronology, the last book set in post-Contact Darkover written by Bradley alone, without a collaborator. It is a story of catastrophic endings and unlooked-for new beginnings, and is the book that gives us the most information about the original non-human inhabitants of Darkover, the chieri.

Andrea Closson is a world wrecker. For a fee, her company will destroy the economy of a planet, making it easier for her clients to step in and take it over. And she has been hired to damage Darkover so badly that the planet will have to give up its protected status and beg for Terran assistance. Her methods are ruthless. She targets three key resources - forests, soil, and the Darkovan telepaths - with arson, poison and assassination. The irony is that Andrea Closson is a chieri, and the world she is destroying is her home, the telepaths, her distant cousins.

Regis Hastur knows that something is wrong. The Comyn are dying, through illness and assassination, and the people are starving as forest fires and other disasters wreak havoc on Darkover's fragile ecology. Desperate to keep the knowledge of Darkovan matrix sciences alive, Regis offers to teach these sciences to Terran telepaths. The pilot project brings together Darkovans - Regis, his paxman and lover Danilo Syrtis, the elderly Desideria (from Winds of Darkover) and her granddaughter Linnea - and Terrans - David Hamilton, David Connor, and Rondo - and most unexpectedly, two chieri - Keral, one of the last fertile members of a dying race, and Missy, a foundling with no knowledge of her background who has wandered the Terran Empire for centuries, living by her ability to project a powerful femininity but so psychically damaged that she is barren. Supervising the project, which seeks to understand what makes a telepath, is Jason Allison (whom we met in the very first Darkover novel, The Planet Savers).

As matters grow worse, Regis puts out a call to bring together all the telepaths of Darkover - not just those of known Comyn heritage, but anyone with a trace of laran - to form a new Telepath's Council to replace the Comyn Council. Closson sees this as her chance to put an end to all the telepaths of Darkover, and plants a bomb to explode during the Festival of the Four Moons, when her spy within the project, Rondo, has reported that all the telepaths will be celebrating at Comyn Castle.

When the Festival begins, Closson conceals herself nearby, to see the end of the those she thinks of as the usurpers of the place her own people once held. When the remaining chieri teleport into the festival, called by the newly pregnant Keral's joy, Closson's shock allows Rondo, to read her mind and discover her plan. A powerful telekinetic, he calls the bomb to himself and in a desperate attempt to save the others, hurls himself upward, still holding it; the bomb detonates high above the city, and Closson comes out of hiding to face her long-lost kin.

Now knowing that the Darkovans carry the heritage of her own people, Closson puts her knowledge and fortune to work saving Darkover; finally at peace, she dies holding the child of Keral and David Hamilton in her arms.

There is relatively little action in the novel; much of it is focused on a topic Bradley would return to again and again, the link between telepathy and sexuality. This is explored primarily in the relationships between David Connor and Missy, and David Hamilton and Keral. In both cases, there is the added dimension of the androgyny of the chieri, and the complex processes that result in a change from a neutral state - in which the chieri may appear somewhat male, somewhat female, both or neither - to a fertile state in which a male or female state becomes dominant, allowing the chieri either to inseminate or to conceive.

We learn that the chieri are almost extinct because their telepathic sensitivity and its relationship to the biological transformation necessary for reproduction makes it almost impossible for them to reproduce except in an environment of close telepathic bonding. (Many of the Darkovan telepaths also display such a sensitivity, though not to the same degree.) Most historical cases of interbreeding between chieri and human have been the result of a kind of madness and desperation to have a child. Add to this their relatively infrequent cycles of fertility and the fact that there is no guarantee that when a bonded couple both come into a fertile phase, the change will end with one in male phase and the other in female phase.

Many thousands of years ago, the chieri, already seeing the inevitable end of their species, took to space to try and find another species they could be compatible with. Failing to do this, most withdrew to Darkover, let the signs of their civilisation disappear, and prepared to die,leaving the planet to other developing species. Some, like Closson, remained on other worlds. There is a strong indication in the novel that Missy is Closson's child, the product of an episode of madness.

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The Winds of Darkover (pub. 1970), which takes place a few years after Star of Danger, begins the tale of Sharra that will be continued much later in The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile. Though we never really learn exactly what Sharra is - goddess, half-sentient rogue matrix, metaphysical psi focus, or something even stranger - it is a powerful force that was once worshipped by the forge-folk (yet another of the many non-human peoples of Darkover) and it plays a large part in the resolution of the novel.

The book opens with two apparently unrelated events. First, Terran Dan Barron, the high-tech version of an air traffic controller, makes a serious error in which a major crash is narrowly avoided only by the skill of the pilots. Decertified from his former position, he is given a chance to redeem himself when the Lord of Armida asks for Terran assistance in setting up a warning system using telescopes to watch for fire and bandits. What Barron has not said - because he can't understand it himself - is that he has been having involuntary visions of places and thing he has no context for, including a chained woman wreathed in flames. As it happens, one of his guides to Armida is Lord Valdir's foster-son Lerrys, aka Larry Montray. Lerrys picks up on some of Barron's visions and is prompted to offer him a knife, thus firming a bond of brotherhood between them.

Meanwhile, in the high Hellers, the bandit leader Brynat Scarface has succeeded in his siege of the ancient castle of Storn, forcibly wedded the Lady of Storn, and seeks to solidify his position. The Lord of Storn, blind from birth and thus incapable of mounting a defence, is nonetheless a powerful telepath, and after warding himself against all physical harm, has entered a trance. He is able to communicate with his younger sister Marietta, urging her to escape and travel to Carthon. He is also able to enter Barron's mind, and plans to take over his body and meet Marietta in Carthon. In fact, it is his efforts to build the necessary link with Barron - who Storn views as a legitimate target for a psychic invasion that would be unthinkable if directed at any Darkovan - that have been causing Barron's visions.

Long story made short - Marietta escapes, Storn overshadows Barron, they meet in Carthon. Finding no help there, they head to Aldaran. While the Lord of Aldaran offers no help, they meet Desideria, a powerful telepath trained to act as a Keeper, who upon learning that there are still forge-folk who worship Sharra at Storn, offers to help them by focusing the energies of the worshippers through Sharra to fight Brynat and his men. On the way to Storn, Barron regains control but upon figuring out what is happening, agrees to help Marietta and Storn of his free will. They defeat Brynat, take back Storn, and it seems very likely that there will soon be a double wedding - Barron and Marietta, Desideria and Storn.

This story is essentially self-contained, with only a few links to other installments in the Darkover series. The presence of Larry Montray in the opening sequences - and the brief mention of Valdir's foster-daughter Cleindori - place the story on the timeline. And we will see a much older Desideria in The World Wreckers. The most important element is the introduction of Sharra.

From time to time in the Darkover series, we are told that the women of the Hellers are not as sheltered as women of the lowlands. Here we see Marietta as a strong woman, competent in riding, capable of travelling by herself between Storn and Carthon without suffering insult. While we could argue that Desideria's independence comes from her status as a telepath with the power and skill of a Keeper, Marietta's actions suggest that at least some women of higher class - especially those who are unmarried and take part in the management of their family's estates have certain freedoms to act, and the confidence and experience to do so when needed.

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Star of Danger (pub. 1965) is one of the earliest written of the Darkover books, but in terms of the internal chronology of the series, it falls well after the time of first contact. Lorill Hastur, who is well advanced in years in this novel, was a boy of 15 or so when the Terrans came to Alderan. Valdir Alton, who was a child when the Forbidden Tower was formed, is now the father of two sons, the younger of whom is 16. And the third generation of Montrays comes home to Darkover. There are inconsistencies between this early novel and many of the ones that follow, but as with The Bloody Sun and The Planet Savers, certain key elements of Darkovan history were already well formed in the author's mind when the book was written.

In Star of Danger, Wade Montray returns to Darkover with his teenage son Larry after spending more than a decade on Earth. Larry, a curious young man with a desire to explore this new world, ventures into the Trade City and makes friends with Kennard Alton, son of Valdir, cadet guardsman. But when Larry is invited to spend the summer with Kennard at Armida, disaster strikes - Larry is kidnapped by bandits who mistake him for Kennard. Feeling personally responsible for Larry's fate, and knowing that if harm comes to Larry, his father will be caught up in a major diplomatic incident, Kennard sets out to rescue him.

The rescue succeeds, but in evading pursuit, Kennard and Larry are lost and must find their way through the rugged terrain of Darkover - forests inhabited by the non-human trailmen and mountains harbouring dangerous predators - to reach safe territory. During their difficult journey, Larry's latent telepathy is awakened and he and Kennard bond more deeply - although the harmony of that bond is often threatened by cultural issues. Eventually the two find ways to work together, relying on both Kennard's psi training and Darkovan survival skills, and Larry's scientific knowledge, to survive in the wilds.

As they near the territories of the Hastur domain, they encounter a lone chieri, who takes them in, offers them hospitality, tells them of the true history of humans on Darkover, and then teleports them to safety, just in time to ward off the brewing diplomatic firestorm. Larry's father explains that his late wife - Karry's mother - had in fact been a Darkovan woman, kin to the Alderan clan, who had followed him to Earth, and that Larry's laran comes from her. There is great hope that the friendship Larry and Kennard have formed will help to improve relations between Terrans and Darkovans.

As a "boy's adventure" story with no female characters at all, there is little to comment on in terms of portrayals of gender and sexuality in this novel. One thing that does strike me, though, is the odd history of Terran knowledge of and attitudes toward the Comyn and their use of laran. All through the series (at least up to the time of the waking of Sharra at Alderan, which is still to come at this point) the Terrans are portrayed as knowing very little about these issues, and by turns disbelieving, or desperately curious, about them. Even in this story, where one of the main characters is the product of a marriage between a Terran man who spent his youth on Darkover and a Darkovan of the ruling classes and a telepath in her own right, the Terrans see Larry's invitation to Armida as a chance to learn something about the Comyn and their abilities. One would think by this time the Terrans would have more clues than they appear to. But perhaps Darkovans have been more successful at keeping quiet, even when they marry Terrans, than one would think possible.

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Continuing with the great MZB re-read project, the next available novel is The Bloody Sun (pub. 1964, rewritten and repub. 1979). MZB did write a Darkover novel between The Planet Savers and The Bloody Sun - Sword of Aldones - but she later withdrew it from publication, including an extensive revision of the material in the later book, Sharra's exile. Sword of Aldones has been out of print for a very long time, and while I'd love to re-read it (having little memory of the original, which I read almost 50 years ago), it's been impossible to find. So... on to The Bloody Sun, which was itself revised from the original 1964 edition, but I've read both versions and the revision retains most of the character of the original.

In The Bloody Sun, Jeff Kerwin Jr, born on Darkover, returns to the planet of his birth to uncover the mystery of his parentage. He learns that he is the son of a former Keeper of Arilinn, Dorilys Aillard, who challenged ancient traditions about the use of laran (psi abilities) and was murdered for it. One of the traditions she challenged was the belief that a Keeper must be an asexual being, virgin in body and untouched by sexual feeling in order to keep her psychic "channels" free of energies that might make her unable to focus the power of a circle of working telepaths through her own mind and body, which is required of a Keeper. Her own background as a child of the "forbidden tower" - a community of polyamorous telepaths, including both high-born Comyn and commoners with laran - had taught her that anyone with sufficient ability, man or woman, could be a Keeper and keep their channels clear with various mental disciplines - rendering the ritual virginity of a Keeper unnecessary. When Kerwin is found to have inherited his mother's laran, he is invited to join one of the few remaining Keeper's circles, at Arilinn, where he falls afoul of all the sexual mores of the Tower community.

Keepers in Darkovan society at the time of Contact are heightened examples of the Madonna/whore split. A Keeper is a totally de-sexed being, presented as pure in mind and body, trained to have no sexual awareness or response. While a Keeper can "give back her oath" and retire from the Towers into an "honourable marriage" with one of her peers, any Keeper who becomes sexually involved outside of such a formal retreat, and especially one who continues to use her laran after asserting her sexuality is seen as a whore, a focal point of lust and depravity, a threat to society. It is interesting that it is only the Keeper - the most powerful of laran-gifted women - must live so completely constrained, either as virgin or as wife, under patriarchal control. Aside from the Keeper, other telepaths in the Towers, men and women, share sexual contact as freely as they do any other gesture of affection.

Taniquel, a powerful empath, offers comfort and healing freely to any of the other telepaths at Arilinn (we only see her interacting sexually with the men, however). When Kerwin joins the Tower circle, he is insecure, in culture shock, and finds that some of the other telepaths, Auster in particular, are hostile to him, Taniquel initiates emotional and sexual connection in an attempt to help integrate him into the community and make him feel better. He interprets this as a love affair and responds with jealousy and anger when she later offers comfort to Auster. From her reaction, and that of the other telepaths, to his slutshaming, it is clear that Tower women who are not Keepers are seen to have full sexual autonomy. Unlike the Keepers, they are free to have sex when and with whoever they choose, and Nyrissa confirms that Tower women are free to bear children by whoever they choose within the Tower community - attitudes at odds with the role of women outside of the Towers, where marriage or concubinage are the cultural norm for women, and where men control the lives, finances, fertilty and sexuality of their wives (with one strange exception, the Comyn-caste Ailliard family, where women hold political power).

We also see something of gender politics among the Terrans in The Bloody Sun, in the regulations regarding marriage between Imperial citizens and "native" women. This passage seems to sum things up:
The Empire Civil Service consists largely of single men; few Terran women care to accompany their men halfway across the Galaxy. This means that on every planet liaisons with native women, both formal and informal, are taken for granted. To avoid endless complications with various planetary governments, the Empire makes a very clear distinction. An Empire citizen may marry any woman, on any planet, by the laws of her own world and her own customs; it is a matter between the individual Terran, the woman, her family, and the laws under which she lives. The Empire has no part in it. Whether the marriage is formal or informal, temporary or permanent, or no marriage at all, is a matter for the private ethical and moral standards of the parties involved. And that man is carried as single on the Records of the Empire, making such provision for his wife as he privately chooses; although he may, if he wishes, file for citizenship for any child of the marriage, and obtain certain privileges for him.... But if he chooses to register the marriage through Terran records, or signs any Empire document speaking of any native woman on any world, legally, as his wife, she is so in fact.
It appears MZB's conceptualisation of the gender roles in the Terran Empire at this point is of a society where men do things and "their women" follow them - consistent with real life in Western society in the early 60s. While she has been able to imagine a particular subculture in which women (at least, women from the Comyn families with laran who choose the life of the Towers) are viewed as autonomous individuals with useful skills who own their bodies and their sexuality (as long as the virgin Keeper gives up hers completely), she cannot at this stage in her writing create a human society in which women are free and equal.
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It felt like time for another re-read of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels - or at least some of them. This desire to re-read the Darkover novels Is a craving that grabs onto me every once in a while. I grew up reading this series. I wrote endless fanfic that no one else has ever seen based on these books. They inspired me.

I don't remember which was the first Darkover book that I read. It was probably either The Bloody Sun, or Star of Danger, or maybe The Planet Savers. Of course, some are more close to me than others - the Free Amazon trilogy and The Forbidden Tower are probably the ones that are my favourites.

This time I decided to skip the pre-Contact novels (except for Darkover Landfall, of course) and just do the ones that deal with Darkover in its various stages of relationship with the Terran Empire. After reading the first couple of books, I began to notice that even in some of the earliest books, gender roles, assumptions and politics were major issues, and thus was formed my specific focus for this re-reading - gender and sexuality. The order in which I re-read the novels was based on internal chronology, but I'll be making my comments based on publication order.

The Planet Savers (pub. 1958, repub. 1962) was the very first of the Darkover novels written, but it is set relatively late in the post-recontact sequence. It introduces many of the standard elements of Darkovan life - from the presence of non-human sentient life (in this case, the trailmen) to the legendary status of the Hasturs (in the person of the young Regis Hastur). There's a "free Amazon," Kyra, Jason Allison, a Terran raised on Darkover among the trailmen (especially in the books written early on, MZB often includes one or more of these transcultural people - Darkovan-born Terrans, Darkovans raised partly on Earth), Rafe Scott (a name we will hear again) and assorted other characters, both Terran and Darkovan.

What brings them together is a threatened outbreak of the 48-year fever (something MZB seems to have dropped later on) - a disease common and relatively minor among trailmen, which breaks out into the human population every 48 years, decimating them. As we are told in the largely expository first chapter, “We Terrans have a Trade compact on Darkover for a hundred and fifty-two years. The first outbreak of this 48-year fever killed all but a dozen men out of three hundred. The Darkovans were worse off than we were. The last outbreak wasn't as bad, but it was bad enough, I've heard. It had an eighty-seven percent mortality— for humans, that is. I understand the Trailmen don't die of it.”

In an attempt to stave off the next outbreak, due in five months, the Hasturs have asked the Terrans for help in finding a cure for the fever, on return for training Terran telepaths in their matrix sciences. Together, the Terrans and Darkovans have decided to mount an expedition into the territory of the trailmen, hoping to persuade them to provide blood samples that will help the Terrans synthesise a vaccine.

Unfortunately, the best person on paper to lead the expedition - Dr. Jason (Jay) Allison, displays all the signs of being a latent multiple personality. As a child, Jason was lost in the Hellers when the plane he and his father were in crashed. His father died but he was taken in by trailmen and raised among them until he was 15, when they brought him out of the Hellers to return to his own kind. Jason worked as a mountain guide for some years, then began to study medicine. At some point, the open, gregarious, risk-taking Jason began to metamorphise into Jay, a rigid, logical, scientist who no longer remembered his life among the trailmen. Persuaded that, as the only human known to have lived among the trailmen, and the only human to have survived the fever, his repressed memories are vital to the mission, Jay agrees to undergo treatment to bring out his younger self so Jason can lead the expedition.

There are difficulties of course - the Hellers are hard to traverse, they are attacked by a band of female trailmen living outside of the Nests, and there is reluctance on the part of the leader of the Nest Jason was raised in to allow volunteers among his people to risk their lives in the lowlands for the sake of humans. But Jason and Regis together persuade him, and everything ends well - for Regis, as a telepath, has figured out Jason's secret, that he is a repressed fragment of Jay Allison's personality, and he has the skill to integrate the two fragments into one person in balance.

In this, the earliest of the Darkovan novels, we see little of the exploration of gender roles and sexuality that will become so significant a focus in later novels. Indeed, there is only one woman in the main cast of characters, and while she's independent and competent and plucky and assures Jason that she's trained as a free Amazon not to stir up trouble in a team that's all-male except for her, there is sone element of competition for her between Jason and Rafe. And of course she ends up as the hero's ladyprize, despite her feistyness.

We also learn that among the trailmen, unattached women are not permitted in Nests. When a woman of the trailfolk becomes adult, she is exiled from her home and must not enter a Nest until some male tracks her down and claims her. Because there are more female trailfolk than male, some trailmen have multiple mates, and some trailwomen live their entire lives in the forests, unclaimed by males. Some of these aspects of Trailfolk sexual culture will be seen later to have analogues among the humans of Darkover.

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As any good sequel should, Inheritance resolves the threads left hanging at the end of Lo's previous novel, Adaptation.

Now that the presence of aliens on Earth has been revealed, the Imrians come forward and we learn why they are on Earth, and what they have been doing. Reese and David face massive media attention and government scrutiny over their experience with both secretive government organisations and the mysterious aliens. And they must come to terms with the changes in their personal lives and relationships brought about by Reese's attraction to the alien Amber.

Satisfying at many levels, not the least being the willingness of both Reese and David to explore more fluid understandings of sexuality and relationship.

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In 2012 I started several series that were either new to me, or in one case, a re-read of a series I last enjoyed as a child.

C. J. Cherryh, Pride of Chanur
C. J. Cherryh, Chanur’s Venture
C. J. Cherryh, The Kif Strike Back

i'm not sure why, but I found this series hard to get into, and while I'll probably finish reading it someday, it's not on the top at my list. The first volume was my favourite, I enjoyed getting to know the characters, especially the protagonist, Pyanfar Chanur, and the culture of the hani. The universe of the hani, their allies and other races, is one that Cherryh has used for other novels, and it is interesting and complex and full of the kinds of things that Cherryh does well, like interspecies communication (or lack of same). The next two volumes, I have gathered, are essentiallythe first two-thirds of a second complete story arc, and the fifth volune is a standalone sequel. Well, I really tried, but I couldn't get through all three volumes of the middle arc in a single go. The story seemed to be just an elaborated recapitulation of the first novel in the series - the same things happen, only more so, the same interspecies differences cause problems, the same people trust, betray, or come through for eachother in a pinch, and if there was a different ending in sight, I just didn't have the enthusiasm to keep pushing to the end.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Gods of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Warlord of Mars

The movie John Carter of Mars (or whatever its title ends up as) came out in 2012, so I found it only appropriate to re-read the first three closely linked volumes of the series so I could properly play the game of 'spot the inaccuracies and plot changes.'

Glenda Larke, The Last Stormlord
Glenda Larke, Stormlord Rising
Glenda Larke, Stormlord’s Exile

Larke is a brilliant writer. I raved over the first series I read, The Isles of Glory, and I am going to rave over this series as well. Complex worldbuilding, multi-dimensional characters with motivations that are very real, and compelling narratives are only part of what makes Larke's work so very, very good. Her situations are always original - there may be a limited number of themes available to writers, but even a well-used theme is fresh and fascinating when the story is clothed in new and exciting elements. The other aspect of Larke's writing that I love is that her characters live in, are influenced by, and affect in turn the natural world around them. Her books are not just fantasy worlds, they are ecologies made up of land, water, plants, animals and humanbeings, all interconnected.

This particular series is overtly about ecology and politics, scarcity, greed and control of resources - but it's also a tale of two people struggling to find who and what they are, to fully become themselves, and in so doing change their world. In short, I loved this series.

Glenda Larke, Heart of the Mirage

I'd been waiting for a very long time to read this series, as it appears not to be available in print in North America. I eventually found a copy of the first volume, and ordered the remaining two volumes from an English bookseller (they arrived just before Christmas). As mentioned above, I am a great fan of Larke's work, the intricacy, the originality, the awareness of the connectedness of things - people, power, emotion, the natural environment. She brings all of these things to yet another compelling narrative in this novel, and I am eager to read the next two volumes now that they are finally at hand.

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Precursor, C. J. Cherryh

Yes, I am continuing to read Cherryh’s Atevi series, and continuing to enjoy it immensely. This really is the kind of novel/series that I love – full of social and political complexity, well-developed civilisations (particularly alien ones), and great characterisation.

Something that I am very interested in here is the way in which Bren Cameron, the viewpoint character of all the novels to date, is dealing with becoming a person without a home culture – he has sufficiently assimilated to atevi culture that he doesn’t feel at home in his birth culture, but at the same times, the divide of alien biology and psychology prevents him from becoming atevi, no matter how deeply he has come to identify with the atevi.

Also, the step-up in political complexity, now that both the atevi and the humans living on the planet have fully engaged the returning human shipdwellers, with their own unique social structure, aims, and factions, is just making me squee with delight.

And so, it’s time to go buy the next volume.

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OK, I'm getting all fangrrl crushy here.

I have now read Invader and Inheritor, the second and third books of C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series.

I continue to be enormously impressed with Cherryh’s ability to realistically convey alien cultures. And I am, as you’d expect, delighted by the complex political negotiations, speculations and plots that are multiplying as we see more factions within the atvei and the humans on Mospheira. It’s fascinating to watch as the central protagonist and man between two worlds, Bren Cameron, human paidhi, or translator/diplomat/cultural observer, among the atevi, becomes more and more integrated into the atevi “world” while still consciously remaining human in perspective – understanding and communication without assimilation – and yet how aliened and isolated he has become from the human “world” on the island of Mospheira. And how, at the same time, it is becoming a necessity for him to start to build a bridge with the “world” of the spaceship humans.

And then there's the whole bit about watching a species with a completely different understanding and perception of mathematics than the one that human have, tackling an accelerated industrial and scientific revolution based on the human path of development.

And just to underline the issues of cultural difference and how they affect communication no matter how important it is and how hard you try, there's Bren's personal relationships with not only the atevi around him (Jago, Tabini, Ilsidi in particular), but also with ship-born and ship-bred Jason, paidhi-in-training to the atevi from the ship.

I’m just loving this series.


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