Visiting Darkover

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[photo:  S. Hrotic]

Marion Zimmer Bradley (along with Heinlein and Susan Cooper) is one of those authors I seem to re-discover every five or six years: her “Darkover” books in particular.

I’d intended to write tonight about religion in Darkover, but decided to explain first a little bit about the series as a whole.  They can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated: there are around forty of them—depending on how inclusive one wants to be—published from the late 1950s to the present … despite the fact that MZB died in 1999. In style, they vary quite a bit: science fiction’s changed significantly since she started writing. Plus, a couple early books were completely re-written, a couple others may or may not be Darkover books, and there are eighteen (and counting) volumes of apocrypha (i.e., volumes of stories written by others and novels written posthumously to MZB’s outlines). Add to this the fact that MZB wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping details consistent between books, and that (let’s be honest) some are better than others, and it’s hard to know where to start … or when to stop, for that matter.

So, I’d like to suggest three different strategies for introducing oneself to the world of Darkover, depending on one’s preferences.

One possibility, especially for fans of “swords and sorcery” in the style of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, is to read the first eight in the order in which they were written:

  • The Planet Savers (1962, including material first published in 1958)
  • The Sword of Aldones (1962, not the 1981 version published as Sharra’s Exile)
  • The Bloody Sun (1964, not the 1979 version)
  • Star of Danger (1965)
  • The Winds of Darkover (1970)
  • The World Wreckers (1971)
  • Darkover Landfall (1972)
  • The Spell Sword (1974)

Then stop (or at least take a break): the series (and science fiction) changes significantly after that. Sadly, I think The Sword of Aldones and the original The Bloody Sun are out of print, but they’re still easily located.

For me, though, MZB’s claim to fame is based on the middle of the series, especially recommended if you’re a fan of 1970s era “poli-sci-fi”: think Frank Herbert’s Dune. In that case, I’d suggest starting with The Spell Sword:

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[Photo:  S. Hrotic.  Books:  borrowed from D. Wilcox, c. 1983]

  • The Spell Sword (1974)
  • Forbidden Tower (1977)
  • The Bloody Sun (1979 version)
  • The Heritage of Hastur (1975)
  • Sharra’s Exile (1981)

Note that for these, I think it’s better to read them in order of the internal chronology, rather than in the order in which they were written. Unlike the first set, these are less episodic adventure and more historical epic: a generations’ long social upheaval viewed through the eyes of key figures and their descendents. Then, if you wish, you can fill in some of the historical back story (e.g., with good but unessential books like Stormqueen!, Hawkmistress! and Two to Conquer), or view the same period from an alternative perspective: the sub-series focused on the Renunciates guild of women rebelling against the traditional patriarchy (especially Thendara House).

Or, if you’re more casually curious—or just wants a good, light read and have finished Mercedes Lackey—read MZB’s last trilogy: Exile’s Song, The Shadow Matrix, Traitor’s Sun. These pick up the story about fifteen years after the events of Sharra’s Exile, and were written about fifteen years later, too: they’re quite different in tone (think a really good fantasy romance), and work well alone. In fact, the only disadvantage to using these to introduce Darkover is that they would spoil the endings for all the mid-career books.

So, have at it! For the record, I’m half-way through Sharra’s Exile … again.

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