This is one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read MZB’s Avalon books when I was in my early teens and remember enjoying them. What, I wondered, would I make of her sci-fi?
A preliminary note from the author positions it as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m not sure I agree with this claim. Almost all of the characters have complex and involved back stories and inter-relations, and the world itself has a social structure that is very different from our own and essential for understanding people’s motivations. If you read the book as part of a sequence, this would all be fine. Of course, this was not the case for me. I had to struggle through rather a lot of awkward, and frankly inefficient, info-dumping in the first few chapters, and I still felt that I was missing something at various points in the book. None of this stopped me from appreciating the central thrust of the narrative, which involves a group of women journeying towards a mysterious city that may or may not exist, but I do think a lot of the content that relied on events and characters from previous books could have been cut without damaging the plot unduly, making it easier for a newbie like me to get up to speed.
The Darkover world is former colony of Earth. The two worlds were separated for millennia, before being reunited relatively recently (presumably the first book in the series deals with this). In the meanwhile, Earth has continued to rely on high technology (including the space travel that allowed them to return to Darkover), while Darkover has returned to a mediaeval level of technology. On the plus side, they’ve also figured out how to unlock their latent psychic powers (this mix of sci-fi, a fantasy world, and psychic powers just screams “1980s” to me for some reason). There’s also strict and conservative gender role segregation. The exact nature of how society works is quite unclear (based on the information in just this novel) — there seem to be a number of dominant lineages within which particular psychic powers inhere, and ubiquitous lesbian relationships that exist parallel to procreation-orientated bonds. In this book, all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are women, making it even harder to appreciate just how men and women interact in this society.
The focus on gender roles, and the preponderance of women characters in the book make it (and the series overall) a valuable contribution to a generally male-dominated genre. I certainly found many aspects of plotting and characterisation refreshingly different from what I’m used to. Foremost amongst these was the sense of camaraderie on the journey between all of the women. There’s a theory that suggests that when women are presented with stressors they respond by strengthening social bonds (“tending and befriending”). The amount of care and love demonstrated by the characters for one another here, as they have to surmount challenge after challenge, would never be seen in a group of male travellers. There’s a scene where the group “hugs it out”, another where one character spontaneously gives a little gift to her lover, and a (sensible but generally unnoted) obsession with bathing. The “womanliness” of the book comes through in other ways too. For example, at one point one of the women curses another: “I hope the headman’s wife goes into labour tomorrow with an obstructed transverse birth!”. I found this pretty peculiar — awkward and artificial sounding and grotesquely vicious — but, again, not something that one would expect to read in any other SF novel.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are all flawed (often arrogant or smug), but generally likeable once the book gets going; the world, and the focus on gender issues that’s built into it, is interesting and refreshing; and the set pieces — the fights scenes and the perils encountered on the glacial mountains — are lively and convincing. My main problem is that, though presented as a stand alone novel, it is anything but. Even well into the book, you are presented with details that are unexplained and given no context (Camilla has six fingers? Vanessa has animal eyes?) leaving the reader feeling somewhat adrift. More importantly, The book is all journey and no destination. The characters only really meet the antagonists of the novel in the last 50 pages, and only reach the eponymous City of Sorcery at the very end. The book finishes just when it feels like it’s getting started. It would be like calling The Two Towers (the middle volume of the Lord of the Rings) a stand alone book. I would be happy to return to the world of Darkover, but, next time, I’ll treat it for what it is — a progressive series.