Jo Walton (papersky) wrote,
Jo Walton

The Charms of Darkover

Happy Birthday xiphias!

coffeeandink wrote about Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books a little while ago. What I always say about them is that I don't so much like reading them as I like re-reading them when I'm ill. I've been ill a fair bit over the last twenty years, I'm very familiar with them.

Bradley created the world, and the outline of the history, when she was fifteen, and one of the charms of Darkover is that it has all the cool stuff you put into your worlds when you're fifteen and don't know any better -- breeding programs for psi powers that give you red-headed sorceresses, and aliens, and spaceports, and a low-tech metal-poor planet, and four moons, one of them peacock-tail coloured, and trackless wilderness, and Seven Domains, and amazons. And it also has all the things you put into the world to explain the things you put in when you were fifteen, like the consequences of the collision of all those things, and out of that arises complexity. It also has a depth of history, because Bradley's Darkover novels cover thousands of years.

They're not really very good -- they vary in quality a lot, but even at the best they're not all that good, but they're immensely readable. Let's face it, I can name those four moons, and I know the genealogies of the families of the Seven Domains for several generations.

While Bradley was alive, she published a series of anthologies of Darkover stories by other people. I've read (but don't own) all of them. If anyone wrote a bad story in those anthologies, I've never read anything else by them. This has, among other things, saved me from an awful lot of Mercedes Lackey.

The series has been continued, before and after Bradley's death, by other people, either under Bradley's name or as by Bradley and the actual author. I didn't read any of the continuations. I wasn't interested. But coffeeandink's post made me feel nostalgic and all the continuations are in the library, so, able to resist anything but temptation, I read two of them.

The first was Adrienne Martine Barnes's (as by Bradley) Exile's Song, and the second was Deborah J. Ross's (as by Ross and Bradley) The Fall of Neskaya. I read the Barnes first.

Exile's Song started off fine, the stranger coming to the planet, the colour of the light, the smell of the burning wood. Then I started to find discontinuities between it and the canonical books. Well, I thought, Bradley wasn't always totally consistent. Then I started to find places where Bradley had described something evocatively using a few words and Barnes had filled in the pieces differently from the way I had. (Most interesting was the Crystal Chamber -- the place where the Comyn Council meets. In Bradley's Heritage of Hastur, the chamber is large, has seven screened sectors around the banner-hung walls, below the stained glass, has telepathic dampers that can be adjusted at floor level and has a circle in the centre large enough for duels. In Exile's Song the room is about a quarter the size, the enclosures have vanished and it and has a central table with chairs around it, certain chairs being significant seats for heads of domains... Well, it's been twenty years.) Then I started to find actual contraditions of canon in terms of genealogies, which made me seethe. I've done a fair bit of reconciling canonical contraditions when writing roleplaying stuff, and the first thing you do is make sure, when you make something up, is that you're making it up in a space, not over-writing something else. Also, Barnes has a tin ear for Darkovan names. I winced several times.

In the end though, none of that is what makes Exile's Song a bad book, though the last two would have been enough to stop me reading any more. What makes it a bad book would have made any novel bad -- characters behave inconsistently within that novel. I could have believed that Bradley's Lew told his daughter nothing of her heritage and sat drinking for years, though I had hoped he'd had enough of self-centred sulking by the end of Sharra's Exile, but I couldn't believe that anyone who had done that would have turned up and done what he did deus ex machina-wise in the latter part of the book. Characters have to make sense. Their actions have to fit. Barnes's Lew made no sense at all.

The Fall of Neskaya didn't have any of those things wrong with it. It's perfectly acceptably canonical. The names are consistent. The genealogy isn't a problem because of when it's set, but there are lots of other things Ross could have screwed up if she was going to. She knows Darkover at least as well as I do -- which is the least you can expect really. The story is a lot like a Bradley story. What's wrong with it is that it's dull. There was nothing there to hold me. I said the seven deadly words and put the book down two-thirds of the way through.

Which leads me back to the original Darkover books and what's good about them. It isn't the red-headed sorceresses and the snow on Midsummer Day -- Ross does that perfectly well. It isn't landing on a planet and finding a strange culture that seems more appropriate than your own -- Barnes gives that a good go.

Bradley's plots are often predictable -- and in any case, these are books I re-read. Re-reading for plot is rare. (And the whole plot of The Shattered Chain is given away in Thendara House, which I read first, and it didn't matter.) Barnes's plot was at least as good as some of Bradley's, the reasons I didn't believe in it are in the ways it diverged from canon and its character problems. I'm prepared to give Ross the benefit of the doubt and say that I'm sure the book finished as well as it was going on and therefore it also had a plot as good as most of Bradley's. We'll call plot quits.

After reading Exile's Song, I felt quite sure that what Bradley was doing right was the world. I'd just seen the canon contradicted. (Who would have thought I cared so much about Gabriel Lanart-Hastur and Jeff Kerwin's ancestry? But it wasn't just that, the whole Ashara plot directly contradicts the end of Sharra's Exile. Pah.)

After reading The Fall of Neskaya, I realized that what Bradley does well isn't just the world, just the world isn't enough.

What Bradley's Darkover books do really well is people in situations. She does great characters, and she sets up great moments for them. The overall plot might be as predictable as a formal dance, but the moments along the way are fascinating and worth going back and back to.

She's also very good at dialogue, at actual conversations between people that carry the story along and develop character and sound just right.

So if you're one of the people who can learn to write by reading, and you have problems with dialogue, or with making engaging characters that readers care to keep on reading about, check out the original Darkover books. And if you're one of those who can learn to write by reading something that doesn't work and throwing it across the room and saying you can do better -- nah. Forget it. You don't need the motivation. You don't want to write Darkover books!
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