Marion Zimmer Bradley, Rediscovery

When you’ve be wanting to read a book for several years (or, in this case, reread it) then it sometimes takes on an almost mythical status in the mind. It becomes the best book ever written and then, when the book is finally there, it sort of falls flat.

Well, Rediscovery wasn’t quite that bad but, unfortunately, it wasn’t far off. When I was younger I devoured all the Marion Zimmer Bradley books I could get my hands on – starting from The Mists of Avalon when I was about 12 (usual The Lord of the Rings stage, I think). I loved the slightly mystical language, the feminist emphasis on the importance of women and of course the stories about princesses and magicians and all that. When I had finished all the Avalon books in print at the time I began to read the Darkover novels. The novels are a curious mixture of science fiction, space exploration and conquest and fantasy elements such as psi-powers and laran (the Darkovan word for telepathy). I pilfered the library for books and, when that source ran out, bought them in English for myself. However, for some strange reason, I could never get hold of Rediscovery in English. It was only available in German – until now.

So what is it about? Well. On the planet Darkover the inhabitants, descendants from an old crashed Terran spaceship, have been living in relative peace for a couple of hundred years. They have developed their own feudal society, led by the Comyn, a caste of mostly red-haired people with telepathic powers. And then the Terran (so people from planet Earth) turn up and want to colonize a planet they conceive of as backward and simplistic. Which it is most definitely not.

The story centers around two sets of main characters, a Darkover twin brother and sister and three Terran friends. The Darkovan twins are Comyn and the young man, Lorill, will some day become the most powerful man on the planet. His sister, Leonie, is going into a Tower, essentially designed to control and teach the use of telepathic powers and the base for all ‘magical’ activities on the planet. There used to be many Towers but by the time this story is set, they have all been destroyed – the Ages of Chaos is, a bit like the European Dark Ages, a period of which not much is known. By this time, however, there are only five Towers left and Arilinn, the Tower which Leonie joins, is the most powerful. As people who have read the other books will know, Leonie is to become a ‘sorceress’ and eventually she will become the most powerful woman on the planet. Not bad going. 

The three Terrans are very different. David and Elizabeth are a young couple of anthropologists looking for a planet to settle down on, marry and have lots of children. Their best friend Ysaye is a young woman of African heritage (this is important for the story) who is a computer tech on the spaceship. She is allergic to almost everything and loves the sterility of the spaceship. Because all the members of the original ship that landed on Darkover were Caucasian, none of the Darkovans have ever seen a person with dark skin before which leads to some rather amusing incidents. However, the overall tone of the book is quite somber and the story raises some interesting questions.

As referenced previously, Darkover’s history is defined by a period known as the Ages of Chaos, when the misuse of telepathic powers led to wars and massacres. Since then the Darkovans have observed the Compact which forbids the use of long-distance weapons. Every weapon used must bring the user in equal danger to the one he or she is using it against. Therefore, swords and short bows are allowed whereas the Terran guns are not. Although the Terrans see themselves are far more civilized and progressive, their weapons are seen by the Darkovans as cowardly and weak. Bradley raises interesting questions about weapons of mass destruction here, I think, which, set in the fantasy world of Darkover, only seem transgressive when one seriously thinks about that subject.

Then there are the fires. Darkover’s climate is akin to that of Scandinavia or Siberia. The hills are covered with resinous trees which burn very easily. Therefore, when a forest fire breaks out, feuds are forgotten as everyone tries to save the country from burning up. Bandits join the law-abiding folk in the fire truce but, again, the Terrans don’t look too good. Spoilers here so I won’t tell you what happens though yet again Bradley challenges the modern individualism that seems prevalent in Western society.

Whilst I found it a less easy read than when I was younger and, I continue to appreciate the detail and the intricacy in Darkovan society. I can see that some ideas might challenge a modern reader but, somehow, they also make sense. Although the language is not up to Tolkien’s high literary standard, Marion Zimmer Bradley has created a world just as interesting and fascinating. And that’s why I read and reread her Darkover novels.

A Trio of Quick Fixes

Somehow, sometimes, one feels the need for a quick fix – be it a shopping spree, a sugar rush or, in my case, a couple of quick-to-read, non-angsty, non-existentialist romance novels. I admit to my guilty pleasure and here are three of the finest I have read recently: Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters, Barbara J. Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies Swimming Society and Carole Matthews The Chocolate Lovers Club. Feel free to stop reading now if you don’t fancy any ruminating discources on what appear to be three trivial novels. In fact, I’ve been thinking about writing a post like this for some time – about Donna Douglas’s series about the Nightingale hospital, the first of which is The Nightingale Girls. So perhaps I should just rename this post as ‘A Series of Quick Fixes’.

Perhaps, one might have thought, studying literature means acquiring a sort of snobbery about what precisely constitutes literature. However, I have always vehemently opposed any attempt to divide the world of books into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. I believe that instead any distinctions should be renamed as ‘books I liked’, ‘books I didn’t like’ and ‘books I didn’t understand’. The latter category perhaps deserves a post of its own, including as it does, I think, ideas such as ‘books whose point I didn’t understand’, ‘books which I want to re-read because I think they may become books that I like’ and ‘books which seemed to have no point at all but which are apparently incredibly important’. The category ‘books I liked’ can also be subdivided into ‘books I will re-read again and again’ (such as, in my case, The Lord of the Rings and Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer), ‘books which I really enjoyed but which I doubt I’ll be able to re-read’ (such as The Bone People perhaps?) and ‘books which are enjoyable, light, fluffy and much better than any RomCom Chick Flick but have about the same effect on my life as a piece of good chocolate. Or an ice cream. Or a bit of music from Hairspray. They cheer me up, they make me want to read again and they remind me of a few home truths (such as ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you may be writing this post sitting next to the love of your life’). And that, precisely, is why I think that such light literature should never ever be disparaged.

Preachy bit over, here are the details!

 

Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters

I first picked this book up about 18 months ago. I was waiting for my partner in a charity shop, browsing the book bin (uh-oh!) and picked up this little gem. Now Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series has belonged to my list of ‘books I want to read again and again’ for years and like any devoted fan I was slightly concerned by any attempt to tamper with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and, above all, the lovely Professor Bhaer. However, Donnelly does not really tamper at all. Instead, she invents a modern Meg, Jo and Amy, a contemporary Marmee and even a new Professor Bhaer – showing that characters from classical fiction are still relevant to contemporary readers. In a sense, the novel’s protagonist discovers this connection herself; Lulu, her older sister Emma (or Josephine Emma) and her younger sister Sophie, are young women living in London. That their mother Fee happens to be the great-great-granddaughter (or something) of Jo March is negligible. Lulu finds Jo’s letters which she wrote to Marmee, Beth, Meg and Amy and these letters fit in so well with what the reader probably already knows about the March family that they do not compromise or jar any treasured opinions. The exception is the last letter which is a little too convenient (well, even more convenient than the whole series of plot devices already is) but I will leave that up to the reader to decide. Ultimately, though, this novel is a story about young women trying to find their place in life, to find out who they are and what they want and these women realise that love and family is at the heart of everything – just like the March sisters did.

 

Barbara J Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society

This is exactly my kind of barmy read. Lots of strong women with their own troubles and concerns, who find strength in their companionship with other women. Yes there is a love story and yes it’s immediately obvious which man the young female protagonist is going to end up with (hint: it’s probably not the one she started with!) but the centre of the novel is, again, a journey of discovery about identity and family. The start of the novel, however, is the Swimming Society – a group of older women who go swimming in a lake near Stanway House (where J. M. Barrie stayed) come rain or shine. Or snow. Or ice. All these women have their own personal tragedies and all of them are inspiring. It’s only a short novel so I don’t want to give any more details away. Suffice to say that the novel made me smile and laugh out loud a lot.

 

Carole Matthews, The Chocolate Lovers’ Club

Now here is a mixed box of characters (pardon the chocolate-scented pun there). Quirky chocoholics appear to promote the mantra that chocolate and a close group of friends can solve all problems. I’m not sure what to make of this novel. I did enjoy it but I’m not sure I’d have the patience or the stomach for the sequel; there was entirely too much gluttonous consumption of chocolate and, after however many pages, the protagonist did start to grate a little. Her friends were all more interesting because from the start the main character was set up as the one with the cheating boyfriend who eventually leaves him for someone else who still isn’t really worth it. A bit too Bridget Jones for me I’m afraid. I found the woman who was disinherited by her family for marrying for love but found herself with a gambling husband much more interesting. Or the independent, opinionated and sexual American woman who gave up her career to marry an aristocrat, only to find herself in a sexless and lonely marriage. Or even the gay couple who run the chocolaterie the girls meet in. And especially the aristocrat-turned-hippie for whom I was rooting the whole way through. So then. I enjoyed the novel for the supporting cast rather than the main character and, of my trio for today, I think this was my least favourite but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make me smile.

 

I think this post is already long enough without Donna Douglas’s novels, so I will devote a separate post to them. Good night all and get reading!