The Shattered Chain was published in 1976 and Thendara House in 1983, and you can buy them now in one volume as Saga of the Renunciates along with City of Sorcery (1984), which I’d like to like but actually can’t stand.
These two books are the story of two women, Jaelle n’ha Melora, Free Amazon, and Magda Lorne, a Terran intelligence officer. The Shattered Chain is an adventure story about them, and Thendara House is an encounter group novel about them. They’re both feminist novels about women taking control of their own lives in a medieval culture. The first time I read them, I read Thendara House first, and since it thoroughly spoils all the events of The Shattered Chain, it seems as if I never read that book for the first time, I always saw it through the lens of the later vision. Bradley clearly did a lot of rethinking of her concept of Free Amazons between the books, but nothing contradicts anything earlier or feels wrong, so it’s perfectly possible to read all the revealed complexities of the Renunciates of Thendara House back into the sketch of them in The Shattered Chain.
I think these are both feminist SF novels, but in very different ways. The Shattered Chain is sword-and-sorcery, women breaking free of conventional expectations and having adventures—and in 1976 there wasn’t much of that. The whole concept of Renunciates, Free Amazons, women who took oath to live without the protection of men, was innovative. This would be an interesting document even if it wasn’t a good story and fun to read—which it is. It’s immediately absorbing—and it’s immediately into culture clash. The world of the Comyn is opposed to the world of the Free Amazons even before we encounter the Terrans. Then Magda Lorne, Margali n’ha Ysabet, is caught between cultures, not knowing where her real self lies. This is a good place to start to explore the complex layered world of Darkover.
Thendara House follows the two main characters, in alternating chapters, after the adventure is over and when they go into each other’s worlds. Magda goes into the Renunciate Guildhouse to learn how to be a Free Amazon, and Jaelle goes into the Terran headquarters to work and try marriage. This is a feminist novel arising much more directly out of seventies second wave feminism—the encounter groups, the questioning, the examination of sexuality and assumptions. Yet it doesn’t feel preachy or as if it’s trying to sell a line, unlike some of Bradley’s other work. None of it feels anachronistic in the setting. The book is great on the small details of living out of your culture—Jaelle hating the synthetic food, and Magda craving for coffee. The Terrans, who are supposed to be much more egalitarian than the Darkovans, come over to a modern reader as incredibly sexist and rigid, insisting on calling Jaelle "Mrs Haldane" and assuming she’ll buy the household supplies.
The Shattered Chain is one of the best books of the series, and it’s where I often tell people to start. But it’s all fast-moving adventure and romance, bandits, banshees, oaths, lives at stake. Thendara House is about dealing with the psychological consequences. I like books about what happens after the adventure, and that’s how I like this. The end of Thendara House tacks on an adventure plot for no reason, and it’s a pity. It’s a novel of psychological growth and culture clash, it doesn’t need a chase through the wilderness, and the actual end tangles it up with The Forbidden Tower.
Bradley gives us three points of view to identify with in these books, and I like all of them. Rohanna Ardais, who has given up working with magical laran power in a tower to marry and have children, and who is risking her husband’s disapproval by rescuing her cousin Melora from slavery in the Dry Towns, is easy to like and easy to sympathise with. Magda, Margali, is my favourite character in the whole series. She’s caught between cultures and worlds, nothing is ever easy for her, she’s always pulled several ways at once by conflicting duties. Jaelle is less sympathetic because she’s a spoiled brat—but she’s very well done as one.
Spoilers and trivia follow, and for other books too:
In these books which are family saga, where I know so much about Jaelle’s and Rohana’s children and grandchildren, I find myself wondering what happened to Peter Haldane, beyond surviving, after the end of the book. Does anyone know?
I don’t know why I never noticed before, but the trip Jaelle’s outfitting Monty for at the end, to Alderan, must be where he meets and falls in love with Lew’s grandmother! Well, he’s all ready for it.
I find City of Sorcery, which I did not re-read, completely implausible and suspension of disbelief threatening for the whole series. The little bits of set up for it in Thendara House (the Sisterhood, the voice Margali hears) are best left as mysteries as far as I’m concerned. I find it hard to reconcile with everything else. Please don’t tell me I’d like it if I read it again, as I’m trying to forget about it.
With all the catalyst telepathy going on here, there’s almost no mention of matrix technology.
Bradley talks about how awful the genetic breeding program was, and what a terrible legacy it has left, but—and I suppose it’s inevitable when you’re writing a family saga—she’s quite caught up on genetics and inherited laran herself. Having decided that Jaelle and Damon are Cleindori’s parents, she can’t help prefiguring her, mentioning her directly twice, and having them end up as part of the same polyfamily. She doesn’t go out of her way to let us know that Rohana is Dyan’s grandmother and Lew’s great-grandmother. Probably just as well. But why do I know anyway? Why do I care?
I can’t quite think of anything else where I know so much about so many generations of people on another planet. Bujold comes closest, but we only really have two generations, we never get the point of view of the others. I can’t recall anything else where I have the sensation of recognising minor characters as the grandfather and great-grandfather of a major character in another book. Should this be appealing? I don’t know.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.