Mar 5 2010 10:24am

A heroine’s journey: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Hawkmistress

I tend to find Darkover books weirdly compulsive without actually thinking they’re good. (A while ago I did a post about Midshipman’s Hope in which I talked about why I like bad books.) However, Hawkmistress (1982) is different. (And wouldn’t you know, it’s the only one out of print!) Hawkmistress is a good book which I genuinely like and thoroughly recommend. Everyone who was asking which Darkover book to read—this is the one.This one is so absorbing it made me forget to get off the bus at the metro! You can read it without having read any of the others, it’s entirely self contained. This is Bradley at the top of her game.

Hawkmistress is set during the time of the Hundred Kingdoms, more than three hundred years before any of the other books I’ve been re-reading. This is before the recontact between Darkover and Earth, and it’s really much more of a fantasy novel than all the others—there’s no culture clash, no contrasting Terrans, just Darkover and plenty of it. It’s the story of Romilly MacAran, who has the gift of rapport with animals.

If there is a typical Heroine’s Journey story, to go with Campbell Hero’s Journey, this is very much a template for it. There’s a young girl of just marriageable age, and her father wants her to marry someone she doesn’t like. She puts up with it until it becomes clear it’ll be intolerable, then she runs away and has adventures. She disguises herself as a man. She fights off attackers. She rescues herself, and other people. She learns skills and she learns about herself. She is kind to strangers and benefits from that. She finds friends where she least expects them. She is revealed as a woman. She goes mad in a forest. She comes back to sanity in time to save the day, and ends the possibility of real love.

I can think of a number of things that do this version of a heroine’s journey—I’ve even written one myself. The Beacon at Alexandria does it. So does The Paladin. And it’s Maid Marian, and there’s a character just like that in The Water Margin too. This is just what you’d expect if it’s a Heroine’s Journey—in the same way that Star Wars and Gilgamesh are both Hero’s Journey variants. This is a very satisfying story, for me anyway. There’s a lot about Hawkmistress that makes it more individual than mythic, but it has the mythic nature too, and the mythic resonance deepens everything else.

Mild spoilers:

Romilly’s rapport with animals is done brilliantly. She sees through the eyes of the hawk she trains, and it’s the threat of losing her hawk that makes her leave home. Her magic is untrained and she has to teach herself to use it as she trains horses and sentry birds. Her experience with war, and the way she has to come to understand it is excellent.

There are two outstanding characters apart from Romilly, and neither of them is the romantic hero. I think that’s terrific. One is Orain, who turns out to be gay, and interested in Romilly when he thinks she’s a boy. I’ve never seen this twist done before, but it really works, including his idiotic stammering when he finds out she’s a girl. The other is Caryl, the child of the enemy.

Just read it. You’ll like it.

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.

Beth Friedman
1. carbonel
She comes back to sanity in time to save the day, and ends the possibility of real love.

ObCopyeditor: I suspect you mean "ends with the possibility of real love."

I'm very fond of this novel, too. It's predictable in some ways, but I remember it surprising me in others (the period of insanity, mostly), and the twist with the spurned suitor. Also, it's my favorite cover art of all the Darkover novels I own.
Joshua Starr
2. JStarr
Ah yes, the books that make one miss their stop. I have a few of those.

Anyway, this one is still in print, in the omnibus The Ages of Chaos, with "Stormqueen" as well:
3. Menshevixe
Thank you for this review! I enjoy a number of Bradley's books, but have yet to delve into Darkover, mainly because 2) there are so MANY and b) some of the books are a little hard to get hold of. Sounds like Hawkmistress is right up my alley.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Carbonel: Yes, I did. Thank you. That's what comes of changing a sentence in the middle
5. Foxessa
FWIW, I agree with just about everything you've observed about this MZB title. This is the one of her I really liked too.
6. SallyEpp
I adore Hawkmistress! I read it when I was just 14 years old, and it was a bit of a revelation. This book, along with Marion Zimmer Bradley's Firebrand were my two favorite books during the early teen years. I read them both once a year until I graduated high school. Good choice for a review!
Michael Dolbear
7. miketor
Must dig out and reread.

Hawkmistress! however is my standard example of MZB's disdain for continuity (even within a book).

It's a plot point that the city has a wall.

Earlier it is mentioned that it hasn't

Hee !
Alice Arneson
8. Wetlandernw
miketor - That's the kind of thing I usually get irritated at the editor for missing. If it's necessary to have the wall at one point, but necessary to not have it at another, that's disdain for continuity. If its absence is just part of the description one place, and then its presence is necessary somewhere else, that's sloppiness. Blame it on the author, blame it on the editor... whatever, someone was not doing their job. In this particular instance, I can't remember because I haven't read the book in about 20 years. :)

One of the things that irritated me about the Darkover books as a reader, though, was the discontinuity. MZB was known to say (paraphrased) that she refused to be bound by things she wrote many years ago; i.e., while she wrote something a particular way in an early book, she had no qualms about "rewriting history" in later books because she thought the new idea/approach was better. I can sort of understand that, and see how it would annoy an author to be stuck with something written by one's inexperienced self many years ago. As a reader, though, it was really frustrating when a major plot point from one book was completely reversed in another - particularly when the time lapse internal to the books was all of a few weeks and I was reading them back-to-back. The fact that the time lapse for the author was about 20 years didn't help much. But I still read them all, several times, so I guess it didn't bother me that much.
Gray Woodland
9. Greyhame
Wetlandernw: to me there's a huge difference between continuity errors in either a book or a multi-volume story on the one hand, and a series of texts about the same setting on the other. It is certainly true, in our world, that MZB wrote (say) both The Sword of Aldones and Sharra's Exile. It is patently untrue that both have the same narrator. From my point of view as a reader, there are two equally acceptable ways to look at her in-world narration:

1) One of these books is a dramatized true account, the other is some Sybly Whyte going off on one. I may or may not wish to read the one I think is tosh.

2) Different narrators have told more or less plausible stories about the same unknown events. I wonder who, and why, and what really happened?

Likewise, less intensely, with clashing stories set in temporal series rather than parallel.

But when such conflict happens for no evident reason within a single narration, I tend to blame it on Long Island Iced Teas, and to wonder why I'm wasting precious hours on this gibble gabble.

For me, that's a major category distinction.

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