The Bloody Sun (1964, rewritten 1979) is in many ways the most typical Darkover novel, and a very good place to start the series. Jeff Kerwin was born on Darkover, but grew up in an orphanage and then with his grandparents on Earth. He has never felt that he belongs anywhere and longs for acceptance. He can’t remember anything about his parents, but he wants to go back to Darkover to find out. Once on Darkover he discovers that everything is more complicated than he imagined, that he has psionic powers, that he’s desperately needed, and that nobody will tell him anything about his parents.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a terrible place to start reading. What I’ve said is true of both the original and the revised versions of the novel, but who he finds out he is, is completely different. And while the revised version is much better written, it’s also necessary to care about who Damon is, and who Dyan is, to get the most out of reading it. I’d recommend reading at least The Forbidden Tower first. There’s a lot of looking over the shoulder to other stories in this book, more than in any of the others I can think of. The original version was written early, and the later version after most of the others I’m re-reading. Jeff’s culture shock might make a good way in, but I think people are more likely to enjoy this after reading others.
There’s something odd about the pacing of the revised version. It’s much better written, and it’s consistent with all the others, but it’s got less momentum as a story than the original. There’s a way in which Bradley seems more interested in Cleindori’s story than in Jeff’s, and yet it’s Jeff’s story and discovery of who he is that she’s telling.
This is another book about a Keeper laying down her vows for love. Is this actually a theme? There’s quite a lot more about ritual virginity in these books than there is in most books.
It has always seemed to me that there ought to be a book between Star of Danger and this, about Kennard Alton’s life and love. We see him as a boy, and then as a middle-aged man, and in Heritage of Hastur as an old man. His actions and motives are central to The Bloody Sun making sense, and I’m not sure they quite hold their weight unless you’ve already read the other books.
The whole thing with telepathy and the rather desperate need for a tower circle doesn’t hold together when you think about it, especially in the context of Cleindori, the Forbidden Tower, and matrix mechanics being licensed. You’d think they could get any of those people Jeff consults for Arilinn and they’d be as useful as Jeff. Also, the mining to prevent the people going to the Terrans—surely being able to do one off tricks like this can’t make any long term difference? It isn’t enough. But Bradley deals with the magic itself in a way that feels absolutely right—the magic makes emotional and metaphorical sense and is one of the best things about the book. These quibbles don’t occur to me while I’m reading it, only afterwards.
I’m not normally much for pseudoscience, I prefer my magic numinous. But I do think the treatment of laran in all the books, the way it’s divided into types, the gifts, the way it’s as much curse as gift, works extremely well. On the one hand, they’re red-headed telepathic aristocrats, good grief, and on the other, they’re people with duties and responsibilities and a weight of context that make the whole thing seem solid. Because we so often see the laran as something people have to learn to cope with, the improbability of the matrices transforming thought into “energons” just slides past. While this is unquestionably magic with scientific and pseudoscientific terms used for it, I think it’s magic dealt with in a science-fictional rather than a fantastic way, and it’s this that puts the books on the fulcrum between genres, for me.
I wince every time I read that Cottman IV, Darkover, is located between the upper and lower spiral arms of the galaxy and that the Empire therefore needs a spaceport there as a hub. What does that even mean? Every time I read about this I keep trying to picture the galaxy and gritting my teeth. The upper and lower spiral arms are not… conveyer belts. Or highways. What’s in between them isn’t one convenient world like an airport hub but the core of the galaxy.
Less culpably, I found myself frowning over the description of the computer. It didn’t seem quite right. It has memory banks that can be tampered with, but it’s in one place and you have to go to it, you put physical stuff in and get physical stuff out—I was picturing a PC and getting confused, but this is quite unfair, in 1964 or even 1979 this was a perfectly good extrapolation. This is also a future we didn’t have, one with spaceships and a galactic empire but no internet.
The Terrans, in addition to having a Galactic Empire run by rigid 1950s bureaucrats, also have a weird longterm plot against Darkover. Generally the books are more balanced than this and show something good about the Terrans—here it’s all whores and guns and rules and spying. Oh well.
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.