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.


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