Darkover Redux: re-reading teenage-me’s favorite F&SF series

I can’t even remember how I first encountered Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books. Unlike many of the other epic fantasy series that I consumed at such an ungodly rate as a teenager, it did not come from the Science Fiction Book Club. Instead of those cheaply-bound hardback omnibuses collecting three or four books into a single, massive tome, all of my Darkover novels are in paperback form, and about half of them appear to be heavily-worn first editions I must’ve scrounged from used bookstores in Virginia, Wisconsin and passed-through towns in between.

(I should, however, note my indebtedness to the Science Fiction Book Club for introducing me to so many great series—Dragonriders of Pern, Chronicles of Amber, the works of Mercedes Lackey, Guy Gavriel Kay, Niven and Pournelle, and on and on and on. I found their ad in a Dragon Magazine one month and my world was changed ever after.)

But, Darkover: I was in high school I think, or maybe junior high, so it was the mid- to late-1980s. I’m not certain, but I think it was a cover that caught my eye in the B. Dalton at the mall: a new volume of Darkover short stories, The Other Side of the Mirror, which accompanied a reissuing of older and out-of-print Darkover novels, all in a consistent new format and design (huzzah, blackletter typeface! Definitely the 80s…) I remember thinking, “What is this?” and assuming it must be something new, then discovering that it had been around for quite some time and there sure were a lot of books in the series to catch up on! That was always a draw for me 🙂

It’s funny to think back to how I must’ve gone about acquiring the books, in those pre-Amazon.com days: I could never pass a used bookstore without ducking in to peruse their science fiction and fantasy section in case they something I was looking for. In my back pocket I kept a well-worn wad of lined notebook paper, folded in quarters, with a running list of all the books I was interested in reading: the remaining books in any series I had started but not finished; books whose reviews had piqued my interest; books I had seen after that week’s allowance had already been spent, but I didn’t want to forget about for a future week.

The Darkover books were all on that list, patiently crossed off as I found them one by one. After the stories in The Other Side of the Mirror I read either The Spell Sword or maybe The Shattered Chain, followed by the rewrite of The Bloody Sun; that pretty much clinched it for me, and I was hooked. I bought as many of the books as I could find and started over, reading them (roughly) according to Darkover chronology, from Darkover Landfall to The World Wreckers (then, the last novel in the series.) I was assisted in this by a handy listing, chronologically by Darkovan era, that was being included in the front of all of the reissued books.

It was definitely a rough chronological reading, since I didn’t always have the next book but was unwilling to wait until I found it before proceeding. So come to think of it, the second Darkover novel that I read must’ve been The Spell Sword, because I distinctly remember not reading The Shattered Chain until after Thendara House and City of Sorcery—and being so wonderfully surprised to have Magda Lorne “returned” to me (in a prequel-way) as a character.

At some point I did become aware that the books had not been written in the chronological order that I was reading them. Some combination of the changes in Bradley’s writing style, writing ability (they were, after all, a lifespan’s work), and the continuity errors tipped me off, and was later confirmed by an essay or interview with MZB which detailed her own history with the series. But I rather appreciated the woven quality this process brought to the long-form telling of these stories. It made them feel a bit like live performance, or the oral tradition of storytelling, where it varies from night to night and book to book, being told deftly here but a bit awkwardly there, her stories accumulating over decades of writing to tell the 2000+ year history of this alternate world.

That being said, for this rereading of the series 25+ years later I have decided to come at the books in the other way, reading them in the order in which they were written rather than their sequence in Darkovan history. MZB herself suggested this approach as it would let the reader travel with her as she developed Darkover as an idea and a series, and I think it sounds like a splendid plan.

And so I will begin with The Planet Savers, written in 1958 and set late in Darkovan history—After the Comyn (Against the Terrans: The Second Age)—to tell the story of the Terran Dr. Jay/Jason Allison and his journey, with Regis Hastur, to stop the cycle of devastating, planetwide outbreaks of Trailman’s fever…

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