I am in the middle of reading The Sword of Aldones, having read The Planet Savers followed by MZB’s short story “The Waterfall.” It does occur to me, however, that I have already broken my stated plan of reading in publication sequence, since “The Waterfall” was included as “a new Darkover short story” in the 1976 reissue of The Planet Savers. Which means it actually comes some eight books later, after The Heritage of Hastur and somewhere around the publication date for The Shattered Chain.
This actually makes a helluva lot of sense in terms of my experience of reading the story of Lady Sybil-Mhari Aillard, which has a remarkably different feel to it. It sits more deeply in the world of Darkover, and Darkover feels more richly detailed; the author feels less of a compulsion to thoroughly set up each scene by describing location, historical context, or reminding us of past or concurrent events. I have to confess, based on that single read of the story and with only the one previous novel fresh in my mind, I literally cannot even tell you what era “The Waterfall” takes place in. Pre- or post-Rediscovery? Pre-, I would guess, or at latest very early on after contact: when the Comyn are still powerful in their feudal ways and structures, and when the specialized family Gifts (bloodline-based laran abilities, a remnant of the laran breeding programs of the Ages of Chaos) are still running strong. I mean, I’m pretty sure there is no mention of the Terrans at all in the story, which would seem an odd omission by the characters after such a world-altering event.
My overall experience of reading this was quite abstracted, and occasionally surreal. It felt like floating in a thick brew or stew of Darkover-ness: the flavors are all there, I recognize this and that chunk or name or concept, but not enough to be able to reconstruct the overall recipe. I couldn’t place it specifically within the larger scope of MZB’s world-building, the chronology of the books or the history of her world. But, this didn’t really bother me!
There was, in fact, something nice about just sinking in to this one story and drifting through a familiar locale with recognizable players. The story was not being driven by large historical forces, but rather telling a small story about a moment in Sybil-Mhari Aillard’s life. I don’t know how much of my experience comes from a real shift in the writing style and scope, or how much might be a result of my reading the story out of sequence, with only one Darkover novel fresh in mind instead of nine. For example, I am recalling enough from my memory of later novels to know that this story does hint at what the otherwise-unmentioned Aillard Gift might be: something with using sexual desire for control. So as much as the story feels like a self-contained, extreme-close-up portrait, I suspect it is in fact contributing some bit or three of information to the overall creation of Darkover as a world.
Since my responses to “The Waterfall” may be heavily colored by inadvertently reading it out of publication order, I thought I would do something different here. I’ll post these ramblings now, to give that “first-read fresh” response; but I’ll reread the story after I’ve finished The Heritage of Hastur, and revisit this post to reflect upon how my perception of “The Waterfall” may have changed, if at all.