The Sword of Aldones (1962)

Reading the Darkover books in the pre-Internet era of my teens, I couldn’t just ask Wikipedia to help me figure out confusing details; so there were aspects of the series that tripped me up now and then. I remember very clearly my confused feeling of déjà vu as I started reading The Sword of Aldones (it had taken me years to find a copy) for the first time. Wait, I thought, This is Sharra’s Exile, but shorter and strange and not quite the same. Eventually I found confirmation that the latter book (which I had read first) was in fact a rewrite—and massive expansion/revision—of this earlier book that I had sought after for so long.

So The Sword of Adonis and the next book I’ll be reading, the original 1964 version of The Bloody Sun, are the two books in the series that MZB chose to rewrite and reissue 15-20 years after their initial publication. This really interests me from the standpoint of worldbuilding, as it highlights two problems faced by any artist who is engaged in the long-form, serialized creation of a world: first, that your ideas about the world, its people, its historical chronology and themes are bound to develop and change as you work. And second, that over the course of 40 years of practice the artist will inevitably improve their craft—and it is only human to look back on the cringeworthy artistic moments from your youth and want to make revisions! 😀

(I wonder, idly, why MZB never felt the need to revisit The Planet Savers in the way she did for the second and third Darkover novels. Was it too slight of a story and not worth reworking? Did she feel it didn’t conflict with enough of the history and lore that was established in later books (though the same could not be said of Sword of Aldones and Bloody Sun)? Or maybe it was so old, such a first novel, that it was granted a sort of artistic exemption based on its “firstness” in the canon? Who knows.

Other things that stuck out for me:

— In my mind Darkover is a big frozen hunk of ice and tundra with rocky, even-more-frozen mountains, and everything is pretty, well, frozen. So wtf is going on with all this talk of Darkovan rain forests?! Really? This one so mystified me that I had to take to the Internets in search of an answer, and found these reflections by the author Jon DeCles (also a foster brother of MZB and Edwin Zimmer Bradley while they were growing up) who knew her while all these books were being written.

At first Darkover was sort of tropical. People tended to wear diaphonous clothing and there were houses with token walls, or only curtains. There were swamps! Should you possess some of the early editions, you will find in them a Darkover remarkably unfamiliar from the later stories.

Then a remarkable thing happened. Marion read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, and the temperature of Darkover began to drop. I still remember the excitement in her voice as she called us long distance to tell us how wonderful LeGuin’s new book was. And I remember how cold it was in that Old Lovecraftian Farmhouse where she grew up! I suppose that she was finally taking that advice about ‘writing what you know.’

So that was interesting! Because all that is true, these early books are full of mention of gauzy clothing and lounging on pillows like we’re in some Sir Richard Francis Burton fantasia, with translucent walls and curtains—lots of curtains as entrances to buildings. NOT winter-climate architecture AT ALL. Naturally these are exactly the kind of things that one would expect might develop over the course of prolonged worldbuilding; I love the fact that it may have been so directly influenced by LeGuin’s masterpiece (another favorite book from my high school years.)

— In talking about The Planet Savers I mentioned the absence of the idea of Darkover as a Lost Colony of Terra; in fact MZB specifically presented other arguments to explain why Darkovans and Terrans are so similar. Her thinking on this seems to be in a state of flux, and in this book she builds on the “human form is the natural arrival point of evolution,” idea from the previous novel, adding a galactic seeding theory:

One was stubbornly defending the theory of parallel evolutions; the other, the theory that some ancient planet—preferably Earth itself—colonized the whole Galaxy a million years ago…The Dispersionist brought out all the old arguments for a lost age of star-travel, and the other man was arguing about the nonhuman races and the differing levels of culture on any single planet.

This is definitely getting closer, and perhaps even laying the groundwork for the Lost Colony idea that she eventually settles on. But it’s still not quite there.

— Ok but wait, this is strange:

No one rode this path now; on the Forbidden Road, radioactivity was still virulent, in spots, from the Years of Desolation. The road itself was safe now, but the fear lingered; too many men, in past days, had died…

We skirted the site of the ancient spaceships, their huge bulk still glowing feebly with poisonous radiance. Then we were on the Forbidden Road itself; the canyon, nature’s own roadway, which stretches from the highest point in the Hellers down to the Sea of Dalereuth a thousand miles away.

[emphasis mine]

Um, what?

I don’t know how to read that passage as not meaning, “the ancient spaceships that our ancestors arrived on Darkover in.” So these hulks have been just sitting there, outside Thendara, for the last 4000 years or so? Did they always know that they were spacefaring craft? Or were they just “mysterious ruins of the ancients” until after recontact with the Terran Empire, at which point the Darkovans realized the actual nature of the giant glowy things on the road from Thendara to Hali? I remember Hali being a toxic No Man’s Land, but I thought the radioactivity and destruction was caused by unregulated laran use during the Ages of Chaos, not associated with the original Landfall and old Terran tech as it seems to be here. Very interesting!

But it’s also a bit confusing to have this passage about ancient spaceships coming just a hundred and fifty pages after the bit where Terran scientists are debating the origins of Darkover’s human race. Seems like the rusting ships should have put an end to that debate. Maybe this is a poorly executed case of “imperfect knowledge” amongst the characters: do the Comyn know about the spaceships, but not the Terrans? Or some of the Terrans know but it’s not yet general knowledge?

Anyway, I’m curious to see whether this little bit about ancient spacecraft gets kept (even if  adjusted) in Sharra’s Exile, or was this an idea that MZB had in the 60s when writing this book, and then moved away from over the course of the next decade or two, dropping it by the wayside just like she dialed down the global thermostat of the planet?

— You know, I totally forgot about the six-fingered hands thing for certain Comyn! A remnant of their interbreeding with the chieri, as I remember, it gets the most offhanded mention possible in the book, when the Keeper Callina whips up a little light to get them through a dark tunnel:

Callina raised her hand—and the tips began to flow. Light spread—sparked—radiated from those twelve slender fingertips!

Boy, she just drops that in like a stone slipping silently into the sea, and she never brings it up again in the book! (I know it does get mentioned again in later books.) I kind of love that, actually: the way she doesn’t make a big deal about it, no fuss, just this thing about the world that is a fact of life for the characters so they feel no need to comment upon it. That helps make it feel real for me the reader, and also gives me a little something to do, filling in the why’s and wherefore’s myself.

—Oh, and Regis’s hair turning snow-white after the final battle with Sharra—I had also forgotten about that until now! But man, how I loved that detail as a kid, to the point of becoming obsessed with prematurely white hair for a while. I still to this day like to make my characters in video games have white or gray hair, even when everything else about their face and body is young.


As I said at the beginning, I totally get why a writer with 20 more years of writing experience under her belt might look back on this very early novel and say, “Rewrite!” Especially since the events detailed here turn out to be so pivotal to the modern history of Darkover—in terms of the whole series, The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra’s Exile are clearly two of the must-reads.

I do love the fact that MZB had such a clear idea in her mind about all this past history for Lew Alton and Kadarin and the Sharra Rebellion, but then chose to tell it to us purely as memories, flashbacks and history in The Sword of Aldones. But Things change and, later, she wanted to flesh out that earlier story (which became The Heritage of Hastur.) Having done that, I can understand why she would feel that the subsequent story now needed/wanted/required/deserved a complete and total rewrite and revision—all the way down to a new name for the book.

All that being said, The Sword of Aldones was completely readable and mostly enjoyable. Yeah it had some weird bits, the characterization was touch-and-go in spots, and sometimes the motivations for a character’s actions seemed to mostly be MZB’s need to drive the plot forward—as opposed to making sense as something that that person might actually do. (Also, seriously, did she intend for Lew Alton to faint pretty much every time anything happened anywhere to anyone? Poor Lew.) But I was interested in the story and where it was going and the new insights it gave me to to Bradley’s vision for Darkover. It’s the biggest, broadest vision we’ve had so far, and seeing that kind of nascent ambition for a story is really exciting.

Next up: the original 1964 version of The Bloody Sun. While The Sword of Aldones followed The Planet Savers in both writing order and Darkovan chronology, with the next book we’ll go back in time by a generation, to an earlier period in Darkover-Terran relations and the history of the Comyn. We will also get our first in a series of “fish-out-of-water” main characters, where a Terran finds him- or herself embedded in Darkovan culture and “goes native.”

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