Right off the bat, from the very first pages, there’s a noticeable jump in the writing style and improvement to the quality of the storytelling. MZB’s choice to use the second person point-of-view in the prologue is striking and drew me in immediately; then, just when it might have become too much, become too arch and awkward of a stylistic convention, she switches to third person with Chapter One and stays there for the remainder of the book.
— She does a lovely job of showing-not-telling the effects of being born on a planet with weaker gravity (“jokes about your height”) and a red sun (“the pale-blazing, yellow sun hurt your eyes even when you hid them behind dark glasses.”) Also, it seems MZB has begun rethinking Darkover as a colder planet than before. Gone are the rain forests of The Sword of Aldones; instead we hear that, “It’s a hell of a planet—cold as sin,” and the descriptions of of environment and weather are much more about “the cold, and the winds that swept down from the high, splintered teeth of the mountain skyline.” An early plot device (and a central thematic element in Jeff Kerwin’s struggle about where he belongs) is the heavy, hooded, leather-and-fur Darkovan cloak that Kerwin buys on a whim in the market. That being said, the transformation is not complete; there is still a lot of diaphanous, gauzy clothing, and curtained openings and courtyard-based architecture that one would expect more in a Mediterranean or desert clime. And those weird “translucent walls”—what exactly was MZB imagining those to be, I wonder?
— When communicating the vastness and diversity of the Terran Empire, MZB seems to relish injecting some more classic sword-and-planet tropes: “The heroines of the stories ranged all the way from a Sirian bird-woman, with great blue wings and a cloak of down, to a princess of Arcturus IV surrounded by the handmaidens who are bound to her with links of loving pseudoflesh till the day she dies.” This is obviously referring to the broader universe, not Darkover itself; but on occasion, when trying to communicate Kerwin’s experience of the alienness of Darkover (outside the Terran Zone), there are moments where it creeps in: “A gliding, silver-mantled nonhuman regarded him with uninvolved malice.” (p.66) It’s amazing how very un-Darkovan a moment like that feels; my mind immediately jumps to questions like, Which nonhuman Darkovan race are we talking about here? I think this speaks volumes to how far the worldbuilding of Darkover has progressed, taking on the shapes and flavors that will become so familiar as the series continues, that a more genre-based moment like that should stick out as much as it does. It reminds me that the series is still in its infancy, still a bit uncertain at times, and blurry around the edges; and that it will still make some false starts and head down a blind alley or two.
— One particular “blurry gray area” lies with the geography and cartography of Darkover—definitely “in flux” 😉 The instance that stuck out for me in The Bloody Sun had to do with the Hidden City of the Comyn (or Com’yn as spelled in this book). In The Sword of Aldones I swear it seemed like the Hidden City was just outside Thendara, or maybe even hidden within it somehow—it was very vague. But here we have a clear description of its placement, including other nearby places: “[He] pointed to a location between the twin peaks of the mountains. ‘It lies there,’ he said, ‘the plain of Arilinn, and the Hidden City of the Com’yn.” (p.73) And it is a lengthy plane ride from Thendara and the Terran Spaceport—”They must have come a good third of the way around Darkover, and his time sense was out of whack, because here the sun was just coming up,” (p.75) and later, p.178: “Even if we could get out of the Terran Zone…Arilinn is almost a thousand miles away.” (Though I am starting to wonder if “a thousand miles away” is just MZB’s go-to phrase for, “A long way off.”)
Did some poking around and stumbled onto these pages where someone tackles the task of mapping Darkover based on contextual clues in the books—it looks pretty great! Thank you, Thorsten Renk! And nice maps you drew there, too.
— Random thing I noticed: Lew Alton returns to Darkover on a ship christened the Southern Cross; now Jeff Kerwin makes landfall on the Southern Crown? What’s up with that, MZB? You having some fun with us?
— Even though this was one of the earliest books she wrote, I believe that later, The Bloody Sun (especially as rewritten in 1979) becomes the third book in a mini-trilogy begun by The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower. I wonder how some of the backstory of this novel will change in its rewrite, to make it flow and agree with events from The Forbidden Tower. This 1964 story deals with the ongoing struggle with tradition in the aftermath of a rebellion against the quasi-religion of matrix mechanics, which this novel attributes to Cleindori and her followers who fled Arilinn Tower:
For a long time they had worked together, the four of them, discovering matrix mechanics as science, not superstition, slowly stripping it of the old trappings of magic and taboo. They had worked in hiding; the Com’yn had sworn vengeance—and both the Terrans and the anti-Com’yn faction of mountain Darkovans were trying to get wind of what they were doing. They had been hounded from place to place…
That was the secret she discovered! Cleindori was no virgin—she had even had a child, yet she lost none of her powers!
My memories are hazy but those seem like very similar descriptions to what happens in The Forbidden Tower, a generation before Cleindori (and actually, I think I remember that Cleindori is later written to be the child of two of the members of the Forbidden Tower.) Anyway, there are things in flux here as well, and I’m curious to see how they are resolved.
— Late in the book, MZB introduced a pseudo-psychological, and (for me) disappointingly New Age idea about laran, who does or doesn’t have it, and why:
…suddenly a curious excitement began to boil in him, and he began to see something else, something exciting and new, beneath the surface of this—new implications to the whole thing. “Hastur, that’s the answer, don’t you see? He had laran because he was told he had it, because he expected to have it, because he never developed any mental block against thinking he had psi powers.”
I mean, okay: it was 1964 when this was published, I suppose I should be a little forgiving. Also, in fairness, she moderates this idea a bit at the end of the book:
“Yes, the power is inherited, to some small degree, but not nearly to the extent you have always believed. It means that Cleindori was right, even though they killed her for it—that matrix mechanics is not a secret for a given caste, but a science—Darkover’s own science, to be used in the right way!”
It will be interesting to see if and how this idea is developed in the books that immediately follow. And also whether it is kept on and developed in the 1979 rewrite of The Bloody Sun, or had her ideas changed by that point, causing her to drop it from the revisited text?
Re-reading this book, I could not stop thinking about the fact that MZB began her stories of her world of Darkover with its ending, with the decline of the Comyn, and the struggle of the world to survive and transform in the face of the soft-power onslaught of the Terrans. When I read the series as a teenager I remember being most upset by the books and passages within books that made it clear the Comyn were dying out and their particular world was ending, because that was exactly the fantasy world I wanted to live in. But now older-me recognizes that this struggle, this seeming-end, is precisely Bradley’s starting point for her world. The rest was telling the stories of how it got to that point, laying the groundwork for it, writing the histories. But the primary story she wanted to tell was one of decline and transformation.
In this way the prophecy given to Kerwin in the early chapters of the book might really be a statement of the kinds of stories she the author wants to tell with Darkover: “You came here for happiness but you will find something else—You will find the thing you desire, and you will destroy it, but you will save it too.”