The Darkover series- Marion Zimmer Bradley

I have always been a big reader. I was able to read before I started kindergarten (thanks to an older sister who liked to play school).  I can remember being no more than 8 years old and reading my book in bed after lights out (a book about squirrels, at least that’s the picture in my head).  As far as individual books, I remember reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time sometime in elementary school.  That may have been my first real exposure to what became my favorite type of genre fiction – Science Fiction/Fantasy.

I think every reader has a certain type of book that they read more than any other type. And I know some people will only read a certain kind – like true crime or romance novels.  And some prefer non-fiction to fiction, long to short novels, one-offs to series fiction and so on.  My fall-back has always been sci-fi/fantasy.  When I’m looking for something to read that doesn’t require too much from me, I head to the sci-fi section of the bookstore or library. I have all of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  Up until a few years ago, I had read everything Anne McCaffery ever wrote, (starting in seventh grade when I found Dragonsinger in the library).  I read the first 11 Xanth books as well as Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series.  Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Discworld – all places I’ve visited at one time or another.

Some people (read: snobby literary types) think that genre fiction is junk.  Some people read it but consider it a ‘guilty pleasure’ or get defensive about their love for a good bodice-ripper (read: my sister).  I’ve never felt a moment of guilt about any book I ever read – including the bad ones I never finished.  Anger, disgust, frustration, revulsion maybe – but never guilt.  If you enjoy the book and it hasn’t turned you into an axe murderer or a bad parent, then I say READ IT.  Reading drivel is better than reading nothing at all, and it sure beats television – at least your crappy mystery novel isn’t regularly interrupted by penile dysfunction treatments or (depending on your household) someone telling you your house isn’t clean enough.

But as I’ve gotten older and wiser – and expanded my reading horizons with dozens of literature classes – I read less and less sci-fi and more high-brow stuff. My standards have gotten higher, and I no longer believe that just because I started a book I have to finish it. Life is too short, and there are too many books in the world that I’ve yet to read for me to waste time on some of the crap that passes for ‘a good read.’ I still read sci-fi, I’m just more particular about the sci-fi I chose.  And in the last few years I’ve discovered (not discoverd as in ‘no one else knows about them’ but ‘Bev never read them’) some amazing authors who happened to be considered by the publishing world ‘sci-fi’ authors (Charles de Lint and William Gibson come to mind). Not all sci-fi is created equal.

All of that is by way of saying – after several heavy books, I picked up Thendara House by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Somehow, in my 30 years of sci-fi, I’d never read any of the Darkover series before a few months ago.  I recently moved and needed something to read, so Shane – a fellow sci-fi fan – loaned me Heritage of Hastur, Sharra’s Exile, Hawkmistress! & Stormqueen!, all of which I finished in less than two weeks.  For those of you have not read of Darkover, it is a planet colonized by a Terran ship that crashed and was lost to the larger Terran Empire for thousands of years – so long they forgot they came from anywhere else. They were rediscovered – of course – and now they are trying to retain their feudal traditions in the face of the high-tech outside world.  Oh yeah, and some of the Darkoverans have psychic powers.   It’s not a new idea, but it is well-executed and – as is vitally important – the characters are vivid and believable.  There is much discussion of tradition vs. progress, another common theme in sci-fi.

I had picked up Thendara  House on a trip to Powell’s a few weeks ago and thought it would be the perfect quick read, and it was. In addition to the themes mentioned above, this one focused on the role of women in each society (Terran and Darkoveran) and a group of women who had renounces the traditional Darkoveran female role and formed a society of their own, the Renunciates. Being a sucker for the feminist trope, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  TH turned out to be one of a trilogy (the middle one, of course) so I went on a mission to find the others at local used book stores, Goodwill and, finally, Borders (Powell’s being too far from home to squeeze into my work-related errand-running that day).  I came home with eight novels (though six were in 3-novel omnibus editions I found at Borders, so that’s kind of cheating. I’m fine with it). I quickly read the other two books featured Magda and the Renunciates (The Shattered Chain & City of Sorcery).  I also read The Heirs of Hammerfell.

And now the urge is gone.  The problem (for me) at this stage in my reading life is that I clearly see the formula behind the story.  Most stories follow a general outline, nothing wrong with that. In fact, readers learn these outlines and come to expect them, especially with genre fiction.  But now I am a reader who wants to be challenged and surprised more than comforted by the formula.  So after my initial introduction into the world and its characters and settings, I’m bored.  I know how the story will end after 20 pages.

Having read four books in as many days, I feel the need for something with a little more meat.

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