From the very first sentence (“We were outstripping the night”), this is a stronger book than The Planet Savers.
The Sword of Aldones is the story of Lew Alton, who’s returning to Darkover, the world of his birth, which he fled some years earlier–and there’s already tension in that. Lew is the child of two worlds, Terra and Darkover, and the friction between them–which informs most of the Darkover books–feels much more vivid here than in The Planet Savers, which is maybe part of why this book, for all its flaws, feels like a real Darkover book. And while I never cared about Jay Allison, I cared about Lew from the moment I met him, with his angsty past and the Dark Backstory he was clearly fleeing.
Although, when three chapters later I was still meeting piece after piece of that Dark Backstory, waiting for the real story to begin, I maybe cared a little less. I began to wonder why the author was telling me this particular story, instead of writing a novel about the backstory, which was clearly complex enough to be a novel of its own, and a pretty interesting one. In the backstory, Lew was part of a group of rebels who unleashed a dangerous
magical telepathic matrix, Sharra, and in so doing nearly burned the planet down around them.
Of course, the backstory story does eventually get fully told, more than a decade later, as The Heritage of Hastur. But it’s interesting to me that this story (which would later itself get rewritten as Sharra’s Exile) came first.
Anyway, in the present-day story that is The Sword of Aldones, Lew is coping with fallout from the Sharra rebellion. After a while, present-day story and backstory both began to feel muddled to me, and I wondered whether I would have been able to follow what was going on at all, if I hadn’t already read The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra’s Exile. Yet there was still enough to The Sword of Aldones that I felt a pull forward, and reading this wasn’t the chore that reading The Planet Savers was, at all.
Though oh, the melodrama. I lost track of how many times I read lines like, “To even try [thing needed to save the day] was madness! One wrong move and it would burn every nerve in my body to quivering ash!” I’m not really exaggerating here. And that was only to start: by the end of the book, we were being warned that something or other would send the planet careening out of orbit if we dared try it. Because when you start the book with the danger of burning out every nerve, you have to escalate to somewhere, right?
Anyway, in the end people die, but Lew’s nerves and the planet’s orbit both remain intact, and Lew Alton leaves Darkover again, this time for good, but with Sharra safely defeated. We’re told Darkover is Darkover no more, which is an interesting place to get to in the first book in the series, really. Starting at the end. (Except it isn’t really. Quite.)
The male characters do feel much more real in this book. Not fully realized, but on their way to being so. Lerrys Ridenow and Regis Hastur are no longer just names attached to random people as in The Planet Savers, but feel like real prototypes for the characters they’ll become. And Marius feels almost like Marius, Rafe Scott feels almost Rafe Scott, old Hastur almost feels like old Hastur, and so on. (Except Dyan Ardais mostly feels like a generic villain, though.)
The women are less fully realized. For starters, every single woman we meet or hear about is either a blood relation of Lew’s or in some sense his lover. There are no random women who have nothing to do with Lew, even though there are plenty of random men who have nothing to do with him.
The women are, mostly, either “good girls” (Marjorie, Callina) or “bad girls” (Thyra), and have limited personalities beyond that. Sex, of course, is one of the things that’s off-limits to good girls. We’re told that while sex is dangerous for men doing matrix work, it’s deadly for women. (There’s an alternately hilarious and deeply disturbing bit when it’s even explained that with men, you can see when they’re impotent, so you can tell when it’s okay for them to do matrix work; but since there’s no similarly visual way of telling when women are aroused, women who become the Keepers of the telepathic towers have to not only abstain when doing matrix work, they have to be completely cloistered so they can’t have sexual thoughts.)
So when good girl Marjorie had (backstory) sex with Lew before doing matrix work with Sharra, of course it killed her–but not him.
Meanwhile the Sharra matrix, which has a personality and will of its own, is the ultimate bad girl. In the past she was controlled only by having a man chain her-the son of Hastur, who was the son of Aldones, who was the son of Light. (And it’s Regis Hastur, wielding the Sword of Aldones, who binds her once again.) I’m trying to remember if I found this creepy on first reading. I find it creepy now.
But then … there’s Dio.
Dio is another lover of Lew’s (of course), met off-planet, who returns home the same time he does. She starts off seeming like a typical bad girl, but then she becomes more complex. For one thing, it turns out she didn’t fall for Lew on sight like he assumed, but that, while not initially loving him, she threw herself into his arms to make sure she could never, ever, become a cloistered asexual keeper. In other words, she had sex with him on her terms, to take control of her fate, and only fell in love with him later. In a sense, Dio is a critique of both the keeper system MZB has only just established, and also and the way fictional women so often fall for fictional protagonists simply because they’re in the story to do so.
Dio actually has something of a multi-faceted personality, a mix of bad girl and good girl, of someone who enjoys her own sexuality and who is at the same time quite capable of being kind and caring about others. The author hedges it a little–we’re told the bad girl wasn’t Dio’s true self, and that that aspect of her goes away forever once the real good girl comes through, but still, Dio isn’t (unlike Marjorie) punished for not always being good, either. I remember mildly disliking Dio the first time I read these books, but now I think she’s the most interesting character we’ve met so far, and a promising step toward breaking out of the cliches that bind the other female characters.
It’s a start.
The whole book is a start. It’s not ultimately all that good book. But it’s more than a seed novel. It’s a real Darkover novel, and it feels like the place where things really begin.
And later, two of the most powerful Darkover books will come out of revisiting this one, which suggests there’s some pretty powerful stuff here, too, for all the other things that get in the way.