Darkover reread: The Bloody Sun

ETA: This is a reread of the original, 1964 edition of The Bloody Sun, which is the one I read first, not knowing a later edition was already available. I’m also planning to reread the 70s rewrite when I come to it in the chronology. Realized last night I forgot to clarify!

This isn’t the first Darkover book I ever read. It’s the second.

The first was Darkover Landfall, handed to me by a friend who’d been trying to get me to read Darkover for ages. When she asked what I thought of it afterwards, I must have told her the truth, because she shoved the Bloody Sun at me and said something like, “Really I should have given you this one first! It’s better! I only gave you the other one because it takes place first!” (Chronologically–Darkover Landfall was actually written later.)

So I gave Darkover one more try, and if The Bloody Sun wasn’t my first Darkover book, it was the book that hooked me on the series. From its second person prologue (“This is the way it was. You were an orphan of space. For all you knew, you might have been born on one of the Big Ships …”) I was thoroughly pulled into this world.

I continued to be pulled in every time I reread the book, and I was pulled in this time, too. I was struck as I read on past the prologue by how real Darkover feels in this book. Bradley gives a level of sensory detail that wasn’t in The Planet Savers or The Sword of Aldones, and she integrates those details into the narrative more smoothly, too. I can feel, hear, and smell Darkover in this book. I’m there.

I can also see why this was the sort of story that teen me loved. Jeff Kerwin, a loner born on Darkover (not on one of the big ships after all) but shipped off to Terra when he was 12, finds his way back to his birth planet, discovers his roots and his family, and finds a place where for the first time in his life he truly belongs, all with an appropriate amount of danger and angst along the way. It’s a classic sort of story, and there are reasons for that.

(PG-13 content about sex and its politics on Darkover ahead)

Aside from a slightly dated tone, this book would probably read just fine to adult me, if not for the ongoing issue of the book’s attitude toward its female characters.

Reading 60s MZB is actually way better in this regard than reading Heinlein of the same era–where the last Heinlein I attempted made me rant and rage and throw the book across the room, MZB handles things just enough better that I can step back and engage with and think about the problems in a more measured way. It’s also fascinating, reading these early books, to remember that Darkover fandom ultimately wound up being largely female, and to think about how it might have gotten there.

In the intro chapters of the Bloody Sun, we hear about the women on the other worlds Jeff has visited as a member of the Terran spaceforce, but only in relation to the men around them. Specifically, these women are described as either off-limits to men (“albino women … cloistered behind high walls” on Kerwin’s first world) or accessible to them (“a world where men carried knives and the women wore bells in their ears, chiming a wicked allure … plenty of fights, and plenty of women” on his second world). For Jeff Kerwin, as for Lew Alton, women exist entirely in relation to men, and fall into these two bins: Available. Off-limits. There’s nothing else.

When Jeff finally reaches Darkover, he goes drinking with a fellow spaceman, who goes on and on about all the women he’s had (available women), while Jeff chastises a Darkovan woman for throwing herself at him (an available woman who he thinks should have more pride and be an off-limits one), and … and around that point I stopped reading and went off to immerse myself in some girl friendly YA because after three books of only-men-are-real 60s Darkover I needed a break. :-)

I eventually returned to The Bloody Sun, where Jeff eventually makes his way to a tower of telepaths working for the good of Darkover, finds his people and his place and his latent telepathic abilities, and joins a telepathic circle where there are only two women, and one of whom is available (Taniquiel) and one is very strongly off-limits (Elorie).

Taniquiel almost won me over when she took Jeff–who freaks out when he sees her with another man after they’d already been intimate–to task for wanting her exclusively. How dare he see her as property to be owned? she demanded. What kind of barbarian world did he come from, that he would see her as a thing to be owned? It seemed a downright progressive statement, that it should be up to her, not Jeff, who she’s with.

But only a few sentences later, Kennard, the older Darkovan who is in many ways Jeff’s mentor (as well as Lew Alton’s father, though Lew isn’t in this book), says, basically, that of course Taniquiel is going to be with men other than Jeff, because as an empath she can feel every man’s needs, and being a woman of course she feels compelled to meet those needs, because … well, because I guess women just have the compulsion to make men happy in their DNA, or something.

I facepalmed pretty hard there, though I didn’t actually throw the book anywhere.

Of course eventually Jeff leaves available Tanquiel and falls for the forbidden Elorie (just as Lew fell for the forbidden Callina), only in this book, it’s creepier, because Elorie is described as childlife pretty much up until the moment she throws herself at Jeff and leaves the tower with him. I still remember, when I first read this book years ago, thinking Elorie was 12 or maybe 15, and so being really disconcerted when she wound up with Jeff. Knowing this isn’t strictly true helped, but only a little.

As in earlier books, in this one Darkovans still believe that women, unlike men, can’t safely do high-level telepathic work if they’re sexually active, even if they hold off before doing energy-draining things, so Elorie’s throwing herself at Jeff means swearing off her entire life’s work at a time when the tower needs her. This is a big deal, big enough a deal that it turns out Jeff’s mother was murdered for doing the same thing. Big enough a deal that, since the fate of Darkover at this particular juncture depends on Elorie’s work in the tower, I wondered just why she did it. Jeff just didn’t seem worth it, much as I was in sympathy with him in many other ways.

Elorie and Jeff both declare, by way of explanation, that avoiding sexual relations is just too high a price for any woman to pay. I actually found this a problematic: because cloistering adult women and denying them sexual relations is deeply problematic, especially if their level of consent and understanding is unclear; but the conviction that no adult woman can possibly be happy and have a full life–or even a tolerable one–without sex feels just as problematic.

In the end, of course, Jeff and Elorie prove that cloistering powerful female telepaths isn’t necessary anyway, and Darkover is saved (for a time–the narrative reminds us repeatedly change is still coming), and everyone lives happily ever after.

Mostly, that was enough–I did enjoy this book. But alongside the main narrative, there’s a thread (that I’m not sure is subtle enough to be subtext) about women not only wanting but by their very nature needing to meet men’s desires that’s deeply creepy, all the more so because the book is significantly better written than the two before it.

Janni Lee Simner

About Janni Lee Simner

Author of the post-apocalyptic Bones of Faerie trilogy (Bones of Faerie, Faerie Winter, and Faerie After), as well as of the Icelandic saga-based fantasy Thief Eyes and of Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer. Find out more about me here.
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