Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Ages of Chaos (Daw, 2002)
Marion Zimmer Bradley, Heritage and Exile (Daw, 2002)

In my other life, I'm a copy editor.

That, dear readers, means my days are filled with constant little annoyances: a sign in the window that says "Worker's needed" drives me crazy. A billboard that declares "Its the biggest sale ever" sets my teeth on edge. And an advertisement that says "Your are number one customer" just drives me over the precipice, forcing me to jump up and down slashing a red pen about whilst screaming "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!"

Now that I have that off my chest, let me explain how it applies to Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Ages of Chaos. The book, an anthology containing two Darkover Novels, Stormqueen! and Hawkmistress!, is rife, riddled, indeed rotten with misspellings, typos and missing words. In fact, it was so bad, I found it distracted me from the stories, and I often fought the urge to start scribbling revisions in the margins.

So let me take this time to rant for a moment more: couldn't DAW, in this 30th anniversary edition, have spent a little more time on proofreading?

And now back to the rest of your regularly scheduled review.

Typos aside, The Ages of Chaos is a dark, though engaging, collection. Set on Bradley's world of Darkover during, as the title explains, the Ages of Chaos, the two stories weave grim tales of genetic manipulation, selective breeding and, yes, inbreeding. It's a thousand years after a ship "discovers" Darkover and earth colonists take up residence there. They've forgotten their roots and live in a feudal society. Power struggles erupt everywhere, with lords and kings and noblemen vying for more territory.

To help their cause, they all seek to strengthen their descendants' laran, which are telepathic gifts that manifest themselves in a number of ways. In Stormqueen!, the gift is one of weather control. In this case, however, it's a lack of control that sets events in motion.

A child is born with the ability to summon forth lightening. Trouble is, she can't control her gift, and from a tender age Dorilys' temper-tantrums can quickly turn deadly. Her father, Lord Aldaran, seeks help from trained telepaths, sending to a tower for a "monitor" to help the child rein in her powers. (The towers are places where powerful psychic abilities can be honed and then used to do any number of things: build structures and roads, mine minerals from the earth, communicate across great distances, and create horrifying weapons.)

Politics and pride, however, get in the way. As is the practice among the Seven Domains, Lord Aldaran decides to marry his daughter off into his brother's family. Her suitor is a lecherous young man, and she is no more than a child. When her betrothed tries to ravish her, she reacts with fear and anger, and the man is struck dead with a lightening bolt. This sets in motion a series of events that lead to war.

Stormqueen! is no way a happy book, and leaves the reader feeling uneasy almost from the first chapter. Its moral lessons are many, but the paths taken to arrive at the answers twist and turn more than a mountain trail.

Hawkmistress! is also an uneasy read, but the picture it paints is not quite as dark. Romilly, a young teen, prefers the company of animals to that of people. She finds the hours she's required to spend preparing to be a good wife unbearable, and would much rather be hawking in the field than knitting in the classroom. But her harsh father -- and unyielding tradition -- won't allow her to do the things she loves. She has a powerful form of the MacAran gift; a type of laran that gives her empathy with animals. She knows she can be an excellent hawk and horse trainer, but her father won't have it. He instead tries to beat the knowledge into his middle son. The final straw is her arranged marriage to a lascivious older man. Desperate, she runs away, disguised as a boy. On the way she learns a thing or two about freedom, choice and responsibility.

In many ways, Hawkmistress! is the classic coming of age story. The twist is that it's about a girl who, while pretending to be a boy, becomes a woman. Romilly must quickly grow up, and she loses her innocence on the way. She finds herself in the middle of a seemingly senseless war that pits son against father, cousin against cousin. By the time the story ends, she's discovered herself and has a good idea of her place in the world.

While it's a very different story than Stormqueen!, that's not to say Hawkmistress! doesn't have its share of tragedy: lives are lost and others scarred forever. But it has a much more hopeful tone than Stormqueen!, perhaps symbolizing light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that was the Ages of Chaos.

Together, these two books make an entertaining (albeit, at 763 pages, a sometimes long-winded) read. They're rather heavy in subject matter, though. Bradley weighs in with plenty of points to ponder, and there are lessons to be learned about vanity, morality, politics and even sexuality.

Heritage and Exile is a vastly different read. Set in The Second Age, long after The Ages of Chaos, it is a period of rediscovery for the people of Darkover. It's been some time since they've been "found" by the Terran (or Earth) system. Many are reluctant to admit they're actually descended from Earth. But the two systems are inexorably linked, and the Terrans have established spaceports on Darkover, making their ties hard to ignore. Some of the younger Darkovans are curious about Terran science and technology, but the older generation wants to remain aloof and "untainted." Legends say the Darkovans are descended from gods, and few want to rewrite history.

In the first book, The Heritage of Hastur, Regis Hastur, heir to the Comyn regency, is thrust into the middle of all this. A young man, he must train to someday take his grandfather's place, something he wants no part of. What he wants, though, is irrelevant; he has a duty to fulfill. Though he dreams of getting on a Terran starship and exploring other worlds, his birthright guarantees his feet will remain forever grounded on Darkover.

Regis takes his place in the Guard, a coming-of-age tradition for all Darkovans of noble blood. He struggles to overcome prejudice -- he is, after all, a Hastur, and the other cadets think he uses his position to get easier postings -- and he struggles with the fact that he seemingly has no laran.

Meanwhile, a close childhood friend has quite a different struggle ahead: Lew Alton is the nedestro, or bastard, son of a Comyn Lord, and he must fight every day for his birthright. Though he has been legally declared his father's heir, there are many who would deny him this position.

Lew himself isn't sure what he wants. He sees his himself as a puppet to his father, who has worked all his life to ensure Lew becomes a lord. When Lew is given a diplomatic mission to the domain of Aldaran, which years ago was ousted from the Comyn council, he finds another side of Darkover that he didn't know existed.

He is drawn into what he sees as a peaceful rebellion; a way of getting his world noticed by the Terrans not as a backward planet, but as a force to be reckoned with. He falls in with a group that seeks to use a powerful matrix (which amplifies laran) from the Ages of Chaos to display their strength. He soon realizes that this matrix can be used only as a weapon, and that it seems to have a thirst for destruction. His warnings, though, go unheeded, and he is thrust onto a path that will never allow him to turn back. The terror the group unleashes horrifies the entire planet.

Bradley spins a fiery tale of political intrigue and personal growth/tragedy that is captivating from the first page. She juggles a number of complex issues, including homosexuality (a strong theme in the first and second books), difficult parental relationships, and loyalty. To go into much detail about any of these would be to spoil the story; suffice it to say it's a masterful work.

The second book, Sharra's Exile, deals with the results of Lew's actions in The Heritage of Hastur. Lew is horribly disfigured, and is healing from physical and emotional wounds that run to his core. He has taken the Sharra matrix offworld to protect Darkover against its misuse. Although homesick, he doesn't want to return, preferring instead to wallow in his misery.

He meets a woman, though, who guides him through his pain and helps him to love again. Just as it seems his world will be whole, tragedy strikes again, followed by a new problem: he must face a trip back to Darkover to lay claim to his heritage. In classic Darkover fashion, nothing is cut-and-dried. Friends may be foes, love is never easy and tradition seems more important than truth. Lew is thrust into the middle of a storm of events when he arrives.

Council is set to re-admit the Aldaran domain, even though it was at the heart of the fiery destruction unleashed years earlier. Politics, it seems, mean more than history. Lew must fight against not only this, but against those who challenge the legitimacy of his own domain, which council is set to revoke because of his -- and his father's -- self-imposed exile.

A wiser Regis plays an important role in this book, which takes place a few years after Heritage. His gift of laran has grown, and he will soon learn that it has far more potential than anyone guessed. He becomes an integral key in the inevitable showdown against those who would again use the Sharra matrix for their own gain.

Exile wraps up neatly most of the events in Heritage, and is another fine read. The Darkover series deserves a spot in any self-respecting fantasy collection.

Perhaps most rewarding for me, though, (and I'm being only partly facetious here) is the fact that the proofreaders at DAW ensured this second collection was largely free of the errors that plagued the Ages compilation.

My therapist thanks them.

[Patrick O'Donnell]

Patrick O'Donnell has also reviewed The Fall of Neskaya, by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross, for GMR.

For more about the late Marion Zimmer Bradley and her Darkover series, visit this Web site.