Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Saga of the Renunciates (DAW, 2002)

The works in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series all have one thing in common: complex plots and an even more complex political system, around which the world of Cottman IV (Darkover's Terran name) revolves. The strong, proud and telepathic Hasturs control practically everything on this male-dominated planet. Women are sheltered, expected to conform to a rigid, conservative code of dress, and looked upon not as equals, but as subordinates.

But there are a few who oppose those traditions; and some who find them downright unbearable. Chief among the opposers is the Guild of Renunciates, or Free Amazons. Those who join this band of women take an oath vowing never to be subordinate to men again. They also pledge to look upon their fellow guildmembers as sisters, and to lay down their lives for them if necessary. The Saga of the Renunciates, which is actually a collection of three books published earlier by DAW — The Shattered Chain, Thendara House and City of Sorcery — is the story of this band of independent women.

Although much of Darkovan society looks down upon this organization, their rights as equals in the world are recognized, albeit grudgingly and often not without a challenge.

The trilogy starts off with a band of Free Amazons on a mission in the Dry Towns, a desert region where women are chained and, to be blunt, kept as sex slaves. The group rescues a pregnant woman and her young daughter.

The rescue sets the stage for the rest of the first book and the following two books. The rescued woman's daughter, Jaelle, watches her mother die in childbirth, and the experience is a catalyst. In a few short days, Jaelle grows from naive child to jaded young woman. She is adopted by the Guild, her eagerness to join fueled by bitterness over her mother's death and hate for the Dry Town customs.

But she must escape more than the metal chains of her former captors. Chains of tradition, of conditioning, bind her as surely as any iron fetter could. The three stories bring the age-old nature vs. nurture argument to the forefront. Can Jaelle grow beyond what she was raised to be: a woman submissive to her own notions about what it means to be a woman?

But Bradley, never content with a simple plot, throws in another twist: Magda, a Terran woman born and raised on Darkover. Magda is torn between two cultures; that of Darkover, which she considers her homeworld, and that of the Terrans, which she considers her heritage. When she goes to rescue her former husband from Darkovan bandits, she takes on the guise of an Amazon woman. When she runs into Jaelle's band of Amazons, however, her ruse fails and she is forced to join the guild or abandon her mission.

This brings yet another plot twist. Will Magda stay true to her Terran employers, or embrace her new Amazon sisters? And, like any good Bradley work, there are subplots a-plenty: cross-species love, lesbianism, war, slavery, duty to country and self. The main theme, though, remains true throughout. This is an exploration of the many sides of feminism and the difficulties inherent in embracing freedom. It's not a new theme for Bradley; her Darkovan books are filled with tales of repression and awakening social consciousness. And that's what makes them so good.

Still, the old adage "too much of a good thing" comes to mind here. I could have done with much less "story" to tackle. The collection weighs in at a whopping 1,116 pages, and it's a bit much to digest all of it at once. Bradley's works tend to ramble sometimes, and this collection remains true to form. I'd wager that some tight editing — back when they first were published of course; I'm not suggesting the works be altered now -- could have helped these stories immensely.

The Saga of the Renunciates adds another three "chapters" to the overall Darkovan saga. While they could have been shorter, less cluttered chapters, they're important ones just the same. I'd recommend these books to someone who'd like to explore the concept of feminism in the context of another world, and to anyone who's a fan of the Darkover series.

[Patrick O'Donnell]

Patrick O'Donnell has also reviewed Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Ages of Chaos, Heritage and Exile and The Fall of Neskaya. You can read the reviews here and here.

For more about the late Marion Zimmer Bradley and her Darkover series, visit the Marion Zimmer Bradley Works Trust.