This Darkover novel is set near the end of the Ages of Chaos, in the time of the Hundred Kingdoms. Chronologically, this is one of the early novels in Darkover's history. There is less civilization and the Hundred Kingdoms are in a near perpetual state of war (someone is always fighting). Despite the back of the book suggesting that Varzil the Good is a major player in this book, the real story here is that of Bard Di Asturian and Paul Harrell.
The book opens with a fascinating scene. A criminal named Paul Harrell wakes up. The last thing he knew was that he was convicted for rape and because Terra (Earth) no longer has the death penalty, he was locked in a stasis box. He wakes up in a room and as he looks around he realizes that there is no way that he can possibly be on Terra anymore. A man enters the room and he appears to be the identical twin to Paul, so much a twin that "twin" is the wrong word. The man seems to be the same person as Paul. The prologue ends and the novel truly begins. We now start the main story seven years before Paul is somehow freed from the stasis box.
The protagonist of the story is Bard Di Asturian. Bard is the illegitimate nephew of King Ardrin of the Asturias. Rather than being raised in obscurity like most illegitimate children, Bard was raised as part of the family (the wife of Bard's father King Rafael never cared for Bard and forced him to live elsewhere). We learn early on that Bard is to be handfasted (betrothed, more than an engagement less than a marriage) to the King's daughter, Carlina. Carlina does not want to be married to anyone, and convinces her father to put off the actual marriage for a year until she turns 15. This angers Bard, because he feels that he should be able to bed his wife any time he wants and that this is all just a trick to string him along until Carlina is taken away from him. Bard has a misogynist view of women. He feels that he should be able to have his way with any woman because they truly want it and that they are always asking for "it" and that women are only pretending that they didn't want it and lie, claiming that they were forced. This is the same warped view that Paul has of women.
Time passes, and the year until the marriage is half over when Bard finally tries to force Carlina (this is after we have already seen him force another woman). He is caught by Carlina's brother Beltran and their friend Geremy Hastur. The King exiles Bard for seven years, in which he may not return to the realm on pain of death. During this time Bard becomes a leader in several different armies and grows up a bit. He still carries his hatred of women, but also an obsession for Carlina, whom he continues to view as his legal wife. When Bard's time of exile ends, he is called back by his father to help lead an army against the Asturias. Bard's father uses the laran (a magical/esp type power) to summon Bard's double (everyone has a true double somewhere). Bard's double is a man from another world named Paul Harrell.
The main thrust of the story (no pun intended) is Bard's desire to finally bed Carlina and to have his revenge on the Asturias. Paul can help with this, and we see them sort of circling each other, wondering how much they can trust each other. This is a very interesting sub-plot (and it feels more like sub-plot than main story).
It is a different kind of novel that has two such unsympathetic characters as the protagonists. We see the contrast of Paul/Bard in Varzil, a man who will later be known as "The Good". Varzil is trying to institute The Compact, an agreement where those who join will ban all long distance weapons and all laran weapons. Bard can't even comprehend this as he fights to win, not to be encumbered by rules. Then there are the female characters. As viewed by Bard, they are only there to be bedded (because they all want it anyway), and while they show Bard a better, more pure way, it takes a long time (and a powerful event) for the lesson to sink in.
While the novel started out slowly, I became very interested in what was going on. It was hard to actually have sympathy for Bard (he truly cared for his family and fought his best for what he felt was right....but he was still a rapist who didn't believe he was raping), but I wanted to read on to find out what happened next. Marion Zimmer Bradley has a lot of interesting things going on in this book if you can get past how horrible of a person Bard is.