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Before the Compact
on 24 October 2003
I have enjoyed Marion’s Darkover series for many years, and this book is a good addition to the set.
Set during the Hundred Kingdom period, before the Compact of Varzil the Good, this nicely fills in some of the details about this heretofore only briefly sketched period. Here the Towers are under compulsion to produce laran weapons for the comyn Lords they are allied with, from clingfire to bone-dust, weapons of such great destructive potential they frighten all sane persons. Strong parallels are drawn between these weapons and our own nuclear arsenal, and the policy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) gets some critical looks.
The story line itself is centered around four individuals: Coryn, a Keeper in Training, Taniel, Queen of one of the smaller holdings, Damian, a comyn lord with visions of uniting all of Darkover under his rule, and Rumiel, Damian’s brother, a trained laranzu who is obsessed with being able to control his own tower circle. Coryn and Taniel are very well drawn, believable, and emotionally engaging. Damian and Rumiel are less so, with little real depth and apparently live just to be convenient enemies.
Though the general feeling of this book is highly reminiscent of Bradley's methods and style, there are places where Ross' own style shows, most obviously in her descriptive work, especially when describing things like halls and meals, as she has a tendency to paint these items in much greater detail than Bradley. This is not necessarily a negative, as it can provide a better 'picture' of the world of Darkover, but long-time Bradley readers may be a little surprised. But disappointing to me was the actual Hundred Kingdom world that is portrayed. From many of the other works in this series, I had the distinct impression that this period had a much higher technological level than what is shown. Indeed, the society here is still feudal, mainly middle age technology, with the only obvious difference being the willingness to use some of the most dangerous products of laran gifts, and only a short glimpse into the world of actually building and using high level matrices.
Although this work approaches an important theme with high resonance to our world of today, in the end I was left with the feeling that this was a very good adventure story in the classic mode of other Darkover books, but has little more to offer. Still, an enjoyable read, and there are still a couple more books to come in this cycle.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)