Reviews in Brief — Darkness Calls, The King of Ys, Sage of the Renunciates

Yo, Darkness Calls is amazing. Liu pushes forward her tale of the apocalypse. Along the way, Maxine Hunter (she of the demonic tattoos and GREAT DESTINY) explores her heritage as the last of a line of woman warriors, and travels through time, meeting her grandmother and her mother. Men remain gentle in this series, a nice change from the heteronormativity so constant in other paranormal romances, and Maxine never verges into the batshit pissiness of the Anita Blake series. If you like REAL strong female characters — ones able to actually befriend other women — then you’ll enjoy this sequel. Unfortunately, because it IS a sequel, it falls prey to Two Towers syndrome — at times I felt like Liu was moving the pieces into position for her next book, as opposed to luxuriously exploring this fabulously complicated, byzantine world.

The King of Ys just irritated the living shit out of me. Basically, it’s about the end of Rome’s golden age, the rise of Christianity in Brittany, and the fall of the old gods. Grattillionus is a centurian sent to be the boss of Ys so that Armorica (which will eventually be France) can be secured. Grattillionus becomes the king of Ys by killing the old king in the sacred wood and weds its nine queens, all of whom are high priestesses of Belisama, a triple threat female goddess combining the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The queens are all interrelated; each of their daughters is a vestal of Belisama and it’s from this pool of vestals that the next queen is selected. There are always nine queens; when one dies, the sign of the goddess appears on her replacement. Grattillionus is a devotee of Mithras (which is cool, because he’s a pagan in a world of pagans getting persecuted by the Church, but is the boss of these other pagans whose beliefs are nothing like his) which means that he’s totally weirded out by the potential that if he rules long enough he might marry his own daughter. This totally happens, Grattillionus refuses, the gods get pissed, Ys is destroyed, and everyone turns into a Christian, except the daughter in question, who becomes a bitchin’ version of The Little Mermaid, until they do an exorcism and she dies. None of this is really spoileriffic, because in the tradition of great tragedies, these events are broadcast like a billion pages in advance of their actual occurrence. My major problems with the text are that queer Queens (Innilis and Vindilis) are “broken,” which is why they’re lesbian/bisexual; Rufinus, who’s actually one of the only consistantly likeable characters, is gay and dies a tragic gay death; and every woman character who is coded as feminist or independent turns out to be a petty, bitter shrew. It’s hard not to equate that last with the passing of the bad old matriarchal gods and goddesses, especially when the major female characters left alive at the end of the book include Nemeta, the rape survivor/ witch whose turn to Christianity means she can trust men again, and Verania, the sweet young Christian mother who symbolizes innocence and loyalty and is able to bear her husband Grattillionus sons, something forbidden to the queens of Ys. This book was too long to end on so trite a note.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was a talent and a mentor who is sorely missed. I picked up The Saga of the Renunciates in a fit of nostalgia and must say that this omnibus containing The Shattered Chain, Thendara House, and City of Sorcery has aged quite well. Basically, it follows the life and loves of Magdalen Lorne, a Terran woman who grew up on Darkover, a conservative backwater planet that had lost contact with the Terran empire for generations. Her family is one of the first set of re-colonizers back on the scene, so her childhood is a weird amalgam of anti-Darkoven sentiment, Darkoven influences, and colonizer fetishizations. She struggles to reconcile her Darkoven childhood and her Terran adulthood, and eventually chooses to become a Renunciate, a woman who explicitly rejects the codes, conditions, and privileges of patriarchal culture. She is initiated into this life by Jaelle n’ha Mellora, a Renunciate who was, in her past life, the daughter of a Darkoven noblewoman abandoned by her kin to suffer the chains of a rapist and kidnapper. Together, they fit crime. Together, these lovers (because they’re BI and POLYAMOROUS and have loving, important, long term relationships with both men and women!!) take on the Comyns, Darkover’s telepathic nobility, as well as the Terran government. This return to Darkover was very fun. Don’t be intimidated by this title coming midway through MZB’s Darkover series. While Saga definitely closes out on some plot bunnies from earlier books, it works fairly well as a stand-alone sequence, and is a rewarding read. I especially liked how when Magdalen and Jaelle switch places (Magdalen to finish her training as a Darkoven Renunciate and Jaelle to marry a Terran), both women’s thoughts and personal evolution highlight the ways in which experiences of sexism vary based on cultural location, AND the ways in which colonizers/First Worlders displace discussions of misogyny onto the Other without checking their own cultural politics. I totally did not notice that the first time around, and am so glad I saw it now, particularly the whole series of reflections Jaelle has about marrying a Terran (who doesn’t own he’s the product of a racist, sexist, imperialist culture) and feeling compelled to give up pieces of herself. It’s like MZB wrote my psychic turbulence before I was born. She also uses the character of Camilla n’ha Kyria (who’s a rape survivor who earlier in the Darkover series chooses to become a neuter) to explore transphobia and transgender politics. While I don’t like that  Camila hated being a woman because of her rape so much so that she neuters herself and lives as a man for several years, I did like that both Camila and several other Renunciates defend her right to (re)claim herself as a woman regardless of her physical body. Plus, her rape and the reactions of her family and friends is something that she still wrestles with in a realistic, “I’m an adult and being grown doesn’t mean you stop changing as a person” kinda way. This stands in marked contrast to Nemeta in The King of Ys, since once she became a Christian and got married, her angst was pretty much done. At the same time, I wonder if Camila returning to her “real” gender is an essentializing argument about the immutability of sex/gender/bodies. I know I read the earlier books, and the ones after this, but have no memory of how that’s handled or how it comes up. I’m tempted to start from the beginning and read the whole series again, but I really need to graduate…


  1. Anemone says

    Nemeta, the rape survivor/ witch whose turn to Christianity means she can trust men again

    Oh, is that what my problem is? :p

    I loved The Shattered Chain and Thendara House when I first read them, many long years ago. They really opened up a lot of story possibilities for me. (And then someone telling me she though they were sexist and man-hating, because they gave women a voice.)

    I don’t remember Camilla living as a man (perhaps I missed it), just refusing to live as a woman. I mean, I don’t think she took hormones to make herself more masculine. It’s just that she was neuter, like chieri outside mating, which would sort of fit with her heritage. Or more like a classic rape victim not wanting to be female anymore, but not really able to be anything else, so being in limbo. But I guess everyone’s going to have a different take on that one. And I should reread those books someday. I probably remember some of that wrong.

  2. says

    Hi Anemone —

    I was hoping you’d read them! I was thinking the description of laran in the earlier books related to your earlier points about talking about empathy, women, and telepathy.

    Anyways, re: Camilla. She works as a mercenary and lives as a man during that time, but that’s earlier than Thendara House is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *