The Alton Gift
by Marion Zimmer Bradley & Deborah J. Ross
Review by Sam Lubell
DAW Hardcover Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780756400194
Date: 05 June 2007 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The Darkover books are a cult phenomenon in science fiction with their own convention and several books of short stories written by fans and edited by the books' author, known affectionately as MZB. Even Bradley's illness and subsequent death in 1999 did not stop the Darkover books as new novels were written with an uncredited Adrienne Martine-Barnes and more recently with Deborah J. Ross credited on the cover as co-writer.
Darkover exists at the border of science fiction and fantasy. Darkover, the world of the Bloody Sun is a lost Earth colony, later rediscovered by Earth; many of the books feature a person from Earth, or sometimes a person taken from Darkover while young and raised on Earth and its colonies. These people arrive on Darkover via spaceships. Yet, once on Darkover, guns and blasters are forbidden and fights are with swords or the strange mind-power called laran. The hereditary nobility of Darkover, the Comyn, consist of different families with different mindpower gifts – the Alton gift of the title being an ability to force a mental rapport. Some of the novels, especially those set in the ages of chaos read much like fantasy novels – most notably Stormqueen!, Hawkmistress and to a certain extent The Spell Sword. Others, especially those most tied to the conflict with Earth, are more clearly science fiction, most notably The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile (recently published as an omnibus Heritage And Exile) and The Shattered Chain and Thendara House (recently combined as The Saga of the Renunciates). And the quality varies widely with Bradley going back and re-writing at least two of the early books.
The Alton Gift takes place a couple of years after Traitor's Sun, which covered the death of Regis Hastur, the retreat of the Terran Federation from Darkover, and a last-minute attempt by an Earth bureaucrat to seize control of the planet. Much of the current book deals with the repercussions of that event as the planet's new rulers Mikhail and Marguerida used their special laran powers to defeat the Earthlings and then, with the help of Marguerida's father Lew, to wipe the Terran Special Forces' memory of laran. In this book Mikhail's son, Domenic, gradually grows into his role as heir and chooses between the woman he loves and the childhood friend he had pledged to marry. Meanwhile, Lew Alton, trying to cope with the guilt he feels for meddling in others' minds, joins a monastery; a political rival challenges Mikhail's role as Regent to the planet; and the last Terran stranded on Darkover discovers his own laran (a common plot device in the Darkover books). All these plots are brought together at the end when a plague hits the planet and only a combination of the leftovers of Terran technology, guided by a victim of the Altons' memory erasure, and Darkover's laran powers can save them.
There is a lot going on in this book and most of the plot threads do not intersect until late in the novel. This jumping around can be confusing as there is no single central character or plot line. Marguerida, the heroine of the last three books in the Exile's Song subseries, remains a key character but her son Domenic is more of a viewpoint character here. And the troubled conscience-stricken Lew presented here seems much more true to his character as portrayed in the early Darkover books, than more relaxed Lew of the three Exile's Song books.
A reader new to the Darkover books will find The Alton Gift confusing. While it is nice to see a novel with a major focus on the ethics and morality of defeating one's enemies (which Traitor's Sun quickly dismissed in a paragraph), it means that a reader of this novel must have read Traitor's Sun, if not the whole Exile's Song trilogy, to understand what is going on. Fortunately, The Alton Gift is much better written (Traitor's Sun is one of the weakest Darkover books with a very slow plot and endless pages of telling the characters' feelings rather than showing them). Still, a reader new to Darkover would do better to start with The Spell Sword, The Heritage of Hastur, or The Shattered Chain. Fans of Darkover will be pleased to learn that this book is the first of three books set in post-Federation Darkover and that even more, in different time periods, are being planned.