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Sorcerers of Majipoor
Robert Silverberg
HarperPrism Books, 611 pages

Art: Jim Burns
Sorcerers of Majipoor
Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg was born in New York City in 1935. In 1949 he started a science fiction fanzine called Spaceship and made his first professional sale to Science Fiction Adventures, a non-fiction piece called "Fanmag," in the December 1953 issue. His first professional fiction publication was "Gorgon Planet," in the February 1954 issue of the British magazine Nebula Science Fiction. His first novel, Revolt on Alpha C, was published in 1955.

In 1956 he graduated from Columbia University, with a major in Comparative Literature, and married Barbara Brown. After many sales, he earned a Hugo Award for his promise (the youngest person ever to do so). In the summer of 1955, he had moved into an apartment in New York where Randall Garrett, an established science fiction writer, lived next door; Harlan Ellison, another promising young novice, also lived in the building. Garrett introduced Silverberg to many of the prominent editors of the day, and the two collaborated on many projects, often using the name Robert Randall. He divorced his first wife in 1986 and married writer Karen Haber the following year. He now lives in the San Francisco area.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame
SF Site Review: The Alien Years
SF Site Review: Legends: Stories by the Masters of Modern Fantasy
SF Site Review: The Avram Davidson Treasury
Robert Silverberg Tribute Site
Interview with Robert Silverberg

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Of Robert Silverberg's recent works, the Valentine novels (Lord Valentine's Castle and Valentine Pontifex) have been my favourites. Perhaps for that reason, I was a bit reluctant to pick up Sorcerers of Majipoor, a prequel set a thousand years before the events of Lord Valentine's Castle, for fear that it wouldn't measure up to its predecessors. I needn't have worried. Sorcerers ranks with Silverberg's best -- a sweeping, fascinating, masterfully realized book, and one of most impressive I read last year.

After a long reign, Pontifex Prankipin lies dying. His successor will be the Coronal Lord Confalume. Because tradition dictates that accession can't be hereditary, Confalume's dashing son Korsibar is barred from succeeding him. Instead, it's expected that the new Coronal will be Prince Prestimion, a young man far more intelligent and capable than Korsibar, but no match for him either by lineage or in charisma.

Korsibar is content with this; he enjoys his life of sport and luxury, and has no ambition to rule. But, others around him feel differently, especially his beautiful sister Thismet. In a dream, Thismet has glimpsed her brother crowned, and herself beside him on a twin throne. She sees no reason why the dream should not become true. It isn't law, after all, but only custom that bars the son of a Coronal from succeeding to his father's place -- and if Korsibar were to seize the crown, might he not then be willing to declare her co-Coronal?

Thismet and her allies easily convince the malleable Korsibar to adopt their view of his destiny. When he claims the crown, Prestimion is too shocked to challenge him. Instead, the prince and his group of faithful friends go into voluntary exile at Prestimion's ancestral home. There, Prestimion considers his options, assesses his support, and ultimately decides to wage war on Korsibar -- not just to take back the place that is rightfully his, but in fairness to Majipoor, which deserves a better ruler. Thus begins a savage and terrible conflict that spans the whole vast planet, and threatens to destroy not only life, but the very foundation of belief and tradition on which Majipoori civilization rests.

Like the Valentine books, Sorcerers of Majipoor stands somewhere between science fiction and fantasy. Majipoor is not an alternate world or dimension, but a planet, colonized by humans in the distant past and retaining vestiges of that original technology. Yet the shape of the story is very much high fantasy, and Majipoor is home not just to science, but to magic (a distinction that Silverberg deftly blurs -- knowledge of technology has been mostly lost to time, so that its function is in many ways indistinguishable from magic, while some of the sorcerers use machine-like devices and refer to their practices as "science").

Sorcerers is set during a period of transition, when magic and the occult, until now confined to the lower classes, is taking a more and more central place in Majipoori culture. It's an interesting theme carried with great consistency throughout the novel, with Prestimion as its main exemplar. Beginning as a staunch skeptic, he is forced by circumstance to accept magic's reality, and at last to depend on it in ways that are, quite literally, world-changing.

This is a big book, both in length and scope, with a large cast of characters and a complicated, multi-layered story. Stylistically, it reminded me a good deal of a 19th-century novel, with its mannered prose, stately pace, big chunks of graceful exposition, and sometimes oddly stilted -- but always very effective -- dialogue. There's also a strong sense of authorial voice. Silverberg doesn't just tell this tale, but often, subtly, pulls back to comment on it. The overall effect is formal and a bit distant -- even inside the characters' heads, there's a sense of removal.

Some reviews I've read have taken exception to this, claiming that it's difficult to become involved with the story, but I think it serves the story well. Sorcerers isn't a military extravaganza, or a tale of adventure, or a magical potboiler, or any of the things fantasy novels often are. It's a morality play. Its characters and events exist less to evoke real-time happenings and individuals than to embody Silverberg's sweeping themes of ambition and greed, betrayal and honour. As such, it's not lifelike but larger than life, and the distances and oddities of its style are a deliberate device to remind us of that fact.

If all this sounds dull or dry, I should say that Sorcerers is also an excellent read. The action is involving; the conflicts gripping. The flow of the story carries a powerful, building sense of tragedy. The climax, in which the victory that brings great loss and success is also a kind of failure, is genuinely wrenching. The characters are carefully nuanced, and -- with the possible exception of Thismet, whose moral flip-flops don't entirely add up -- believable, not just as heroic players on a large stage, but as human beings. Silverberg has an unparalleled ability to create vivid images. He brings the great planet of Majipoor to vibrant and convincing life, as much a character in this drama as Prestimion, Korsibar, and the rest.

Sorcerers, which draws to a fine and self-contained ending, does not demand a sequel, but who could fail to be pleased to know that there will be two more books in the series? The next, Lord Prestimion, is due out sometime this year. I'll be looking forward to it.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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