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The Shadow Matrix
Marion Zimmer Bradley
DAW Books, 512 pages

Shadow Matrix
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Marion Zimmer Bradley has been writing for over 4 decades, but is best known for her Darkover science fantasy series and her Arthurian masterpiece, The Mists of Avalon. Her first published novels were romances, written to pay the bills and support her two children. She has also been editing anthologies for the past 14 years and publishes Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine.

SF Site review of Gravelight
Biographical information on MZB
MZB's books, including the Darkover series
An unofficial Darkover site
A very short official Darkover site
Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Lela Olszewski

I eagerly await every Darkover book, whether it is by Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB to her fans) or one of her anthologies of stories by fans and other writers. For those not familiar with Darkover, let me summarize briefly. A Terran colony ship crashes on a remote planet, and for well over a thousand years the planet is forgotten. The colonists' innate PSI powers are enhanced by their isolation and rare matings with one of the native lifeforms, the chiere. A feudal society develops based on those powers (called laran by the settlers).

In The Shadow Matrix, Margaret Alton is struggling to learn about the power of a PSI matrix etched into the palm of her hand. Not having been raised on Darkover, she sees the restrictions place on women as archaic, but also wants to fit in. And her heart belongs to Mikhail Lanart-Hastur, but neither she nor Mikhail can see a way that they will be able to marry, for it would upset the dynastic plans of the ruling Comyn Council.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part focuses on Mikhail, and the horrific events that occur when he is sent to find which of Priscilla Elhalyn's children might be fit to rule the kingdom. What he finds are a crumbling manor, an insane mother, and her terrified children. The second part begins when Mikhail returns to Thendara, the capital city. He finds himself in the middle of a political intrigue, and an attempt to marry him to a woman other than his beloved Margaret. The third part of the novel follows Mikhail and Margaret through time, as they thwart Margaret's nemisis, the powerful leroni (sorceress), Sharra.

If you're wondering what Part 1 has to do with the rest of the book, you aren't alone: the storyline isn't even mentioned on the book jacket. Although the children appear again in Parts 2 and 3, the backstory told in Part 1 isn't needed to explain their presence or their actions. This isn't to say that Part 1 isn't enjoyable: it was fun to read. It simply has little to do with the thwarted romance of Mikhail and Margaret, nor their battle with Sharra. The story in Part 1 is a gothic tale, very different in tone from the rest of the book. If you have ever read any of MZB's gothic romances, you'll recognize the elements. Bradley openly admits to occasionally "cannibalizing some unpublished stories in [her] masses of juvenilia, to write some hopefully saleable commercial novelettes." I can't help but think that Part 1 is of similar origin, added to lengthen the novel. (The quote comes from "A Darkover Retrospective" by MZB, published in the 1980 Ace edition of The Planet Savers/The Sword of Aldones.)

Part 2 begins on page 205, and this is where the story that began in Exile's Song is continued. The events and conclusion of this tale will satisfy readers on multiple levels as the plot lines are resolved, from Margaret and Mikhail's romance to Mikhail's conflict about his place in ruling Darkover. Readers will also be gratified to get a glimpse of Darkover during the early days of the Compact and to meet two legendary figures in the flesh.

This is the style of Darkover novel that has won over so many fans. The world is richly realized and the people fully human, making it hard to imagine that Darkover doesn't truly exist. Every sense is engaged as the characters move about, so the reader knows what they smell, hear, and feel against their skin, and well as what they think. And because of the telepathic abilities of the comyn, another sense is added, making Darkover exotic at the same time.

One of the things I like best about MZB's Darkover novels is the sheer humanity of the characters. It's rare to find a dislikable character in her books, for even the villains are driven by ordinary, understandable, human emotions. Unlike many science fiction novels, love is central to most of her stories. She understands the motivational power of the love of parents and children, the love between siblings, and, of course, romantic love. (Is it because MZB began by writing romances that she almost always includes a scene in which the heroine gets to shop for new clothes? Regardless of the reason, it's always fun to read about the new gown for the Midwinter or Midsummer ball.)

Bradley first conceived of Darkover when she was 15 and never intended to write a series, but her editor (Donald A. Wollheim) and her fans wanted more. Many of the novels can be read independently, but if you want to read them in order from the crash on, MZB adds a "Reader's Guide to Darkover" to all the recent books. The events in The Shadow Matrix follow the events in The Heritage of Hastur, Sharra's Exile, and Exile's Song, all of which concern the attempts of the heros and heroines to overcome the power-mad leroni, Sharra.

Copyright © 1997 by Lela Olszewski

Lela Olszewski is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, as well as an eclectic mix of other fiction and non-fiction. She is also a librarian with an interest in readers' advisory, and believes fully in Rosenberg's Law: Never apologize for your reading tastes. She has no cats.

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