Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: Lythande by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Lythande is a collection of stories from Marion Zimmer Bradley about the sorceror of that name, the mysterious cloaked Pilgrim-Adept who kept her sex a deadly secret, and engaged in various adventures as she waited for the end of the world. While I suspect some people won't care for it, I adore 'proper' fantasy, so I loved these stories.

This is just a review of the 1986 anthology (there were several other short stories written after this book was published - read a 'full' overview of Lythande here). The first story was written for the Thieves World anthology, after which the author withdrew from the project, and the last one was written as part of the Thieves World by another author. The middle four are miscellaneous short stories that she wrote for other anthologies and projects. While these stories are in no particular chronological order, some of the later stories do follow on from events in this book. As such, I recommend starting with the anthology, if you can get your hands on it (it is very much out of print, though still available second hand). Many, but not all, of the stories are available as eBooks.

It is fairly standard swords and sorcery, though the Order of the Blue Star is quite unique, and Lythande herself is a very distinctive character. As for the 'lesbian aspect', well, it's actually pretty blatant (though ignorable in favour of the rest of the story, if you couldn't care less about it). There aren't that many lesbian books written by authors recognised in mainstream circles for their fiction, and I'm glad to say that the lesbian elements are more obvious than in her better known Darkover books.

While I read the book in my teens, the lesbian aspect didn't make much impression on me, though I remembered enjoying the actual book (enough so that I've been trying to find it again for years). I can't tell if it was because it was somehow too subtle for someone not actively looking, or because I simply didn't care. Lythande is a curiously genderless character in many ways, viewing women as weak (in her society, they are generally relegated to whoring and wiving), and so constrained by her disguise that in many ways, she has 'become' masculine, at least by her world's standards, and in her own mind. So she has transgender elements, as well. But she's also a very lonely person, and has deeply suppressed, for her own survival, her dreams and desires and memories of herself before she bore the Blue Star.

The Order of the Blue Star is an incredibly powerful order of sorcerors whose power comes from, or is controlled by, a secret that they must keep about themselves. Should anyone ever discover it (any man, in Lythande's case, though obviously not in other cases as she discovers at least one other mage's Secret), then their power is lost to them and they are no longer part of the Order. Lythande infiltrated the Order in secret, and - apart from the fact she managed to become part of the Order - would have been executed. If she is ever to lose her power, then that execution could finally be carried out. The Order is very powerful and practically immortal, hanging around doing pretty much as they wish until the final battle between Law and Chaos (they're for Law) at the end of all things. This leaves Lythande lots of time to become experienced and skilled and go on plenty of adventures.

Lythande is described as very tall, strong, slender, strong jawed, with pale or grey streaked hair. She passes readily as a man, shaving her eyebrows, among other tricks of presentation, to pass (because then there would be shaved hair as evidence, and because a man who shaves his eyebrows probably shaves his beard as well). She bears the glowing blue star on her forehead, which reacts to magic and her emotions.

The short stories in this book are organised well, charting the development of the mage from mysterious stranger, to eternal, lonely figure, to some kind of (temporary) peace and companionship. There is a fair bit of repetition, inevitably, of the hiding and reveal of her sex ('for Lythande was a woman' GASP), the circumstances of her Secret, and the backgrounds on her and her world, but it's a brief enough part of each story to be skipped over quickly. Taken alone, each story is fine, it's only when read all together that the repetitiveness stands out.

While mostly well written and interesting, they do occasionally get bogged down in wordiness, both through circuitous attempts to hide Lythande's gender and through simple over description (entire paragraphs describing one thought or action). Still, they do one of the best jobs of hiding the character's gender that I've read, and most of the time it isn't intrusive.

The Stories:

1. The Secret of the Blue Star
Here our mysterious sorceror is introduced, along with the way of their order, and they clash with another member of the order, rescuing a beautiful girl from them. Unfortunately, much as Lythande would like to, she cannot reveal herself to the girl, who has fallen passionately for her rescuer... Much angsting from Lythande about how she would love to bed the girl, but knows that she cannot risk it, with her sex not being revealed to the reader until the end.
The essential starting story, in a way, as it establishes Lythande's character and world, and depends heavily on the 'twist' of her gender (though still enjoyable once you know it!).

2. The Incompetent Magician
 Also found in Greyhaven: An Anthology of FantasyWhile this one starts out as a miscellaneous adventure, in which we see some of how she is percieved and interacts with others, it swiftly takes a turn into Lythande's past, as an early, unrequited, love is delivered into her hands.'
Hired by Rastafare the Incompetent Incomparable, a stuttering little man, who spends his time with other men's wives, Lythande sneaks into the dangerous lair of a notable mage and thief. In payment for rescuing his wand, Lythande receives a lute - a lute with the spirit of her first love trapped inside, a woman who never loved her (preferring men).

3. Somebody Else's Magic (available as an eBook)
In which Lythande involves herself in someone else's fate, breaking the primary 'rule' in her world, and thereby brings 'someone else's magic' onto her head. Lythande attempts to rescue a woman being attacked and raped by a group of men, and discovers she is part of a magically enforced women-only order. When she finds herself the bearer, yea or nay, of the woman's sword, she is forced to return it to the temple, and pray nobody recognises it as a sword only a woman might carry, complicated by one of her enemies taking a personal interest in her activities.
This one was somewhat inspired by themes and arguments of feminism, according to the introduction, of the dichotomy between the women who fight and prove themselves in the world of men, and the women who come after and form their own rules, societies and opportunities. 

4. Sea Wrack (available as an eBook)
In which we see that heartless, capable Lythande is lonely and misses company, song and love.
Lythande wanders into a fishing village, which is cursed with a mermaid sitting just offshore, singing people to death. Lythande decides to try and get rid of it, and learns she has some vulnerabilities left. A sad sort of tale, but interesting in its characters and its twists, featuring music and illusion, and insights into Lythande's past, before she became part of the Order.

5.  The Wandering Lute (available as an eBook)
The prequel to the separately published short story, The Gratitude of Kings. A light, somewhat fun story that lets us see one of her many adventures, and her need to present as a man adds a layer of difficulty. Lythande trades an enchanted lute with the feckless, womanising Prince Tashgan, so that he can return to his homeland, and finds herself forced to follow in his annual route, each stop with its own lovesick wife, daughter or spinster sighing after their minstrel's skill with his fingers, and expecting his replacement to ... well, replace him. The crowning moment of the journey is when the lute takes her right into a weredragon's lair!

6. Looking for Satan - written by Vonda N. Mcintyre
Not written by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lythande is featured in a minor but important role, dragged into the quest of four odd characters from a Northern society apparently much more enlightened (magically, sexually, socially) than Lythande's homeland. They are seeking Satan, named after 'an illustration' of ... well, Satan. No explanation for why that name would even be relevant in that world. Satan is one of their friends/lovers, a winged person kidnapped by slavers. By extraordinary luck, they discover he is in the same town and stage a rescue. 
I found this one a bit confusing, mostly because we had one apparent protagonist in a group of four travellers, but never learnt anything about her appearance, and because we never learned enough about the rest of the group to really distinguish them properly (oh, I can list the 'male, the one who has kids, the winged one, the protagonist', but that's about it). Apart from Wess, and Aerie to some extent, they never really had enough development and just complicated the story. Lythande appears and disappears, being dragged in by Wess 'magically' recognising her as a woman, and a sympathy springing up between them, and she is well written - but we don't get enough of her. 
It was also a bit irritating, the way the group apparently came from happy, perfect, fluffy land, and were constantly shocked by such things as slavery and sexism. Not that that was bad, but it just read as Four Go On A Magical Adventure In An Evil Land And Bad Things Happen But It Is Never Their Fault And Then The Day Is Saved, Yay. Lythande is very Lythande-ish, though she turns all needy and falls apart when Wess offers her the chance of love and the End To Loneliness (apparently Marion Zimmer Bradley had to ask the author to make the ending less 'happy ever after' for her, as it really didn't suit Lythande. On the plus side, we had polygamous sex between three women and two men, with no distinctions between any of them.

While some of the stories are available as Kindle eBooks, the rest can only be bought second hand on Amazon in Lythande and other anthologies. This anthology was also translated into German, as Lythande. Erzählungen

Other anthologies that the stories above appear in:

The Secret of the Blue Star

The Incompetent Magician 
Somebody Else's Magic
  • F&SF Oct ’84 
The Wandering Lute
Looking for Satan

For the list of all Lythande ebooks, see the links for this collection above and the complete list of all stories at the bottom of this post.

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