In keeping with my new resolution to ignore the flaws in novels that I start reading and actually finish them, I have now plowed through to the very end of Tiger Burning Bright by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey. [Edit: See below for another start-to-finish read-through. Or maybe several.]
Several things would have stopped me dead along the way, if I hadn’t made up my mind to persevere. The biggest problem is that the plot is flabby. There are entire chapters where nothing happens except one of the lead characters sitting around and worrying about what’s going to happen.
Admittedly, the tension does start to build. The peaceful, prosperous city-state of Merina is being invaded by the army of Emperor Balthasar, and while Merina surrenders without a fight, that doesn’t satisfy Balthasar. His troops and his chief adviser (who turns out to be a necromancer) set out to tax and rape the citizens. The necromancer starts turning some of the able young men into zombies.
Unfortunately, the three lead characters — Queen Mother Adele, Queen Lydana, and Princess Shelyra — have no realistic plan for how to deal with the invasion. They go into hiding, and then they worry a lot. If they were fascinating multifaceted characters, this might be okay, but they’re not. They’re just stock feminist tropes. When they do actually get around to doing something or other about the invasion, they usually succeed, so there are no plot reversals. Lydana sneaks into a heavily guarded Guild house, plants an evil gem, hides behind a couch while the bad guys come in, and then sneaks out again. Momentary suspense, but no actual drama.
Also, a lot of the action takes place offstage, and is narrated to the viewpoint characters by others. This is what I call Paul Drake syndrome. In the Perry Mason mysteries, Mason’s private detective Paul Drake could be relied on to show up in Mason’s office, flip open his notebook, and tell Mason exactly what the police and the district attorney were up to. It was a tissue-thin plot device in 1940, and it was still tissue-thin in 1995, when Tiger Burning Bright was published. If you find yourself doing this while writing a novel, here’s a tip: You’ve chosen the wrong viewpoint character.
The business of the queen going into hiding is flat-out ludicrous. Queen Lydana has, evidently over the course of some years, established an alternate identity for herself as Mathild, a maker of cheap jewelry and owner of a small shop. So Lydana goes into hiding as Mathild, and Balthasar’s evil minions can’t find her. But why would a queen ever have bothered to create an alternate identity for herself as a peasant shopkeeper? The authors never bother to explain this.
Princess Shelyra, meanwhile, spends an awful lot of time creeping around in the secret passages in the palace. Once Balthasar has moved in, she’s able to spy on him. As the climax approaches, she and her soon-to-be boyfriend, Prince Leopold, are spying on the anteroom of the throne room, there being for some odd reason no spy-hole in the throne room itself. Six of Balthasar’s nasty mercenary guards are stationed in the anteroom. Shelyra and Leopold need to find out what’s going on in the throne room!
So what does Shelyra do? She whips out a blow-gun and some tranquilizer darts. She opens the door of the spy-hole wide enough to see where she’s aiming, and of course none of the guards even notices that she’s there. She then proceeds to shoot all six of them, one at a time, with tranquilizer darts. She never misses, not even once. They go all sleepy-bye.
Why would a princess ever have practiced shooting tranquilizer darts through a blow-gun? Probably for the same reason the queen established an alternate identity. Namely, the authors needed them to do that in order to keep the book from falling to pieces.
So then there’s a climactic battle between angels and demons, except we never actually see them fight. They show up, and then Shelyra kills the necromancer, and it’s all over. I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. If you’re curious, read the book.
If I learned anything from this experience, it’s that you can actually judge the quality of a book fairly after the first hundred pages. Tranquilizer darts. As Nero Wolfe used to say, “Pfui.”
[New:] My next self-imposed paperback challenge was The Sardonyx Net by Elizabeth A. Lynn. Science fiction, published 40 years ago. In normal mode I would have bailed on it after 20 pages or so, because the opening is almost pure space opera. And indeed, it hardly qualifies as visionary SF. But it turned out to be a good read.
Not because of the SF elements. They’re way old-fashioned. The planetary ecology is simplistic, the economy of the planetary colony is not remotely believable, and no laboratory on the planet has been able to figure out the chemical composition of a drug that’s being smuggled and on which the economy depends. This is why I don’t write science fiction much. It’s too easy to get the future all wrong! Also, the actions of the bad guys, when examined closely, make almost no sense.
What’s good about The Sardonyx Net is, it’s about real people. The emotional tangle that freelance starcaptain Dana Ikoro finds himself plunged into is complex, and the aristocratic brother and sister with whom he’s entangled are memorable three-dimensional characters. They run the slave trade on the planet of Chabad, and yet, as much as it may shock today’s readers, they’re not evil people. The brother is partly evil, but he genuinely loves his sister, he’s a doctor (so he helps people every day), and he struggles against his desire to cause pain.
Slavery in the interstellar future? A weird choice for a story setup, and as I said, it’s not a realistic economy. Nor is this form of slavery quite what you’re likely to think. The slaves are convicted criminals, they’re fed happy pills so that they don’t mind it much, we never see any slaves being mistreated unless they try to run off, and their term of servitorship is temporary. It’s a prison planet, basically, and the ruling elite are the wardens. Nonetheless, Dana is a slave, wrongly convicted on a bogus charge, and it’s a bitter and difficult situation for him.
The novel doesn’t even end with the freeing of the slaves. Quite the contrary. The shades of gray in the morality of this future society may make idealistic readers very uncomfortable, but the shades of gray are part of what makes Sardonyx a good novel. It’s not predictable. Unlike Bradley, Norton, and Lackey, Elizabeth Lynn didn’t take the easy way out.
Is it a great novel? No. But it’s a heck of a lot more grown-up than Tiger Burning Bright.