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The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Published by DAW Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the patriarchal society of Darkover, where women are expected to be quiet and subserviant, the Free Amazons are a surprising exception. These women live as equals among men, taking employment in traditionally masculine endeavors and rejecting the circumscribed role of most Darkovan women.
Marion Zimmer Bradley created the Free Amazons almost by accident. When she was writing The Planet Savers, the first Darkover book to be published, she needed a personal challenge for her protagonist to face. Since the very masculine Jay had a strong misogynistic element to his character, one of the most difficult things for him to deal with would be a woman in a position of leadership. Thus the character of the Free Amazon guide was created.
Something about that character captured the imaginations of many women readers, and they were soon begging Ms. Bradley to write an entire novel dealing with the Free Amazons. For a number of years she demurred, feeling that such a novel would be popular for all the wrong reasons. However, the image of Kindra the Free Amazon leader stuck in her head, although she couldn't seem to get anywhere on a story about this woman. When the Comyn lady Rohana Aillard bubbled up from Ms. Bradley's subconscious and demanded to have her story told, the long-awaited Free Amazon novel could be written.
Domna Rohana's sister Melora was a trained leronis, one of those women of the Comyn whose psionic abilities were unusually strong and who could use them to do for Darkover what technology did for most worlds. Some years ago she had been kidnapped into slavery by Jalak of Shainsa, a bandit chieftan of the Dry Towns. In that desert land women are mere chattels, kept in chains by their men and even proud of their chains. Melora had grown resigned to her condition, but now that her daughter Jaelle is coming of age, she can bear it no longer.
Thus Rohana has hired this band of Free Amazons to liberate Melora from Jalak's clutches when her male kinsmen had failed and failed again. Because Rohana's telepathic connection with her sister is essential to the success of the mission, she has been permitted to accompany them in the guise of one of their own.
The attack on Jalak's stronghold goes well enough, and the Free Amazons liberate Melora where her kinsmen failed. But they are not home free yet. There are many miles of trackless desert to cross between Shainsa and the safety of the Domains, and Melora is heavily pregnant. She goes into labor at a tiny oasis, and the strain of her flight takes its toll. Melora dies giving birth to a son. Her daughter Jaelle's laran has awaken, and the vulnerable young woman's first telepathic contact is with her mother's dying mind. Jaelle knows what she wants to be -- a Free Amazon.
The second part of the novel takes up a number of years later and introduces Magdala Lorne, a Terran. She was raised on Darkover, in Port Chicago in the Hellers. There contact between Terran and Darkovan was casual and comfortable, utterly different from the situation here in Thendara in the lowland Domains. Magda is chafing under the restrictions Darkovan society places upon women.
Everything changes when the Lady Rohana arrives with a terrible message. After they sort things out, they realize just how serious things have become. Magda's ex-husband, Peter Haldane, is an almost perfect double of Lady Rohana's son Kyril. Peter has been captured by a notorious bandit chieftan, Rumml di Scarp, who believes him to be Kyril. If Peter is not ransomed before midwinter, he will be killed. If he is discovered to be a Terran, he will be killed out of hand.
There is no one to negotiate for Peter's freedom but Magda, and the restrictive customs of Darkover makes that unthinkable. But Lady Rohana knows a way. The Free Amazons are women who move freely among men without scandal. Lady Rohana has been permitted to go on a mission in the guise of one of their number. She knows enough of them to help Magda masquerade as a Free Amazon.
However, Lady Rohana doesn't know nearly as much about the Free Amazons as she thinks she does. When Magda encounters a group of real Free Amazons, her disguise comes apart and she is revealed for what she is. The penalty for such deception is severe -- the lie must become truth. Magda must take the Oath of the Renunciates and become one of their number.
This is one of Marion Zimmer Bradley's most powerful and searching Darkover novels. In it she explores what it means for a woman to shoulder the responsibilities that come with the rights and freedoms men take for granted. When she wrote it in 1976, many people felt that the Women's Liberation movement was nothing more than selfish women trying to have the freedoms of men while retaining the priveleges of women's protected status. In response, MZB created a fictional society in which those women who would take a man's freedom must very explicitly renounce the traditional priveleges and protections of women.
Click to buy The Shattered Chain in paperback.
Review posted October 2, 2000
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