Review of The Laran Gambit, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Deborah J. Ross

San Francisco, CA: Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust, 2022 Available from Publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple Book, Audible, and other sources

November 23, 2022

I haven’t journeyed to Darkover and its universe for some time. I have been looking forward to a return trip ever since I placed my order for The Laran Gambit, by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah Ross. I was sure I was in for a grand adventure.

I was right.

The journey begins in a somewhat deceptive calm on Terra, with an also somewhat unlikely hero. Bryn Haslund is a child psychologist who works with traumatized children, traumas inflicted upon them by the brutal policies of the Star Alliance, the successor to the Terran Federation, and its tyrannical First Minister, Arthur Nagy. Bryn is leaving the clinic to go visit her sister, meet her activist “young man,” Leonin Vargas, and to watch her father, Senator Ernst Haslund, deliver an important speech critical of Nagy.

She steps out into the street, and looks up. “A glory of orange and violet bathed clouds was piled high like mountains. She felt as if she was gazing into a faraway country, a land of fjords and rolling plains … A planet circling a ruddy sun … The light shifted …” Bryn stands on the same city street. Another “one of those odd premonitions she’d had since her teen years”?— or, she has been working too hard. Settling for the more prosaic answer, Bryn boards a tram—and the calm of her life as a therapist ends. The gun goes off, the flag drops. Bryn’s life goes into high gear. In the next few hours, she meets Black, a creepy man, on the tram, a really creepy man, and her intuition tells her something is wrong. To get away from him, she jumps off the tram and winds up in the middle of a political protest against Nagy. The protest turns very violent, and she gets dosed with knockout gas. Bryn wakes up in what seems to be a hospital, only to meet Black again, Finally Bryn gets to her sister’s apartment. Her father’s speech is in support of Nagy. Bryn is shocked. This is impossible. Something is really wrong. Bryn and Leonin are soon on the run from the secret police, led by Black.

Bryn finds herself on double quests, one public, the other, other private and personal, yet these quests are interconnected. They will take Bryn from Terra to Alpha, “the Alliance’s center for scientific and medical research,” to Darkover, a “Lost Colony world circling a dim red star, where telepathic powers, [laran], have been developed to an extraordinary degree.” Eventually, as often happens on a quest, she will have to return to where her journey began, for a confrontation, made all the more dangerous with the uncertainty of success and the greatness of the risk involved.

The public quest forces her into the political arena she wanted to avoid. She has to engage in a confrontation between good and evil, in a struggle between freedom and oppression, between the machine and the natural. Bryn has to find and help her father; his very self is in danger of being lost. His mind has clearly been tampered with, by the insertion of a device she later learns is a theta-corticator, a mind probe that alters his thoughts so much he supports Nagy, whom he opposed. Her second quest is deeply personal and private, yet still connected to the public. Coupled with Bryn’s desperate need to help her father, and free him of this device implanted into his brain, her second quest is to know and accept who and what she is. Her premonitions, her danger-sense, are part of the psychic abilities that she didn’t know she had. Can she learn to master them? Or will they master her?

She and Leonin do find her father on Alpha, directed there with the help of Leonin’s brother and a cell of the dissident Free Worlds Movement. They trace the Senator’s broadcast to Alpha and help Bryn and Leonin get off Terra. On Alpha, where Bryn was a graduate student, she enlists the help of a former professor, Felicity Sage, and she seeks information in the university library. Felicity has knowledge of such probes as the one in the Senator’s head. In the library, Bryn learns of Darkover and its natural telepaths, who may know to neutralize the mind-control device. They manage another escape, this time, at a terrible cost. In a firefight, with Black and his secret police, Leonin dies. Bryn and Felicity’s ship is attacked in route. The shuttle down to Darkover crash-lands in ice-bound mountains, which are inhabited by such denizens as “blood-thirsty bandits to giant carnivorous birds.” She mentally calls for help before the shuttle crashed, and someone answered. What does this mean? Who answered? Bryn and her professor are rescued, yes, but more trials await them on Darkover, and so do the answers to her questions.

Readers new to “the marvelous world of Darkover,” will be, at first, like Bryn, a stranger in a strange land. But as Bryn learns how to live on Darkover, so does the reader. She learns how to control and use her laran, and, at the same time, she also learns how to negotiate a complex and ancient culture, with its own factions and politics. She begins to understand Darkover’s troubled history with Terra, a history that complicates her personal relationships with Darkovans. I felt a traveler myself, as I re-learned and remembered this compelling world, from its social order and customs to the food served in its inns.

Bryn, and the others, are appealing and compelling characters. Felicity Sage, the professor, spoke to me on a personal level. As a retired professor myself, I knew who she was. I cheered for Leonin, the firebrand revolutionary, and mourned his death. I also cheered for Desiderio (Desi), the Darkovan telepath, who is first assigned to Bryn by the Regent, only for both of them to find they are drawn to each other. He becomes a friend, a supporter, and the hint of something more—but that’s another story. In many ways, Desi and Leonin are mirrors of each other. Leonin is a wild card, a firebrand; Desi, assigned to help her, is calm, urbane, and gifted with laran.

This doubling and mirroring are inherent in the novel’s structure. The two quests mirror each other, and, as mentioned, inextricably connected. The personal is political as Bryn learns more than once. She treats traumatized children, and she is traumatized herself, by Leonin’s death, the violence done to her, the mental rape of her father, the evil of Black. The theta-corticator’s dark technology is linked to the benign therapeutic devices Bryn has used in her work. Light and dark, good and evil, are recurring, threads weaving the adventure into a whole.

Also inherent in the novel’s structure, in its story, is feminism. Yes, the protagonist is an intelligent and capable woman, but also here is a culture that demands collaboration, cooperation, and community, not power or force. Laran exemplifies these values, which has changed one world—can they change another? Can the Darkovans help Bryn? Will the natural telepathy and mental powers of the Darkovans, their laran, be a match for machines that can change an intelligent, strong man into a servile mouthpiece of a mad dictator? Will Bryn, a stranger on a strange world, master her own psychic abilities, her own laran, and can she learn how to use it in the inevitable confrontation with the agents of the dictator, the evil Black, the dictator himself? Can she do so without violating the deep cultural ethics of Darkovan laran use: it is not, and most not be, a weapon. Can one woman change everything? Will the laran gambit succeed—and save Bryn, her father, and Darkover itself?

Perhaps the ultimate question of this novel, the one that faces Bryn throughout her journeys, is one Ross asks in her introduction, “What will [Bryn] do with the time that is given her?” This time of political upheaval, violence, and the threat of war is not the life she wanted. But no one want such a life. Ross notes a conversation in The Fellowship of the Ring that gives me pause whenever I read it:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live in such times. All we have to decide is what to do with the time given us” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 2nd edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1965: 60).

For Bryn, I think, the answer to this question is to take action, both publicly and privately, for herself, and for those she loves. The public and the private are not truly separate, nor can they be. Each influences the other. The actions of one person, as Bryn comes to learn, do make a difference.

Yes, the journey of The Laran Gambit is well worth taking, and this journey is a grand adventure.

Highly recommended.

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