I recently finished reading the short story collection Lythande by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In my youth, back in the days when I was still reading books in German, I read quite a bit of MZB. Not only did I read Lythande, which I greatly enjoyed, I also read the Trillium series and the beginning of the Darkover series (both of which I enjoyed greatly initially, and not so much as the series progressed).
One thing that I always stayed away from and swore only to touch with a very long stick is The Mists of Avalon. Not the book’s fault, necessarily, I just react that way if a lot of people tell me that I MUST READ THIS, IT IS SO GREAT. Strange but true. That has changed a bit in recent years, so I might just give it a try one day.
To return to the subject at hand: What all these books have in common is that I read them in German and at the tender age of maybe thirteen or fourteen, and I was interested to see how well Lythande would hold up, fifteen-odd years later.
The answer is: hard to say.
Lythande is what I would call old-school fantasy. When I told Jonas about my self-invented category he said that what I meant is pulp magazine fantasy, and I guess he is right.
I cannot find it in me to really bash Lythande, which is not an euphemistic way of saying that it is crap, it’s just … well, it’s hard to explain.
Marion Zimmer Bradley herself certainly seems to have similar difficulties with her heroine. Each of the stories comes with an introduction by the author and while she openly condemns some of her contemporaries for their strong feminist* views I can not help but think that Lythande is a bit on the feminist side herself. Sometimes. Sometimes not. Mhm. Also I was surprised to learn that the adept of the blue star started her journey as a man. Or maybe a metrosexual, only that word didn’t exist back then. The first metrosexual then. Now, being a writer myself I know that characters sometimes take on a life of their own and surprise their makers with what they like and what they dislike, but I’d like to say that none of my characters ever underwent a sex change in the process of writing. But let’s not hold this against her too much, she noticed early enough.
As for the individual stories, I find them to be of varying quality.
The first one, The Secret of the Blue Star, is solid enough, even though some of the dialogue is a bit heavy-handed. Something that I sadly associate to a certain degree with books from this period. The biggest drawback, if you can call it that, is that this is the only story to feature Lythande’s friend Myrtis. I would have loved to hear more of the relationship between these two unalike women.
Next up is the star of the show: The Incompetent Magician, which I wholeheartedly recommend, if only for its stuttering title character . Ca-ca-carrying on.
From the heights of hilarity we plunge into a valley of… how to phrase this delicately? Shoddy writing? I guess. Lythande, our heroine, a woman sworn by oath to never reveal her true sex, is tasked by a dying priestess to deliver a sword to her shrine. The catch: only women may enter the temple. Lythande’s reaction: red rage throughout most of the story. I am oversimplifying the plot immensly here, and there are some mitigating factors to be considered, but I found this to be the low point of the book. The story gets redeemed in the punchline, but I doubt that brief moment of satisfaction is worth all that pain.
Sea Wrack is another gem in this collection, for it manages, more than any other story in the book, to show us the true depth of Lythande’s loneliness and the burden of her vows. Also it has a mermaid in it.
The last of the stories by MZB is called Wandering Lute and it is both solidly written and has a very funny ending. I approve.
Which is more than can be said of the last story in the book, Looking for Satan by Vonda N. McIntyre. I’ll try to be nice. Let’s see if I manage. Yes, I see that the title is cool, which is probably exactly what Mrs. McIntyre thought when she came up with it. Unfortunately Looking for Satan is also a story about three women and one man who have sex a lot, who are too stupid to live and who walk through the book’s fantasy world with an illuminated page from the Bible, looking for their red-furred, winged friend Satan who is called that because his mum liked the picture. Yes. You have to read it to believe it. On second thought: don’t.
Summing up: I don’t know if I should recommend Lythande. It seems a bit too old-school for my taste. The dialogue tends to be stiff and the protagonist’s emotional journey gets a rather erratic treatment. But then there are the good moments, like Lythande’s encouter with the mermaid and Rastafyre the Incomparable. Maybe I should just recommend my approach to picking a book:
Go to a bookstore, a big one, one that has a lot of books (which is a good thing for bookstores to have, in general). Go to the fantasy section and look for Marion Zimmer Bradley. Now, take Lythande out of the bookshelf in front of you. Read the first page, but only the first. Do not look at the summary, not if you can avoid it, and certainly not in this case. Now, close the book and ask yourself if you liked what you read. Yes? Very nice, proceed to the checkout, go home and enjoy. No? Well, don’t worry, just rinse and repeat until you find something that is nice. It’s very bad manners to walk out of a bookstore without buying something.
* Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against women’s rights. More precisely, I am for equality between people. Feminism seems like a well-intentioned movement gone terribly haywire.