Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977)
Review by Ian Sales
Between 1977 and her death in 1998, Jo Clayton wrote thirty-five novels, all of which were organised into fantasy or science fiction trilogies or series. Diadem from the Stars was Clayton’s first novel, and the first book in a nine-book series featuring the same protagonist and universe. It is perhaps best described as “science fantasy”, a term I usually dislike. While clearly set within a space opera framework, Diadem from the Stars takes place entirely on a low-tech planet colonised three thousand years previously by assorted racial groups. The plot is a quest, as the protagonist attempts to find the one spaceship that will allow her to leave.
The planet is called Jaydugar, and it is notable for having two suns, one red and one blue. When both are in the sky, the heat is more than humans can bear. Aleytys is a young woman who lives among the people of the valley of the river Raqsidan. Her mother was an offworlder who crashed on Jaydugar and was taken as a wife by the valley people’s leader, the Azdar. She then left shortly after Aleytys was born. Now, years later, Aleytys is loved by some, tolerated by others, and hated by a few. When a fireball – actually a starship crashing – triggers a crisis in the Raqsidan people, Aleytys is forced to flee for her life. She is helped by her boyfriend, who provides mounts, food, and her mother’s logbook – which explains Aleytys’s heritage and how she can escape Jaydugar and find her mother. This involves a long trek across the planet.
So this is what Aleytys does.
Given the nature of the genre, this trek is not going to be uneventful. Aleytys is chased by one of the Azdar’s hunters but eventually manages to elude him. She is captured by a nomad with mental powers greater than her own, and forced to becomes his sex slave. She later escapes, and is taken in by another race of nomads, and subsequently precipitates a crisis among them and so has to flee…
Aleytys is no damsel in distress. Her mother is a Vryhh, which is some sort of super-race:
Memory, faster than ordinary reflexes; a thirst amounting to an obsession for knowing; an instinct for constructs, machines of all kinds; a translating ability … strength of body beyond the ordinary … and endurance. (p 53)
And a greatly extended lifetime too. Also, by virtue of her Raqsidan blood, Aleytys has mental powers – weak and uncontrolled initially, but they grow stronger as the story progresses.
And then there’s the diadem. Diadem from the Stars opens with a prologue in which a thief steals the eponymous jewellery. It is his ship which is the fireball which kickstarts Aleytys’ narrative. Later the diadem is given to Aleytys and bonds with her, strengthening her powers and, on occasion, taking her body over to perform some act of violent revenge and/or defence.
To be honest, it’s all a bit Mary Sue-ish, with Aleytys as some sort of super-special young woman – not only an outcast among those she grew up with and forced to find her destiny among the stars; but also possessing superpowers and a magical tiara (and she’s beautiful too, of course). But, as is often the case in genre fiction, such gifts cannot go undeserved: Aleytys must suffer in order to be shown worthy of the reader’s sympathy in spite of her specialness. There is no good reason why Aleytys should spend weeks raped nightly as a sex slave. There are likely similarly dramatic ways she could have travelled the same distance across Jaydugar. Indeed, earlier she camps out in a hunter’s cabin, makes friend with a giant wildcat, heals its family, and then offers her body to the hunter when he turns up. There’s a disturbing undercurrent of sexual violence underlying Aleystys’ story, and while it may have been intended to read as “sacrifice” it comes across as the opposite.
Elsewhere, the worldbuilding is generally good, though the narrative is larded with smeerps and the like. Clayton apparently was incapable of using a word where a made-up one would do the trick. The Raqsidan are apparently descended “from the Parshta-Firush”, which could be a corruption of Pushtu or Farsi. Certainly the section of Diadem from the Stars set among these people is peppered with terms which are vaguely Arabic, though not always used correctly. There is a reference to the “finjan Topaz” as a place, though finjan means “cup”. A mention of a majlis implies that it is a place of religious ceremonies, whereas it actually means a meeting room or “place of sitting”. Both terms, however, are used in Farsi, with the same meanings, and it may be that the other less familiar terms are derived from that language.
Later, when Aleytys joins the final group of nomads, the language spoken appears to be one of the Native American tongues. And though Aleytys’ abilities allow her to speak it fluently, the dialogue occasionally breaks into the nomads’ language. The various tongues are definitely over-used. Also, the prose throughout is somewhat over-wrought, and Aleytys is a protagonist who feels everything strongly. Though only a short novel – of 235 pages – Diadem from the Stars is an intense read.
Diadem from the Stars was followed by Lamarchos a year later, and then Irsud, Maeve, Star Hunters, The Nowhere Hunt, Ghosthunt, The Snares of Ibex and finally Quester’s Endgame in 1986. Clayton also wrote three other spin-off trilogies set in the same universe.