Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1982)
Review by Ian Sales
It’s tempting to describe Sydney J Van Scyoc as a solid mid-list science fiction writer of last century, but I’m not sure how true that it is. She was published throughout the seventies and eighties, although she began publishing short fiction during the sixties. She appeared in year’s best anthologies on several occasions, but was never nominated for an award. Her last novel, Deepwater Dreams, was published in 1991. During her career, she never seemed to be much of a “name” – you had to look for her books, in other words, especially in the UK ehere she was only haphazardly published. And I often did, because I thought her fiction worth the effort of tracking down.
Darkchild is the first book of the Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which appeared between 1982 and 1984. Khira is the daughter of a barohna on the world of Brakrath. It is a cold world, and its people spend the winters in hibernation. They live in valleys, each one ruled by a barohna. And it is the barohna who makes life possible there – they can focus the sun’s energy into a sunstone, which is used to heat the valley so that crops may grow. When they reach adulthood, the daughters of barohnas go up into the mountains to kill, or be killed by, one of the fearsome beasts which live there. Killing one of the creatures triggers a physiological change in the daughters, giving them the power to control the sunstone. They then either return and take over from their mother, or found a new settlement in another valley.
Khira is spending the winter alone in the palace. Her older sister has failed her test to become a barohna, and everyone else is hibernating. One day, she finds a boy of her own age wandering the palace. She teaches him her language – he learns amazingly quickly – and befriends him. The boy is a Rauth image. A space-based civilisation called the Benderzic drop Rauth images, clones of a long-lost explorer called Rauth, on worlds to learn as much as they can… so the Benderzic can sell the data to anyone who wants to exploit the world.
Thanks to Khira’s friendship, the boy – she names him Darkchild – breaks his programming. But Khira has her own trial to complete – killing a beast on the mountain and becoming a barohna. And she doesn’t think she possess the necessary hard-heartedness to succeed.
Darkchild has two chief viewpoints – Khira and “the boy”. Some other characters have viewpoint chapters. One of these others is “the guide”, which is the personification of Darkchild’s programming, a sort of base personality which can take over should the Rauth image lose his focus on his mission. For much of Darkchild, the boy and the guide battle for control of the boy’s body and mind – and it’s a close-run thing. It is Khira’s friendship, of course, which proves the deciding factor.
The boy remains a cipher for much of the novel, and although a series of flashback nightmares fill in some of his background – not all of it, as his identity as a Rauth image is not revealed until near the end. But there is more to the boy than just being a human recorder, there is something he knows and he does not know what it means…
Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her depiction of alien societies – typically human societies on other worlds, but never based on some Earth culture with the serial numbers filed off (as far too many other science fiction writers tend to do). Perhaps the concepts which underpin the story of Darkchild are not entirely plausible – the change brought about in the palace daughters, for example; or the powers of the barohnas… But the society described by Van Scyoc which has grown around those concepts is well-handled and internally rigourous. It is a well-drawn portrait of an invented culture, and surprisingly effective despite being presented chiefly using only two characters.
Van Scyoc’s novels are also usually well-plotted. Though they have a tendency to resemble a travelogue, or anthropological guide, in their early chapters as Van Scyoc describes the world of her story, once the plot kicks into gear it moves smoothly from revelation to revelation. In Darkchild, there is first the mystery of the boy’s sudden presence in the deserted palace, then his origin, and the meaning of his origin as a Rauth image, and, finally, the puzzle surrounding the nightmares he experiences. It’s clear there is a story arc to the entire trilogy, even if the foreground plot of Darkchild is resolved by the end of the book.
Darkchild was followed by Bluesong (1983) and Starsilk (1984).