Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc

bluesongBluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983)
Review by Ian Sales

This is the second book in Van Scyoc’s Daughter of the Sunstone’s trilogy. It takes place on the same world as the previous book, Darkchild, a planet called Brakrath, and even references the people and plot of that novel. It also further develops the trilogy’s overall story-arc.

Keva lives among the fish-people but she is becoming increasingly convinced she is not of the fisher-people. She does not resemble them, and she has dreams that are plainly of places she has never visited. Eventually her mother confesses that a man rode through her village and left Keva, who was ill, to recover. But Keva’s mother left that village and moved to another, so she would never have to give up Keva. Who is now determined to find her father. So she runs away.

Keva is, of course, a barohna’s daughter, the child of one of the women who use the power of the sunstone to keep the valleys they each rule warm and hospitable. More than that, her father is a Rauth-image, a clone of a long-lost explorer, which are used by a space-based civilisation as covert recording devices, which gather information later sold to organisations who plan to exploit the worlds on which they’re used. This plan didn’t work in Brakrath, however, when barohna’s daughter Khira broke the programming of one Rauth-image – as recounted in Darkchild.

Keva finds herself in Brahrath’s desert region, where her father, Jhaviir, a Rauth-image (now adult), has left his barohna partner and is attempting to unite the warring clans of the region. He has created a settlement and issued an open invitation to any member of the clans. But a settled way of life, despite the advantages Jhavirr brings, is anathema to the nomadic warring clans, and Jhaviir’s people are continually raided. When Keva arrives, and begins manifesting her barohna powers, she uses them to assist her father and destroy the attacking clans.

It’s tempting to think Van Scyoc was riffing off Frank Herbert’s Dune with the setting of Bluesong, but The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – likely also an inspiration for Herbert – seems a closer match. The desert clans are fierce and fixed in their ways. And even though some of them unite to attack Jhaviir’s settlement, and are roundly defeated by Keva and her powers, the alliance is only intended to last as long as the battle. It does tend to make the desert clans somewhat of a caricature – which is not helped by the behaviour of those on Keva’s side – which is hardly a failing unique to Van Scyoc, and does at least give the setting a heightened “colour”.

For example, Keva is accompanied by a young man for much of her time in the desert, and he is a typical product of his society – an arrogant braggart, ignorant of everything but his culture, disparaging of other clans while begrudgingly acknowledging their martial prowess… But his heart is in the right place, and he soon comes to see the error of his ways. The fact Keva proves so powerful no doubt helps…

While searching for her father, Keva encountered Danior, the son of a barohna and a Rauth-image, and he accompanied her on her quest, even into the desert. Danior has been pl;agued by dreams of a swathe of silk that sang in an unknown tongue, on a world that is not Brakrath. It’s an artefact of his origin as the son of a Rauth-image, something one of them has witnessed, and Danior thinks it is a clue to the location of the lost explorer Rauth. It also provides the title of the novel.

This trilogy after two books is shaping up to be solid heartland science fiction. Van Scyoc was always good at depicting alien societies convincingly, and especially good at providing a rationale for why they were the way they are. Working over three books instead of just a standalone novel, however, she chosen not to deepen her exploration of Brakrath, although Bluesong does introduce the desert clans, but use the additional length to bracket her three stories with a single story-arc, related to the mystery of Rauth.

Second books in trilogies are generally acknowledged to be the least satisfactory of the three. When stories are stretched across three novels, the second novel generally sees the author getting everything into place for the resolution in the final book. Van Scyoc has neatly avoided this trap with her Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, because it’s not really a trilogy. It’s three standalone novels, which share a setting and some characters, but also include some hints and clues to a background plot which develops over the three books. It’s an effective technique. The individual books work well enough on their own, although the trilogy story arc does add value.

Van Scyoc’s career may have characterised her as mid-list, but she always struck me as better than her mid-list contemporaries. She was neither prolific enough, nor successful with awards, and so seems mostly forgotten these days. Which is a shame. As is always the case, lesser writers prospered. Her books can still be found, although she has had nothing new published since the early 1990s. But they’re definitely worth reading.

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Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc

darkchildDarkchild, 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).