George R R Martin needs no introduction to this audience, although ‘Dying of the Light’ probably does. It is an early work, first published in 1977, and is not about swords or sorcery. Instead, the novel is straightforward SF, with a set-up that really gives a reader that good old ‘sense of wonder’.
The world Worlorn is dying now, but it once passed close enough to a star to be habitable, and fourteen fantastic cities were built there to showcase the cultures of fourteen different human-settled worlds. This Festival of the Fringe is, briefly, a great success. Now Worlorn is heading into dark and sunless space; its cities are dying, and so is the world itself.
A wonderful idea, then, bold and evocative. Still, at least as you start reading, the book seems like an apprentice work, a first book by a twenty-something who was (according to Lisa Tuttle’s Introduction) ‘dreamy and sensitive, wistful about lost chances (and) self-doubting’. So, how good is it? Well, not all of the ‘poetic’ touches quite come off. For example, the central character is named ‘Dirk t’Larien’, and a starship is – I shudder – named the Shuddering of Forgotten Enemies (sic). For the first forty percent of the novel much of the story is low energy and delivered through conversation, with a minimum of action. Then… Well, see my conclusions below, when the writer turns into the George R R Martin we know today.
What of the plot? Dirk has been deserted years ago by a girlfriend, Gwen, and when she summons him by ‘whisperjewel’ he heads off to Worlorn to help her. He finds she is bonded as almost a female slave (‘like baggage, property’) to Jaantony Riv Wolf high-Ironjade Vikary. Vikary is a killer duelist from the violent, racist, shockingly masculinized world (as we would see it, though of course its inhabitants don’t) High Kavalaan. Dirk’s former girlfriend (he thinks of her as Guinevere) has obviously made a terrible mistake in bonding this man, and, weak and in a desperate situation, she is obviously in need of rescue.
So far, so straightforward and obvious. And almost all wrong. Dirk is a well-meaning drifter, but deluded and misled by others. In a symbolic moment he tells his ex ‘You were Jenny!’ And she replies: ‘The problem was that you loved Jenny – and Jenny wasn’t me.’ And, as we learn, she isn’t.
So please bear with the book. It will reward you. The confrontation among the dueling man-killers of High Kavalaan becomes exciting and then truly shocking. And you might recall I said there were no swords in this book. That isn’t quite so. The last scene of all involves hippy-ish, drifting Dirk t’Larien voluntarily accepting High Kavalaan rules and picking up a sword – for what will probably turn out to be a duel to the death…