Robert Silverberg first took his readers to the planet of Majipoor in 1980. Although the ambiance of the novels is fantasy, the premise is science fiction. Majipoor is a very large planet with a diameter much greater than Earth. It is a metal poor planet so that its density and thus gravity is much less than would be expected from a world of this size. It was settled by colonists from Earth many thousands of years ago. It was, then, inhabited by an indigenous sentient race disparagingly referred to as Shapeshifters due to their ability to take of the appearance of others. Later in Majipoor’s history, other sentient races were invited to share the planet. Because of the lack of heavy metals, technology is at a low, pre-industrial level. The governing system is two tiered. The Pontifex is the supreme ruler and spends his time in the Labyrinth. The public face of government is the Coronal who will become Pontifex on the death of his predecessor but will chose the next Coronal. The roles are not hereditary.
In the first of the novels, Lord Valentine’s Castle, events take place after all these elements are in place. This book, Tales of Majipoor, is a collection of seven stories written between 1998 and 2011 set mostly in the period before Lord Valentine’s Castle. They have been arranged chronologically in Majipoor’s time-line rather than the order written and compliment the novels. It is not necessary to have read any of these to appreciate the story-telling skill displayed here.
‘The End Of The Line’ is chronologically the earliest story and set in a time before the Shapeshifters were dispossessed and banished from the main continent of what had been their world. Stiamot is the assistant of the Coronal Strelkimar who has decided to travel the continent on a winding route, visiting many of the towns under his jurisdiction. Stiamot’s job is to go on ahead to make sure that all the appropriate arrangements are in place. He also has a fascination for the Shapeshifters, wanting to know more about them. This information might prove important at a later date as there is much debate as to whether the race should be exterminated, exiled to reservations or negotiated with. Although personally favouring diplomacy, Stiamot wants as much data as possible and is told to seek out Mundiveen who has lived amongst the Shapeshifters for many years. What he is told is disturbing and colours his actions in later years.
Thousands of years pass before ‘The Book Of Changes’ takes place. Furvain is a spoilt young man, a feckless younger son with a small allowance. He has a talent for making up verses but not much else. In a fit of madness he decides to explore the world and sets out, only to be captured by bandits ten days into his adventure. His captor, Kasinibon, is obsessive about poetry and wants Furvain to write him a poem while he awaits a response from his request for ransom. To begin with Furvian resists. He doesn’t want to write any more. Then he has a dream which stimulates him to begin creating what later will become the greatest narrative poem in history. He begins writing about the achievements of Coronal Stiamot but is not satisfied and begins to produce stanzas about characters so far back in history that they are virtually myths. In his dreams he is visited by a muse who he calls Valentine.
The poem is referenced in ‘The Tomb Of The Pontifex Dvorn’ when four thousand years later when two young historians are assigned to investigate the supposed tomb of Pontifex Dvorn. The histories say that Dvorn was the person who, somehow, persuaded the inhabitants of Majipoor to accept their two tiered monarchy.
While these first three stories resolve around major events in the planets history, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ is a more intimate story as it deals with the events in the life of one man and does not have any world shifting consequences. It tells the story of Gannin Thidrich, a man who having tried a number of potential professions takes up the post of apprentice to sorcerer. In the narrow confines of his new world he does learn magic but also becomes besotted by his mentor.
‘Dark Times At The Midnight Market’ also encompasses a comparatively restricted scenario. The Midnight Market is where members of the public go to get the potions they want. Ghambiovole Zwoll is a Vroon – a small, many tentacled being – and owns one of the stalls in the market. Business has been rather slow so when a member of the aristocracy is willing to pay a very large sum of money for a love potion, he puts aside his moral scruples and agrees. It is a story about greed, lust and to some extent is predictable. That doesn’t stop it being enjoyable.
‘The Way They Wove The Spells In Sippulgar’ is narrated by a man who travels, reluctantly to Sippulgar in search of his brother-in-law, Melifont Ambithorn, who, having disappeared in mysterious circumstances is now presumed dead. His mission is to retrieve the property of Ambithorn. After a bit of investigation he discovers that Ambithorn appeared to be trying to make money by founding a religion and he suspects one of the church leaders of doing away with him and inventing a story to cover it up. The basis behind the tale is one of belief versus denial of the existence of supernatural beings.
Although these last three stories don’t have a definite hook into the time-line of Majipoor – they could have taken place anywhere in the planet’s long history, The Seventh Shrine’ brings this back in to focus and the period during which Valentine is Pontifex. This is also the earliest written of these chronicles. Valentine is trying to fulfil the ambitions that Stiamot had in the first story in this volume. He wants the Shapeshifters and humans to be able to live in relative harmony. As part of the project, he has persuaded humans and Shapeshifter teams of archaeologists to work together to dig in the ruins of Velalisier, a long deserted Shapeshifter city, ruined before humans even arrived on Majipoor. When one of the Shapeshifter archaeologists is murdered, Valentine himself is on hand to oversee the discovery of the culprit.
All these stories add to the knowledge of Majipoor’s history but can only be snapshots, considering the vast stretches of time involved. What perhaps is missing that would enhance the book is a time-line for Majipoor with the major events marked, especially those related in the stories to give a better indication of the huge time–scale involved.