Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#15: Sydney J. Van Scyoc and the "Darkchild" Trilogy

I'm not sure whether Sydney J. Van Scyoc is still writing. Her first book, "Saltflower" (**-), appeared in 1971, and showed more promise than skill. The last book I saw by her was "Deepwater Dreams" (**), in 1991, and it was nothing special. Between the two, appeared the Darkchild trilogy, which *is* something special. Like most of Van Scyoc's books, those in the trilogy combine two themes -- coming of age and human evolution (gradual or sudden).

"Darkchild" (****) is the first and best of the trilogy. The planet Brakrath has been settled (accidentally) for so many millennia that its inhabitants have adapted to its mountains and its winters. The Brakrathiare a peaceful breed, for the most part, living in fertile mountain valleys, working hard in the summer, hibernating in winter. Most of them are comfortable with their lives, unaware of the outside galaxy, and uninterested. Each valley is ruled by a Barohna, a member of a mutant offshoot of that race, whose ability to store and redirect sunlight keeps the valley fertile. When a Barohna's daughter (always daughters) reaches the edge of maturity, she goes hunting one of the mountain predators. If she survives, the process triggers her metamorphosis to a Barohna.

Khira is a palace daughter, i.e., an untested daughter of a Barohna. She *was* the seventh daughter, but all the others have gone to the mountain, and died, the sixth most recently. Thus winter -- the season in which the valleyfolk sleep, the Barohna goes on an isolated retreat, and the palace daughters are left alone in the palace -- finds her lonely, scared, and peevish. The loneliness, at least, is relieved by the appearance of a strange child, physically different from Brakrathi and unable to speak the language. He is a spy, cloned by a race of spacefarers, conditioned to collect information, and set down to be adopted and to evaluate the planet's exploitable resources. He also becomes her friend.

"Bluesong" (***+), the second book in the trilogy, concerns two youngsters who are out of place, in a world where everyone has a place. Danior is the only son ever born to a Barohna. (I suppose this is a spoiler for "Darkchild", but I don't think it's a serious one.) Keva is the daughter of a Barohna, but has been raised in ignorance of the mountains and their people. Both find their way to a desert inhabited by small, warring tribes, and by a man who means to bring peace and civilization to the desert, even if no tribe but his survives the process. The Bluesong of the title comes from a silk-like fabric of unknown origin, that sings when set in the wind. There are a number of these silks, and one of them, instead of singing, calls for help -- with the Darkchild's voice.

"Starsilk" (***+) (notice a pattern in the titles she chooses?) is the story of Danior's youngest sister, Reyna, a palace daughter who has been forbidden the attempt to become a Barohna. Instead, she is offered the opportunity to go to another star, to solve the mystery of the starsilk's cry for help. This is the quietest book of the trilogy. There is some action, some danger, but mostly it is the story of Reyna learning that there is a larger universe beyond Brakrath, and that there is a place for her between the two.

The Darkchild trilogy is Sydney Van Scyoc's best work. She's built an interesting and appealing world, peopled it with characters who are (most of them) peaceful and sympathetic without being dull, and used them to tell a good story. I've seen one short story set in this world. That's "Stonefoal" (***), which appeared in the August, 1980 Isaac Asimov's magazine, and which is set millennia earlier.

It's probably safe to say that if you don't like "Darkchild" you won't like any of Van Scyoc's books. If you do like it, you may like some of her other books as well. They are weaker, and will probably not be to all tastes.

"Starmother" (**+) may be the best of her other books. Jahna Swiss is a member of a future equivalent of the Peace Corps, and has been sent to the failing colony on Nelding, ostensibly to care for a group of mutant infants. She finds herself at the focus of a power struggle. The original colony is dying, and has reacted with religious fanaticism. In the backwoods are 'primitives', hated by the colonists and returning the sentiment, who have undergone a strange evolution: Infants are imprinted by the ones who raise them, and take on their characteristics. It's a form of immortality, for some. And Jahna has been brought in to provide a new template -- something she is not sure she likes and which many others are sure they *don't* like.

I enjoyed many of Van Scyoc's books well enough, but the I'd only really recommend the Darkchild trilogy. If you read that and like it well enough to want to read her other books, they're not hard to find in used book stores.

Dani Zweig