"Tales of Majipoor," Robert Silverberg

Pros: Fascinating culture and events
Cons: Logical inconsistencies; characters held at a distance
Rating: 3 out of 5

Release date: May 7, 2013
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Robert Silverberg’s Tales of Majipoor collects together seven stories set in his world of Majipoor. They span thousands of years of history, from sometime after the arrival of the colonists from Earth, through several pivotal historical events (and a few more personal stories), to an excerpt from the life of Lord Valentine.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read Silverberg’s other Majipoor books (this happens sometimes when you review books—publishers can send you books from series you haven’t gotten to yet). On the one hand, it’s useful sometimes to have a fresh perspective, mostly so that new or prospective readers have some idea of where they can and can’t jump into a series. On the other hand, there were setting details that I had issues with, and I freely admit that they might be addressed within the other books. This does mean, however, that this book doesn’t stand entirely on its own. Individual stories do, and they provide a nice glimpse of Majipoor, but the whole of the book leaves some world-building holes.


 

The prologue briefly establishes the basic premise of Majipoor—how it was settled by humans even though there were natives already present, how the population exploded over time, and how other alien races also eventually came to settle there. It’s a quick introduction, and I thought it would be enough for me to grasp the setting, but after I read a handful of stories I was only more confused. I’ll start with the stories themselves, however, and come back to my confusion afterward.

End of the Line is the first story of the book and my favorite of all of them. It tells the tale of how Lord Stiamot became Coronal (sort of the secondary ruler of Majipoor). In this story he is a sympathetic character struggling through some difficult problems, and it’s interesting in later stories to repeatedly see him referred to as a legendary historical figure. It’s lovely to get a glimpse of his all-too-human self before seeing him in the mythical light.

The Book of Changes is a fascinating story with a hint of madness to it, but I felt little connection with the characters; the author seemed to hold them at a distance. In this story, Aithin Furvain is a lazy poet with an unusual talent for light verse. He ends up compelled (in several meanings of the word) to write a remarkably complex and detailed epic poem of the history of Majipoor. Visions of a mysterious man named Valentine guide him through the events of history so that he might know what details to write about. (It seems clear that this is Valentine of the last story, and of Silverberg’s novels, but there’s no hint in this book, at least, of how or why he might have appeared to Furvain. I’m hoping there’s an explanation of this in one of the novels.) Furvain’s work gets referenced in later stories, and again, it’s fascinating to see the reality versus the myth of a person.

The Tomb of Pontifex Dvorn introduces a historian and an archaeologist who receive an irresistible offer to examine the tomb of Dvorn, the first Pontifex (the reclusive ultimate ruler of Majipoor). This story strongly exhibits a particular style in which Silverberg writes many of these stories, a sort of sprawling, meandering stroll through events. It has a nifty flair of antiquity to it, but does serve to create a sense of distance between reader and characters, making it difficult to connect emotionally with characters or become invested in their travails.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice suddenly seems to introduce magic into the world—presumably something that would seem less abrupt were the stories not set so far apart. This is a tale of an apprentice who finds himself serving a particularly volatile sorceress to whom he is irresistibly attracted. It’s an odd piece, and I found it hard to sympathize with either character. It’s possible for unlikeable characters to still be fascinating and sympathetic, but in this case I just found them… annoying.

Dark Times at the Midnight Market is a bizarre little story of a sorcerer trying to make a living at a time when magic has lost its popularity. A man comes to him for a love potion, and Zwoll throws caution and good sense to the wind when he finds out how much the young man is willing to spend. Of course this can’t possibly end well for him. There was less of a sense of distance in this one, so it was easier to sympathize with Zwoll’s plight. I found it ironic that Zwoll is an alien and yet it was easier to connect with him than with the characters in the previous few stories. (Also, he didn’t feel particularly alien—I found it difficult to remember that he was.)

The Way they Wove the Spells in Sippulgar involves a missing conman and a suspect religion. It gives us the first real glimpse of any sort of religion on Majipoor, and once again the sense of distance made it difficult for me to either connect with the main character or develop any real feel for how religion fit into the lives of the inhabitants in general.

The Seventh Shrine is an excerpt from the life of Pontifex Valentine (8,000 years after the first story of Stiamot) in which he strives to solve the murder of one of Majipoor’s natives. He seemed one of the most realized characters of the book (except perhaps for Stiamot), but again, that sense of distance… Also, it’s mentioned that “[v]iolent death at another’s hands was no common thing on Majipoor”—while there weren’t a lot of deaths in earlier stories, I never had the sense that the violence level of the world was unusually low, so this seemed to come out of left field. The portrayal of magic was also different from previous stories, which threw me off a bit.

 

And therein lies the problem. I had a sense of logical inconsistencies about the world. They might be explained in the books, but since there’s no hint of an explanation here, it’s extremely confusing.

Where’s the technology? Only sporadic mention or use of any kind of technology is in evidence, and that mostly in the final story. This planet was colonized by settlers from another planet. Various alien races also settled on the planet at various times during its history. A society that should have started with a technological edge and had injections of alien technology at regular intervals somehow took 8,000 years to show much technological advancement at all. (Look at how far humans have come on Earth in that time, and that’s without the advantages the inhabitants of Majipoor should have had.) Most of the stories had a fairly standard fantasy feel with a bizarre little bit of sci-fi tacked on in certain places. Magic seems to come out of nowhere, and it’s never reconciled with the sci-fi aspect of the setting.

Please, someone, tell me that these things are explained in the books! Either way, if you have a tendency to be bothered by world-building holes, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book on its own, because the setting doesn’t stand alone within it.

 

Overall I found the stories and the sense of time passing to be rather fascinating. I loved seeing the contrast of the depiction of current characters followed by near-mythical views of them in historical contexts. The writing style, however, made me feel detached from most of the characters (perhaps the short form makes it harder for Silverberg to get into his characters? I’d have to read the novels to know for sure), which left me with little emotional investment in the book. Add that to the setting confusions, and overall this wasn’t my favorite book. I’d love to hear from someone who has read the novels and has a sense of whether this is an artifact of reading this as a standalone book, or a pattern from the novels as well.

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2 comments on “"Tales of Majipoor," Robert Silverberg
  1. Thanks for the review. I haven’t read Silverberg, but I’ve been on a search for a good post Harry Potter book, and I’m just not into the vampire thing. From your description, it seems like he’s constructed a pretty rich story architecture, so I’ll pick up a book (and I mean a real book, not Kindle).

  2. Kevin Lorenz says:

    I think the idea with Majipoor the planet, is that its a metal poor planet with around the same gravity as earth. Because the lack of metals means its less dense and has a much larger surface area than the earth.
    They also lost a lot of tech because of that lack of metals.

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