It’s hard to believe that Robert Silverberg, one of the most prolific writers of science fiction and fantasy the past century, took two significant hiatuses from writing in the heart of his career. The first roughly between 1965-67, the author paused to transition from the so-called Silver Age into the New Age of science fiction. Experiencing a creative crisis and needing time away, in 1976 Silverberg took another break, returning in 1980. Presenting a standard fantasy storyline, placing it in a science fiction setting, and imbuing it with all of the humanism the previous phase of his oeuvre boasts, that return was Lord Valentine’s Castle. Simultaneously classic, subversive, personal, and sublimely stylish, the novel was a triumphant comeback. It won the Locus Award, was nominated for other awards, and proved so fertile a premise, six additional books in the Majipoor setting were published, the seventh due this year. What was Silverberg doing in those four years away, well…
Lord Valentine’s Castle is the story of Valentine, a man who begins matters sitting on the side of the road, overlooking a city and pondering the meaning of life. Unsure of his direction, a boy invites him to tag along in taking animals to the city’s markets, markets which are flourishing with news the reigning Coronal will soon be in town. Coming across a group of jugglers in need of a third while in the festive city, Valentine quickly finds his dexterity suitable for the vocation, and joins them. Heading out on the road to live the life of a traveling performer, it’s in discovering his lost past, however, that the story achieves heights of power and glory.
Jack Vance’s 1957 Big Planet the inspiration, the world Valentine calls home, Majipoor, is simply massive. Exponentially larger than Earth, the planet is home to more than ten different species of sentient beings, three massive continents, and oceans that require years to navigate. The cities Valentine’s band of jugglers visit have populations numbering in the billions and are inhabited by all manner of frog-like Hjorts, burly four-armed Skandars, tentacled Vroons, two-headed Su-Suheris, as well as humans. Majipoor ruled in public by a Coronal from Castle Mount and in private by a Pontifex deep within the Labyrinth, tempering the teeming host of species into passivity is the Lady of Sleep, who sends dreams of happiness and bliss to soothe worn and agitated souls even as her opposite, the King of Dreams, haunts the nighttime hours of evil-doers, sending nightmares and evil thoughts to those who do wrong. Lord Valentine’s Castle a travelogue as much as a story, all manner of deserts and jungles, woodlands and ports, bizarre plants and unearthly creatures are encountered in the conscious and unconscious as the group traipses the land. Majipoor a sensual treat, getting lost in its locales, reading of its strange forms of life, and being caught up in the imagery of dreams—like Vance’s work—is a large part of the enjoyment of the novel.
But where Vance moves his story at a rapid clip, Silverberg’s is relaxed, taking its time. Reading Lord Valentine’s Castle is like drinking vintage wine. The prose (and story) reflect the leisure, maturity, and confidence which Silverberg gained in taking his second hiatus. Dreams hazy, personal reflection heartfelt, and the landscapes tranquil and mysterious, the novel’s prose is like everything you could want in a wine. Nothing flashy, hyper-poetic, or purple, it is a smooth, lyrical, effortless unraveling of words that perfectly complements the dream-like journey of Valentine and his friends.
Silverberg’s New Age works are perhaps the most psychically intense of his career, and Lord Valentine’s Castle, after the four year break, naturally sees a relaxation of this mode. Seeming to echo the benefits of the time away, Valentine’s plight is less passionate and more casual in tone. A pacifist interested in emotional rather than rational intelligence, much of the book, along with personal discovery, is about building relationships rather than destroying them. Action and scenes of excitement occur sporadically, but by in large Valentine’s tale is a quasi-bildungsroman, a surfeit of guns, battles, or blood not needed for his development or forming strong, supportive groups.
If the novel can be said to have negative points, one would be the inevitability of the storyline. Once readers learn Valentine’s true background, it’s only a matter of time before he achieves the goal. Rather than suspense or mystery, it is therefore the unique setting and the details encountered which must be relied upon to buoy the story. Another point might be the denouement. Escalating rapidly, the reader must suspend their disbelief to heights greater than Castle Mount if the progression of scenes is to be absorbed meaningfully. Perhaps too classic for the story being told, it’s possible the reader might be left wanting more than what the final pages offer.
In the end, Lord Valentine’s Castle is a classic story that combines the tropes of science fiction and fantasy without adverse effect, telling a very emotional, personal story in the process. Valentine’s tale of self-discovery one from (and for) the ages, Silverberg makes it his own with high quality prose that directly complements mood and setting. The predictability of the ending could be a hang-up for some, but that the events leading up to the inevitable climax are presented in a fashion which subverts typical heroic fantasy in favor of soft science fiction ideals is a testimony to the quality of the book. Pacifist, humanist, psychoanalytic—whatever you want to call it, it’s a rich, individual story that seems to parallel Silverberg’s own attempts to find himself after the creative crisis which closed out the middle phase of his career. The author still writing, Lord Valentine’s Castle blows the doors wide open for the final phase.
(For those curious about the Majipoor series, Lord Valentine’s Castle is a stand-alone novel and does not end on a cliffhanger leading to the next book. Majipoor Chronicles—that next book—is actually a collection of short stories which offer more detail into the history, dynastic lineage, social structure, culture, and environments of Majipoor. Of superb quality, the collection is as good as Lord Valentine’s Castle despite the difference in form. The third book, Valentine Pontifex, tells of the events after Lord Valentine’s Castle and falls just short of the quality of the first two books. Very similar in style and underlying intent, it nevertheless is a worthy novel that closes out Valentine’s story satisfyingly. I have not read the other books in the Majipoor setting, and therefore cannot comment except to say three additional novels and one novella have also been published. A collection is due out in 2013 that may be new short stories or simply a book collecting the stories which have been published individually after Majipoor Chronicles.)