In these two books, which are intended to be capped by a forthcoming third, Robert Silverberg returns to the planet of Majipoor. Majipoor, as previously described by Silverberg in his Lord Valentine trilogy, is an immense, low-density world with roughly the same gravity as Earth but three times Earth's land mass, its three continents squeezed close together (by Majipoori standards) on one hemisphere. Although putatively science fiction -- Majipoor is supposed to have been settled from Earth eleven thousand years ago, and various immigrant and native alien species share the planet with humans -- Majipoor is low-metal and therefore low-technology. It is unshrunk by technological speed of transport or communication, lush and eminently habitable across most of its vast expanses, administered in its entirety by a lumbering, centralized monarchy, and effectively a world of fantasy. Unlike Anne McCaffrey in her later Pern books, Silverberg has felt no urge to explore the 'scientific' roots of his fantastic world: these two books are as much adventurous romances as the Lord Valentine trilogy was.
The setting this time is two thousand years earlier than the life of Lord Valentine. Again, a Coronal -- the junior monarch of Majipoor, who rules in association with the senior Pontifex -- is the hero of the tale. This time it is Lord Prestimion, whom Silverberg had briefly described in his previous trilogy as one of the few memorable Coronals of Majipoor's eleven thousand year history of human settlement. Again, the Coronal has been deprived of his rightful throne by means of a technomagical coup -- this time 'sorcery' rather than 'mind-transfer.'
Unfortunately, Silverberg does not again produce a tale well told, as he certainly did with Lord Valentine's Castle and The Majipoor Chronicles, and, to a lesser extent, with Valentine Pontifex. The two new books are inhabited by one-dimensional characters who speak and act like the Hollywood versions of Renaissance courtiers -- uniformly witty, uniformly heroic, and uniformly incongruous against the more Imperial Roman tone of Majipoor's political culture. The books are also massed with incident rather than plotted -- the story, such as it is, turns on an attempt by the old Coronal's son, the somewhat thick-witted Prince Korsibar, to declare himself Coronal -- against millennial Majipoori custom that proscribes a Coronal's son from succeeding his father. Korsibar's faction achieves this coup with the aid of sorcery -- the belief in sorcery, we are told, has become very powerful in Majipoor in the last few generations. Virtually the only man on the planet who disbelieves is the man displaced by Korsibar's coup: Prince Prestimion, the old Coronal's legitimately adopted heir.
Since sorcery apparently does work, virtually the entirety of Sorcerers of Majipoor consists of Prestimion being persuaded to accept what is obvious to the reader. Meanwhile there is a tedious civil war, at the end of which Prestimion has the sorcerers cast an 'oblivion-spell,' which erases the memory of Korsibar's rancorous reign from everyone in Majipoor (save himself and a few boon companions), to ensure future peace. In Lord Prestimion, we learn that the oblivion-spell was a horrendous mistake. The after-effects of brainwashing include a planet-wide epidemic of madness, often homicidal or suicidal. The second book chronicles Prestimion's attempts to cure his Majipoori subjects of their insanities.
Why bother to read the books? Because Silverberg makes something of the terrain of Majipoor, and it is worth trudging through the plot to see more of the planet. As Silverberg writes, and the blurbs crow, Majipoor is the largest planet in science fiction (Niven's Ringworld doesn't exactly qualify, I suppose), partially tamed and made yet more beautiful by millennia of civilization. Thus, Silverberg takes us in this latest tour of Majipoor (largely just the continent of Alhanroel in these books) to see an energy geyser hundreds of feet tall; swamps vaster than a Terran continent; the individual crags of Castle Mount, each larger than a mountain range on Earth; the vinyards of Muldemar (an oenophile's dream); the withered desert in the enormous rain-shadow east of Castle Mount; a city tunneled out of sulfur-yellow rock; foot-long golden bees; harsh rainbow prisons in Castle Mount; innumerable provincial towns, landscapes, cities, palace rooms, each lovingly described and very often brought to life.
They are too lovingly described. Silverberg apparently wants to describe every corner of Majipoor, and the descriptions can blur into bulk and tedium -- particularly without an animating plot to give the different terrains meaning for the protagonists and for us. But Majipoor still almost comes alive for the reader. Silverberg is no Tolkien, whose minutely rendered Middle Earth remains the standard for imagined landscapes, but Majipoor is nevertheless a notable entry in the register of fantastic lands. It echoes not only (and most obviously, in the names of its rulers) the world-state of Imperial Rome, but also America's vast and expropriated expanses, the endless towns of China under the necessarily loose sway of the distant and unimaginable Son of Heaven, and, in these latest books more than ever, the Raj of India described and imagined by Kipling and other British writers of adventure, suspense, and exotica -- a Raj of hundreds of peoples and states, hidden temples in the jungles or the mountains, civilizations past and present all huddled together cheek by jowl, presenting the reader (and hence ruler, in the more purely British form) with the ever-present prospect of a new discovery, a new excitement, a new access of knowledge. Silverberg's Majipoor reminds the reader of the actual and fictional richness of our own planet, but without ever losing the sense of the purely invented that makes Majipoor a land of fantasy. Future books will remind readers of Majipoor more than Majipoor reminds readers of past books.
These last two Majipoor books are disappointing sequels to Silverberg's rightly-praised Lord Valentine trilogy. The reader unfamiliar with Majipoor should probably start with those first three books, and only continue on to these two novels if they are true fans of Silverberg and his writing. Even for such fans, Sorcerers of Majipoor and Lord Prestimion will reward afficionados of literary descriptions of landscape more than lovers of original and well-written plots and characters. Yet for such connoisseurs of terrain, these two books are unreservedly recommended.
David Randall graduated from Swarthmore College in 1993. He is an aspiring fiction writer, aspiring historian, and now a successful e-book reviewer.