In my search for more of the "magic" that is GRR Martin's prose in his acclaimed saga A Song of Ice and Fire, I have been reading some of his other works, discovering what an accomplished story-teller he can be even outside of the realms of Westeros.
DYING OF THE LIGHT is one of these amazing finds. Published for the first time in 1977, it's a science fiction story set on the rogue planet Worlorn: hurtling through space in its aimless course, for the first time since its creation the planet crosses a region densely packed with suns, and gets a chance for warmth and life, however fleeting.
The 14 existing galactic civilizations declare a Festival on Worlorn, each of them building a city to showcase their culture and its accomplishments: when the story begins, the Festival is long over, the cities mostly abandoned, the planet headed once more into the cold blackness of space.
From Worlorn Dirk t'Larien receives a whisperjewel – a psi-encoded memory storage from his former lover Gwen Delvano. It's a summons, based on an old promise made when they both had the jewels crafted for them: never reconciled with the end of the relationship, Dirk departs for the rogue planet full of hope and dreams. Once there, though, Gwen welcomes him with puzzlement, looking distant and ill-at-ease, and soon Dirk discovers she's bound to another man, Jaan Vikary, a highborn from the aggressive and patriarchal society of High Kavalaan. Now convinced that the summons was Gwen's way to forever cut the ties with Dirk, saying a final goodbye, t'Larien slowly learns that Kavalar culture requires a woman to be little more than a chattel, to be shared between her mate and his teyn, a sort of blood brother, a bond that stands as the foundation of all things Kavalar.
The "marriage" is not an easy one, complicated by Jaan's peculiar customs and his society's preoccupation with racial purity and mutations, therefore Dirk slowly comes to the conclusion that the whisperjewel represented a mute appeal from Gwen to save her from the unhappy liaison. The situation becomes more problematic as we learn that other Kavalars on Worlorn practice a form of hunt whose prey are the creatures they deem inferior and non-human, which includes everyone else by their standards, so that Jaan's attempts at stopping the bloody sport and bringing his planet to a higher galactic standard further inflame the already volatile tempers.
Soon Dirk find himself enmeshed in a political and personal struggle, complicated by his feelings for Gwen and a slowly unfolding web of discoveries that create a fascinating cultural backdrop and change his world-view, leading to a breath-stopping open ending.
Even that early in his career GRR Martin could create spellbinding tapestries, dotted with beautiful characters that sport the many shades of gray I have come to expect from his writing. Kavalar culture is fascinatingly explored in the juxtaposition between Jaan Vikary, the equivalent of a Renaissance man, and his teyn Garse Janacek, a man torn between duty to the old customs and his ties of loyalty and friendship to Jaan. Strangely enough, despite the obvious shortcomings of their mind-set, I found them both more likeable than the "hero" Dirk t'Larien, whose stubbornness and sometimes childish pique offer an interesting contrast that reveals Gwen's unvoiced doubts and regrets. Gwen herself is a wonderful creation: a woman still in search of herself, she seems to be wandering aimlessly through her life (much like the rogue planet where the action takes place), taking life and warmth from the suns she passes by. But in the end she surprises the readers with an unsuspected show of strength, as ultimately does Dirk, whose changes and inner growth take us to the very last pages of the book.
If you like George Martin's works, this one will not disappoint you: you will find many of the themes he further explored in the ASOIAF saga, together with spellbinding writing that often touches on the lyrical, and a fascinating story that will reserve many revelations.