Robert Silverberg has always been an … uneven author from my point of view. Some of his stories hit home, some seem mediocre, uninspiring.
And then there was Lord Valentine’s Castle.
This is a rare, rare gem of a book, a novel that manages to make me think of poetry and wordsmithing and the sheer power of the right word choice as much as the awe-inspiring worldbuilding that makes Majipoor, the world of Lord Valentine’s Castle seem not merely alive, but mythical, a place of lyrical, dreamlike intensity that surpasses anything we can find in the mundane world.
Even the first line encapsulates the rich, flowing tapestry of words that Silverberg uses to convey us into the fantastic world of Majipoor: ” And then, after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered about him like fine wet fleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcropping white stone overlooking the city of Pidruid.”
As in Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, we begin with our character not merely in media res, but in the midst of realizing that he does not even know who he really is or what he is there for. But unlike Corwin, who is at best a Borgia who’s learned some sense of morality, Valentine is that rarest of protagonists, a true pacifist, one who seeks to solve problems with words and negotiation and understanding rather than violence. He knows, once he realizes his true past and true destiny, that it will not be possible to entirely evade violence – but he always seeks the other solution, and in the climactic scene of the novel he finds a way to do exactly that, to use his belief and faith in other people to prevent a truly tragic ending.
Valentine is, himself, a symbol and a guide through one of the most extraordinary worlds of fiction. Majipoor, a world among many, with visitors from space, floating conveyances of high technology, machines that can make a breathable atmosphere atop a mountain twice the height of Everest… and at the same time a world of myth and magic, where wars can be fought in dreams and dreams guide the waking as much as the sleeping – the Lady of Sleep versus the King of Dreams, and balanced with them the Coronal, the King atop the greatest mountain, and the Pontifex, retired Emperor in a secret and distant Labyrinth. Majipoor is a world of a hundred different species, of continents the size of all of Earth, an ocean you could drop Earth into, of deep jungles and mighty rivers and sly, devious sorcerers who may know true magic… or psionic powers… or perhaps just some secret of technology. Great warriors, and a troupe of jugglers that will change the fate of the world, walk together – and are in many cases the same thing.
Lord Valentine’s Castle is one of my favorite works of fantasy or science fiction (and not easy to slot into either category), and I will often read it whenever I just want to read something that lifts me up and makes me feel good.
I told that to Mr. Silverberg, when I had the honor of meeting him at Worldcon in Boston, and was asking him to sign my hardcover copy of the book. And when I said that, he smiled, leaned forward, and said, very quietly, “You know what? So do I.”
The other two Majipoor books that immediately followed – Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex – are also excellent books. Later Majipoor books… were not as impressive. My feeling is that it is not Majipoor itself, but Valentine, who carries these books – Valentine, with his wise yet childlike demeanor, clueless yet insightful, peaceful yet a force to be reckoned with, who makes the world itself brighter and greater with him… and dimmer, when he is gone.
Read Lord Valentine’s Castle, and travel yourself in the company of a traveling circus which will decide the fate of a world.