Diadem from the Stars

by Jo Clayton
Series: Diadem 1
Reviewed date: 2018 Aug 8
Rating: 1
235 pages
cover art

Fantasy story in a science fiction setting
The story is pure fantasy, but the planet is an intriguing science fiction setting. The planet Jaydugar orbits a binary star system. Horli is a red giant, filling a large portion of the sky, perhaps four hand-widths. Orbiting Horli is Hesh, a small hot blue star. When Hesh is behind Horli, the days on Jaydugar are hot. When Hesh is in full display, the days are dangerously hot. A constant feature of life on Jaydugar is figuring out how to survive the high heat of the day. Anybody caught on the road without shelter from the suns is risking death.

I read carefully, but it isn't clear precisely how the people on Jaydugar measure time. Here's my best guess based on the evidence Clayton reveals. Their day is rather longer than an Earth day, maybe as much as twice as long. Their year is about three Earth years. Months are measured by an orbit of Hesh around Horli, but I didn't get a feel for how long that takes. There are two small moons, Aab and Zeb, but they aren't significant.

Jaydugar is a hot, arid planet, but not a desert. The native vegetation thrives. Somehow it is often densely overgrown despite being so parched. Native animals abound. The people of Jaydugar seem to know about some Earth animals, but the only Earth animals they seem to have in quantity (or at all) are horses.

Arabians from outer space
Jaydugar is populated by descendents of refugees stranded when a Romanchi starship crashed on the planet. Over thousands of years they've developed their own culture, which coincidentally sounds exotic and foreign and vaguely Arabian. Jo Clayton throws in tons of native words, so thickly and without explanation that it's hard to derive from the context what anybody is talking about. Words and names with lots of Q's and R's and Kh's: like Khohin, Azdar, Sha'ir, Raqsidan, Chalak, Qumri, Ai-Aschla, zaujeha, shura', and Atash nau-tavallud. There are families and clans and inscrutable sacred customs; religion and superstition that is culturally important but also completely generic and never defined; and a harsh, barbarian culture lurking under a veneer of sophistication.

It's this barbarian culture that forces our heroine to undertake a desperate quest to escape Jaydugar with her life.

Superhero heroine
Aleytys is a stunningly beautiful young woman who just happens to also be so special that everybody in the Raqsidan valley is afraid of her. (But of course, with her red hair, blue eyes, and white skin, she's clearly different and better than all the brown people on Jaydugar.) She is the daughter of Shareem and Azdar. Shareem is a Vryhh, castaway on the planet Jaydugar. Vryhh are like gods: near-immortal, eternally youthful, secretive, wanderers of the galaxy, with super-strength and telepathic powers of the mind. And also, the magical power to heal sickness and injury by the laying on of hands. Shareem escaped Jaydugar when Aleytys was a baby, leaving her a letter explaining the secrets of the Vryhh and giving her enough clues so that Aleytys can follow her mother and rejoin her people among the stars. Aleytys must journey across Jaydugar, find the three-thousand-year-old Romanchi starship, and send a signal for help.

Aleytys would prefer to remain in Raqsidan, but fortunately Jo Clayton has a solution to this: the clan is afraid of Aleytys and plans to murder her. Her lover Vajd gets wind of the plan and helps her escape.

So to recap: we have a stunningly beautiful young woman, with psionic powers, eternal youth, super-strength, and magical healing powers, stuck on a primitive pre-industrial planet full of superstitious barbarians who want to kill her.

Wow. Could it get any better?

Well, there's Aleytys's obsession with bathing. So much bathing. In the river. In the stream. In the river again. With soap. Without soap. At night. In the heat of the day. In the evening. But always so very, very naked.


Suffering, slavery, and rape
After Aleytys escapes from Raqsidan, Azdar mobilizes a war party and chases her. That doesn't make sense--the clan was afraid of her because they viewed her as an outsider, a cursed daughter of an alien. All they really wanted was for her to go away. But no, they had to run after her and try to kill her. I guess it's important that Aleytys suffer.

She manages to escape Azdar and his trackers. She takes refuge in a deserted cabin which she happens to stumble across. She rests and recuperates. She bathes a lot. A lot. The owner of the cabin shows up unexpectedly, and he's about to rape her, but Aleytys is willing and eager, which is good because he sure wasn't stopping to ask permission. *sigh*

After the cabin, Aleytys runs into Tarnsian, a caravaner with psionic powers. He uses his mental powers to enslave her. He rapes her every day. This time she's neither willing nor eager, and Tarnsian doesn't care. That seems to be a feature of Jaydugar culture. She eventually escapes and finds refuge among the witches of medwey.

Oh yeah, the diadem
The witches give Aleytys the diadem. It's a quasi-living entity that melds with her. Aleytys is unable to take the diadem off her head. The diadem generally leaves her alone, but whenever Aleytys is threatened, the diadem takes over. It seizes control of her body and also manipulates time to a near stand-still. With everything around her slowed down, the diadem uses her body to disarm and kill opponents in the apparent blink of an eye. Also, the diadem unlocks latent powers of her mind: Aleytys can learn to speak new languages in minutes rather than years.

So now not only is Aleytys stunningly beautiful, eternally youthful, with super-strength and psionic powers and a magical healing touch, she also has a magic crown that slows down time, protects her from all harm, and is a universal translator.


Pre-story, not the actual story
The whole book felt like the set-up or lead-in to the actual story. Like, it exists to fill in the backstory of Aleytys and to get her off Jaydugar and into the galaxy where she can have real adventures. I'd expect future stories to feature Aleytys as a fully formed hero doing heroic stuff among the stars. I gather that's not the case. The reviews of the next book in the series, Larmarchos, suggest that it's similar to Diadem from the Stars: Aleytys gets kidnapped and enslaved and raped on a preindustrial world populated by barbarians. So I doubt I'll read any more of the Diadem series.

Aleytys has a baby. She's newly pregnant when she escapes from Raqsidan, and she gives birth shortly before blasting off and leaving Jaydugar. I appreciated how it didn't change her or give her any epiphany. It was just a thing. I also appreciated how she took the baby, Sharl, with her when she left Jaydugar. The situation was all set up for her to follow in her mother's footsteps, by abandoning her child on Jaydugar. But Aleytys is a better person than her mother Shareem, and doesn't abandon her baby. So yay for that.

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