Dan Barron is a Terran who has spent 5 years working on Darkover. Like nearly all Terrans on Darkover, he has spent all of his time in the Terran Zone and not actually among native Darkovans (which is the way the ruling class of Darkover wants it). He is demoted after causing a nearly horrific accident at the Thendara Spaceport. It seems that Dan has been having "visions" where he suddenly finds himself in some castle somewhere, but he doesn't actually go anywhere. When this happens on the job, accidents can and do happen. While Dan is skilled at what he does, the accident was so severe that he can no longer be trusted to do his job. When the Darkovan Lord Valdir Alton requests a Terran to help teach and train Darkovans to grind glass for telescope and binocular lenses, the Terran Vice-Coordinator selects Dan to do the job. It is the only job that could keep Dan from being transferred off-planet.
One of the visions that Dan keeps having has to do with a young woman, red-haired, in chains, and covered with fire.
Since Darkover novels tend to be told from multiple perspectives (Terran and Darkovan), we are also told the story of the Storn family. Storn castle has been taken over by a bandit army and the Storns have been imprisoned. Lord Loran Storn, blind and nearly helpless, has protected himself with his laran (esp) power and has also sent his sister Melitta out to find help. Loran has also been trying to find a way to help his family himself, so he uses his laran to try to control someone and get the help the Storns need. That someone just happens to be Dan Barron.
Once again, as in the majority of the Darkover novels, "The Winds of Darkover" deals with the cultural differences between Terrans and the natives of Darkover and there is a Terran trying to assimilate to the new Darkovan culture. This is such a common theme that Bradley works with, but due to the nature of her world it is one that is necessary.
"The Winds of Darkover" feels more like a set-up novel than one that is telling a new story. It is world building. This story introduces Dan Barron to Darkover, but it also introduces something called the "Sharra Matrix" which will be important later in the series. The Sharra Matrix is powerful laran magic. It was outlawed years ago because it was viewed as "dangerous" and also "pagan" (of sorts). It can create powerful fire magic in the hands of a leronis (one who can command laran). "The Winds of Darkover" introduces this concept and a couple of others to our understanding of Darkover, but as a standalone novel it is not anything truly special. It builds on what we know of Darkover, but in the basics of the story it is one that Bradley has told several times set in Darkover.
By no means is this one of the best Darkover novels, though it is decent enough. "The Winds of Darkover" is one for fans of the series because it fills in some details and introduces a couple of characters and concepts that will be used later in the series, but unless you are trying to work your way through the entire series (as i am), this is one that you can easily skip. It is an average story (even for Darkover) with nothing to recommend it over some of the far superior Darkover novels (The Bloody Sun, The Forbidden Tower, Stormqueen).