Heroes with Secret Pasts and a dying Earth: books read

Andre Norton’s THE JARGOON PARD is the first sequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in Arvon, the homeland of the Wereriders. Arvon comes off much like Estcore, a land that sealed itself off after arrogant mages opened dimensional gates to Very Bad Things, and protagonist Kethan has a backstory similar to Kerovan of Crystal Gryphon, a son born touched by magic so that his mother can use him as a tool to attain power.

Surprisingly, though, the book charts it’s own course, starting with Mom bearing a girl, whom she promptly swaps for the son of another woman (Gillan of Unicorn). Like so many Witch World protagonists, Kethan grows up feeling something of an outsider, then one of his mother’s rivals gives him a magic belt that triggers his innate shapeshifting powers. Now he’s a pard (big puma — the jargoon is the carved gem on the belt’s clasp) but he can’t turn back unless he submits to the will of his mother’s resident sorceress — and Kethan would sooner die. The results are solidly entertaining; this is also the first book to spotlight the worship of the harvest/mother goddess Gunnora, which plays a big role in many later books.

THE DARK WORLD has Henry Kuttner’s name on it but some researchers suggest C.L. Moore is co- or sole author. While it has a lot in common with Mask of Circe, it also resembles Dwellers in the Mirage (amnesiac hero with buried memories, good vs. bad girl, other-dimensional soul-sucking horror) and would later inspire both Roger Zelazny’s Amber and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Falcons of Narabedla.

Oh, wait, you might want to know about the story too! The protagonist is a WW II veteran suffering strange blackouts and odd memories. When he’s drawn into the eponymous alternate timeline, he discovers that’s because he’s actually Ganelon, a member of the ruling coven of mages, bound to the other-dimensional horror Llyr; the resistance against the coven managed to swap him and the real veteran (parallel world counterparts), leaving Ganelon with the veteran’s memories. Now that Ganelon’s back, he’s ready to regain power, which requires working with the resistance against the coven and somehow driving Llyr back from this plane of existence. The result is a lively fantasy, though the random mix of myth names (Llyr, Medea, Freydis) is jarring (as Lin Carter says, names matter).

In THE STARMAN OF LLYRDIS by Leigh Brackett, an Earthman who’s spent his entire life as even more of an outcast than Kethan learns the reason: he’s only half-human, the other half being Varddan, the one race that can survive interstellar travel due to a gen-engineering breakthrough a millennium ago. The protagonist proves his Varddan genes hold true and wins the right to live and work in space — but then allies himself with revolutionaries who want to share the genetic breakthrough with all the races of the galaxy. A perfect example of Brackett’s fondness for characters who achieve their dreams only to find them hollow (as her husband put it).

Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH is probably best known as the basis for spellcasting in D&D (Gary Gygax copied Vance’s idea that mages can only hold a limited number of spells in their mind) but deserves to be known in its own right. On a distant future Earth, various wizards and occasional mortals feud, seek love or quest for knowledge amidst ruined cities, ancient secrets and unpleasant cults.

This blew me away when I read it as a teen, but less so now. The treatment of the female characters is sexist and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (which I suspect was a big influence) is a much eerier, darker setting, and Smith is a better writer. That said, this is still entertaining and enjoyably eerie.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Gray Morrow, bottom image is uncredited. Rights to both remain with current holder.

 

 

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