In her Witch World books Norton has always been keen on female characters charting their own paths, which makes the sexism of HORN CROWN an unpleasant surprise. The book opens with humans arriving in the empty land (the Dales, the setting of her past few books) after fleeing their own world for unknown reasons (there’s been some mindwiping). Despite being The Early Years it’s really just like the Waste or Estcore in earlier Witch World books, a seemingly empty land stuffed full of evil places and wouldn’t you know, the dumb new arrivals start stirring the dark powers back to life. When a chieftain’s daughter, Iwynne, unwittingly taps into the power of an ancient shrine and vanishes, the warrior Elron sets out to find her. So does Gathea, a witch frustrated that Iwynne has stolen the power Gathea thought would be hers.
While the book is well-done and some of the magical scenes have real power, Gathea is a flaw. Like witches in past books she’s dead set on her course to the point of being a complete jerk about it. Instead of respecting her quest or having Gathea develop a connection with Elron and try to balance love and magic, the ending has Gathea having to put her own goals on hold so that she can be Elron’s wife and mother to his child. It comes across more coercive than romantic (as Judith Tarr says, we get the Maiden/Mother/Crone triad but the Mother is the only acceptable role model). I enjoyed the book even so, but YMMV.
After the material in the first Beanworld Omnibus, Larry Marder’s series went on a long hiatus due to publisher Eclipse Comics closing, then taking other jobs for a couple of decades. The three graphic novels he eventually wrote to follow up are collected in BEANWORLD OMNIBUS Vol. 2. The baby beans introduced in the first volume are growing up and figuring out their destiny; Beamish continues his pursuit of Dreamish; and the other denizens of Beanworld engage in their own adventures. As quirky and unique as the first collection (and just as hard to synopsize), which makes me regret we haven’t seen anything from Marder since 2017. I hope there’s more soon.
THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF THE SULTAN SALADIN by Jonathan Phillips is an excellent book on one of those figures I knew of but not about. As Phillips details, Yusuf Salah al-Din rose to leadership as an ally of Nur-al-Din, leader of the powerful Zengi clan but after replacing his relative as vizier of Egypt decided to assert his independence (and that of his own clan), eventually building enough power that he could take on the Frankish occupiers of Jerusalem; part of Saladin’s fame is that he managed to unite the many factions of the Middle East (divided by sect, ethnicity, clan and personal ambition) and make fighting the crusaders a holy war rather than a war for territory.
Phillips shows how Saladin’s history mixed great successes (retaking Jerusalem) with dismal failures (the siege of Acre) and great mercy with occasional acts of brutality, but maintaining power throughout by diplomacy and financial largesse. This helped build his legend in the West, where the image of him as the Satan Spawn Who Took Jerusalem From Us was gradually overwhelmed by his obvious qualifications as a chivalric knight. This made him a fit subject for fiction, where he could be the mighty adversary Crusader heroes such as Richard the Lionheart required for their adventures (to say nothing of stories about Saladin’s secret and entirely fictitious love affair with Eleanor of Aquitaine)! In the Middle East, Saladin has been invoked as a symbol by everyone from Bin Laden to Gamel Abdel Nasser, being usable as a model of Kurdish independence, opposition to Western imperialism or pan-Arabism. A very good book.
#SFWApro. Covers by Michael Whelan (top) and Larry Marder, all rights remain with current holders.