Tag Archives: Andre Norton

Magic, more magic and then the end: books read

LORE OF THE WITCH WORLD is a collection of short stories from various anthologies so they’re almost all stand-alones; “Sword of Unbelief”brings back Elys and Jervon from Spell of the Witch World and “Toads of Grimmerdale” got a sequel written especially for this volume. The character dynamic is familiar from earlier Witch World books (outcast woman paired up with not-quite-as-outcast man) and the stories are enjoyable, more so for being slightly outside the core story arcs. That makes the Witch World a place where anyone can have amazing adventures, not just the Tregarths or Kerovan (of Crystal Gryphon). Good if you’re into Norton.

MAGIC BY THE LAKE brings back the family from Edward Eager’s Half Magic, now vacationing at a lakeside cottage with their new stepfather when they accidentally make a wish that turns the entire lake to magic. Before long they’re dealing with pirates, mermaids, teenage Romeos, the Forty Thieves and hungry cannibals (unpleasantly racist characters, but watching them see through the kids’ efforts to impress them with modern technology is pretty funny). This was even more in the style of E. Nesbit than the previous book, with the grumpy turtle assisting the kids very much in the mold of Nesbit’s magical mentors. Rereading these is proving a good decision.

THE MIGHTY SWORDSMEN was a 1970 anthology of sword and sorcery ranging from very good (one of John Brunner’s Traveler in Black tales and Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River,”) to the mediocre, in the form of a non-Howard Conan yarn  by Bjorn Nyberg and one of Lin Carter’s Thongor stories. While it wouldn’t have bothered me at the time, the heroes are all men and the cast mostly so; the women who do get noticeable roles are smothered by sexism (why is the hot girl penetrating a forbidden castle to find her brother foolish while Thongor doing the same from curiosity is heroid?).

WORLD OF TROUBLE: The Last Policeman Book III follows Countdown City to wrap up Ben Winters’ trilogy. At the end of the last book, Hank had settled in with his new girlfriend to spend the end of the world in comfort. Now, though, he heads out to find his missing sister: has her secret organization found a way to avert the asteroid impact after all? If not, just what are they up to? It turns out things have not being going well to Nora, pushing Hank back into cop mode. With only a few days to the impact though, can he get to the bottom of things? A downbeat but satisfactory finish.

#SFWApro. Cover by Michael Whelan, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Monster hunters, murder solvers and heroic swordsmen: books read

SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP: Doomed by the usual team of Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela has Scooby and friends help Supergirl when she’s haunted by the ghosts of Argo City, assist Dyno-Mutt when Blue Falcon goes off his rocker and in my favorite story, assist a small town threatened by DC’s gorilla villains, from Monsieur Mallah to Pryemaul the Nazi vampire gorilla (that’s him on the Brizuela cover). The line “It’s the Gorilla Boss of Gotham City and the Mod Gorilla Boss, together!” for some reason had me convulsed with laughter. A shame there’s only one TPB of this series left.

CAITLIN KELLY, MONSTER HUNTER by Theresa Glover has a Vatican-sanctioned Slayer looking to vacation in New Orleans with her nerdy best buddy, Matt. However the local counterpart is dead and a demon dog is eating the Big Easy’s ghost population so Caitlin’s vacation gets postponed. Plus she has to work with her handler Sister Betty, a nun lesbian Caitlin has an intense crush on. This was competent but not much beyond that (though I might have liked it better if I were a bigger urban fantasy fan), and counting Warrior Nun it’s the third Catholic-sanctioned demon-slayer I know of (which has prompted me to start a story with a Jewish slayer sneering at the Catholics as mere parvenus).

My friend Sherry Harris has branched out from her Sarah Winston garage sale cozies with FROM BEER TO ETERNITY: A Chloe Jackson Sea Glass Saloon Mystery. Chloe is a Chicago librarian honoring a request by her late BFF to move to Emerald Cove — a fictitious community just east of Destin, where I used to be a reporter — and help her friend’s grandma, Vivi, running her beachfront bar, the Sea Glass. Vivi doesn’t want Chloe there but when it looks like Vivi stabbed an annoying local eccentric through the throat, Chloe starts digging … I honestly can’t evaluate this as a mystery because for me revisiting my old home was a lot of fun. We have white sand beaches, pine woods, tourist traffic, development squabbles, oddballs … it’s like revisiting home without the suffocating heat. HEROIC FANTASY, edited by Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt, was a sword-and-sorcery collection from the late 1970s, selecting from what I think of as a talented B-list rather than the big names such as Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock. That’s not meant as an insult because the results are very good, including an Andre Norton Witch World fantasy, a Cyrion story by Tanith Lee, one of Charles Saunders’ Imaro tales and a story of the Voidal by Adrian Cole. The last was particularly fun to reread because at the time I had no way to find the small-press volumes in the series but now, in the Internet age, it’ll be easy. This collection does tend toward the grim, and the heroes are overwhelmingly white (except for Imaro) and male (except for Norton’s), but I like it nonetheless. There are also good, informative essays on swords, armor and heroism that I enjoyed rereading.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders, book cover art is uncredited.

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The Witch World and Beanworld, plus the world’s most famous Kurd: books read

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.

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Gryphons, stock speculation and a hellcat! This week’s reading.

GRYPHON IN GLORY is Andre Norton’s follow-up to The Crystal Gryphon wherein Kerovan, having won Joisan’s heart in the first book, decides he doesn’t want it. Or more truthfully he does want it, but he doesn’t want Joisan shackled to a freak such as himself (a standard disability cliche). So when Lord Imgry (who first appeared in the chronologically later Year of the Unicorn) needs someone to enter the Waste that borders the Dales and seek mystical help against the invaders, Kerovan volunteers. Too bad for his plans Joisan is determined to get him back and rides after him.

This is very much a crossover book. We have the Were-Riders from Year of the Unicorn, plus Elys and Jervon from Spell of the Witch World who gives both Kerovan and Joisan an example of mismatched outcasts who’ve become a couple. The Dales setting is looking more and more like Estcarp: the Waste, like Estcore, is pocketed with powers of light and dark who’ve retreated from the world but can easily be stirred up again. The invaders from Alizon are definitely backed by the Kolder, who are seeking their own allies or tools in the Waste. On top of which the subterranean Thals (featured prominently in Sorcerer of the Witch World) show up this side of the ocean. It feels very much like having wrapped up Estcore’s struggles in Sorceress of the Witch World, Norton’s giving herself a do-over — but it works. Better than the previous installment, in fact, as the magic, while pushing Kerovan and Joisan around, leaves them room to decide their own fate at the climax.

DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor does a great job with the topic, starting with what, exactly makes speculation different from investment, or from gambling (Chancellor’s view is that it’s much closer to the latter). Chancellor looks at the famous bubbles of history including Tulipmania in Holland, England’s South Sea Bubble, France’s Mississippi Bubble, railroad bubbles in the U.S. and England in the 19th century (one of the books points is that shiny new tech always attracts speculators) and Japan’s 1980s speculation bubble (which I only knew about vaguely, from reading about the film Bubble Fiction for Now and Then We Time Travel). Chancellor looks at the shifting role and perceptions of speculation in between the big event; following the Crash of ’29 and the Depression, the U.S. tightly regulated and generally disapproved of it, but that faded with the “greed is good!” attitudes of the Reagan presidency. While some economists argue for a perfectly rational economy in which speculation must therefore be equally rational, Chancellor makes a good case that this view ignores reality in multiple ways. While the book came out in 1998, both the dot.com bubble and the real estate bubble of 12 years ago fit his arguments perfectly. Very good.

PATSY WALKER, A.K.A. HELLCAT: Hooked on a Feeling by Kate Leth and Brittney Williams is the first TPB of a now-ended series. Patsy Walker was Marvel’s A-lister in the 1950s, a female Archie-type teen whose adventures sold well until the mid-1960s; Steve Englehart then turned her into the superhero Hellcat in his run on Marvel’s Avengers. In this incarnation, she’s somewhat burned out on superheroics and hoping to put together a temp agency providing gigs for metahumans who similarly don’t want to participate in clashes of titans. Unfortunately the Asgardian sorceress Casiolena is trying to recruit the same sort of folks for her evil plans — and meanwhile Patsy’s former bestie, Hedy, is exploiting the rights to the Patsy Walker comic books (which exist within the Marvel Universe too). The results got overly cute at times, but by the end it won me over.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Lawrence Schwinger, bottom by Brittney Williams.

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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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Bruce Lee, Andre Norton, Agatha Heterodyne and Cats: books read

Reading Nerds of Color‘s post on how Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood disrespects Bruce Lee got me curious to read about the legendary kung fu star. Fortunately the library had BRUCE LEE: A Life by Matthew Polly, chronicling, Bruce’s story from hyperkinetic mixed-race child actor (his nickname as a kid was “Never sits still”) to teenage brawler and street punk to cha-cha fanatic to gung fu master, and all of that before he began his climb to become Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar. Martial arts movies and Asian-American actors are so much more common now (though obviously Hollywood’s still solidly white-dominated) that it was a shock to realize how out there Lee’s ambitions seemed at the time, and how much discrimination he had to deal with (one newspaper article on Lee actually worked “Rotsa Ruck” into the headline). Nor did he have it easy in Hong Kong, where initial enthusiasm for the hometown boy’s success was later shaded by concerns Lee’s biracial heritage meant he wasn’t Chinese enough. Very good.

TREY OF SWORDS by Andre Norton (striking cover by Charles Mikolaycak) is set in Escore roughly during the events of Warlock of the Witch World. The characters are a stock type in this series: Yonan and Crytha, both mixed-race, both orphans, both uncertain where they fit in and Yonan crushing on an oblivious Crytha. The first two sections of the book involve Yonan discovering the magical Sword of Ice (or vice versa — the Sword chooses it’s wielders) and alongside an ancient warrior traveling back in time to avert one of the Dark’s great triumphs in Escore’s past. The effects of this in the present aren’t really dwelt with, except Crytha, who has just enough untapped power to be vulnerable to the Dark’s control, encounters some of the leftover villains of that battle and has to choose her own destiny. I can’t say this really grabbed me but that’s partly because I read it while I was surfeited with dog care and unable to focus. It does have an unusual end for a Witch World book in that Crytha doesn’t come to return Yonan’s feelings, and chooses a life alone to study her craft.

GIRL GENIUS: The Second Journey of Agatha Heterodyne: The Incorruptible Library by Phil and Kaja Foglio continues Agatha’s adventures as the threat of the mind-controlling Other looms over Europe and Agatha and her crew penetrate the catacombs under Paris in search of a McGuffin that … well, actually I’m not quite sure. There are so many characters, plot threads and character bits that I found it impossible to keep everything straight. It was still amusing (“I write love poetry about cheese.”) and I still look forward to the next volume, but it wasn’t very coherent.

YOUR CAT: The Owner’s Manual: Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Cat by Dr. Marty Becker didn’t actually have any surprises as it covers the same material as the other cat books I’ve read recently. Which isn’t a criticism of the book — if it had been the first one I picked up, I’d have liked it fine — but I wound up skimming most of it. The chapter on cat training may come in useful though.

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Two legends of the 1960s, and more: books read

JFK AND THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE: Sex and Power on the New Frontier by Steven Watts, hooked me with its introductory chapter discussing the 1950s’ fears that corporate conformism was emasculating men (Watts sees this as a twisted image of the housewife’s frustrated life in The Feminine Mystique) while wives dominated husbands and working women were taking over business! JFK seemed the perfect antidote: a handsome war hero, charismatic politician, the embodiment of masculine vigor and a world-class ladies man — who cares what his policies were? And JFK’s own desire for manliness shaped his view of Vietnam, the CIA (and his fondness for James Bond) and the Cold War.

Unfortunately the book from there turns into multiple profiles of the era’s various macho men and womanizers such as Hugh Hefner, Frank Sinatra, Norman Mailer and Ian Fleming himself, included based on whether Watts can claim some sort of tie-in with JFK (Sinatra and the Rat Pack yes, but Kirk Douglas and Tony curtis are a stretch). While he shows how each man represented an alternative to suburban/corporate drone life, the broader question of masculinity in crisis takes second place to the biographies — and it doesn’t help that Watts’ idea of masculinity in revolt seems to be sleeping around a lot. This also needs more context: America had been fretting about masculinity before the 1950s just as it frets about it now (Women Taking Over and the End of Men are still rallying cries for sexists). Nor do I buy his conclusion that this style of predatory womanizing was so much worse than old-school patriarchy, it helped prompt the woman’s movement. Despite some good sections, this was overall a thumbs-down for me.

THE SILVER AGE FLASH OMNIBUS: Vol. 2 by (mostly) John Broome and Carmine Infantino collects the run of Flash (pun intentional) from #133 to #163. The Scarlet Speedster battles his Rogue’s Gallery, tackles alien invaders, copes with Iris’ constant carping (what would have been stock relationship stuff in fiction then looks a lot more shrewish now), teams up with Kid Flash, Jay Garric and the Elongated Man and loses his powers a couple of times. While I have most of this era in comics, it’s good to fill in the few gaps, and Infantino’s art is absolutely breathtaking in this format. Like most Silver Age comics, not for everyone, but definitely for me.

While it’s targeted at a much younger age range than me, I really enjoy DC SUPER-HERO GIRLS, the online cartoon that imagines DC’s heroes (and a few antiheroes) as teenagers attending high school under principal Amanda Waller and Vice-Principal Gorilla Grodd. In Finals Crisis by Shea Fontana and Yancey Labat, someone’s kidnapping the school’s top female students, but why? And can they pool their abilities to break free? This was light-hearted fun, and I do enjoy some of the results of mixing characters together, like having Katana and Beast Boy as sparring partners (he’s fast, agile and unpredictable so Katana finds him a great adversary).

THE LIBRARY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Phaedra Patrick has a self-sacrificing librarian discovers a book holding a collection of her childhood writings, and autographed by her supposedly dead grandmother; investigating, the librarian gets to reboot her life and unearth a boatload of family secrets. I have real trouble with the protagonist: she’s endlessly put upon (I can understand caring for her sick parents, but washing and ironing her coworkers’ clothes?) and miserable throughout (if sacrifice sparked joy, that would be different — this is like my problems with Heroine Complex only worse) and at the end she’s way too forgiving of her family (even her emotionally abusive father was doing the best he could!) for my taste.

THE CRYSTAL GRYPHON is Andre Norton’s prequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in the Dales during the early years of the war against Alizon (the story seems to show Alizon was so successful because they used Kolder technology). Kerovan is a nobleman cursed from birth with cloven hooves and golden eyes (a minor plot weakness is that we’re alternately told his face is unearthly and that with his hooves covered he looks quite normal), betrothed in childhood in a political match to Joisan. Their meeting and wedding get postponed by the war, but inevitably their respective struggles draw them into each other’s orbit. That, in turn, pits them against a scheme by Kerovan’s mother (in a nice touch we learn she shunned him not because she thinks he’s a monster but because he’s not the demon-possessed child she wanted to create) to raise Dark Powers and take control of the Dales herself. While Kerovan/Joisan has a lot in common with Gillan/Herrel in Unicorn, Joisan’s a distinctive character, strong-willed and good-hearted but with no qualms about political marriage being one of her duties. Unfortunately, the ending gets very deus ex as the magic the good guys have tapped pretty much does the work for them.

THE EVOLUTION OF USEFUL THINGS: How Everyday Artifacts — From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers — Came To Be As They Are by Henry Petroski argues that in designing every day items it’s not “form follows function but “form follows failure” — thus utensil design in each generation is a response to what the older forks and knives can’t do (plus the sheer range of potential designs means there’s no one form for each function). Petroski applies this analysis to forks, paperclips, hammers (how many specialty hammers do we need?) and zippers, noting as he did in Small Things Considered that no design is ever perfected as we don’t know what might be done with them in the future. Good, and many of these details would be useful for fiction (broad-bladed knives in some eras were tools for putting food in our mouths; before the 19th century invention of the paperclip, packets of paper were often pinned together).

#SFWApro. Cover by Infantino, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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SF, England and graphic novels: this week’s reading

THE GINGER STAR was Leigh Brackett’s 1970s reboot of her Eric John Stark, showing him as an interstellar rather than an interplanetary adventurer. After Stark’s closest friend disappears on the dying backwater world of Skaith, Stark goes there to hunt for him despite opposition from the cults and gen-engineered races dominating the planet. This makes it something of a Greatest Hits mashup, taking Stark and adding in a dying world like Brackett’s Mars, the genetic engineering of Sword of Rhiannon and the prophecy element of Nemesis From Terra. Lower key than some of the earlier Stark novels, but still good.

Andre Norton’s SPELL OF THE WITCH WORLD was the first book from then-rookie publisher DAW, consisting of three short stories set in the Dales before, during and after the war referenced in Year of the Unicorn. Dragonscale Silver feels like Norton’s reworking earlier witch-world books (psi-linked siblings, a woman of Estcarp blood being raised in the Dales) but it works, and gives us a female warrior mage for the protagonist (she and her lover Jervon show up in a couple more stories, IIRC). Dream Smith has a scarfaced metalworker creating a dream kingdom where he and his deformed lover can live away from the world’s eyes, but it’s way too disability-cliche for me. Amber Out of Quayth is the best story, a Gothic romance like Year of the Unicorn: a woman marries into a sinister family of amber dealers and discovers almost too late they have Dark Secrets. The Dales would remain the setting for the next two or three books.

A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND by Asa Briggs suffers the usual problems that any survey of 2,000-plus years is going to have to skim a lot of material. With that limitation, a good overview of the social influences facing Britain such as class, race, money, trade, sex and technology constantly shifting England’s social landscape.Very dry, but informative.

THE FOX: Freak Magnet by Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid and J. M. DeMatteis has had lot of good reviews (from the MLJ Companion, for instance) but I was less than impressed. The protagonist is the son of a Golden Age hero who donned the suit to draw out villains and become a Peter Parker-style photographer of super-action. Unfortunately, even though his career is settled and he’s happily married, the bad guys just keep coming … This premise reminded me of DC’s Blue Devil (ordinary guy plunged into weirdness) but it was nowhere near as entertaining. And the climax, in which the Fox is trapped in WW II and has to ally with the U.S. Shield, Japan’s Hachiman and German’s Master Race, is really weak: the idea that era was driven by a blood lust alien to our own time doesn’t hold up.

FATALE: West of Hell is the third volume in a series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips so I’m not surprised I didn’t understand everything going on. I was surprised how little I cared: the stories of femme fatales in multiple eras obviously all tie together, but I have no interest in reading V 1 and 2 and exploring how it all makes sense.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Steranko, all rights remain with current holder.

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Witches and a sorceress: books read

When kicking around ideas to pitch McFarland, I sometimes thought of proposing a book on screen witches. I don’t think had I done it that it would have been as good as Heather Greene’s excellent BELL, BOOK AND CAMERA: A Critical History of Witches in Film and Television. Greene chronicles the topic starting in the silent era when witches in movie were mostly the victims of the Salem witch trials (later films about Salem largely ignored the trial and used the town as a signifier that Here There Be Witches) or wise women in Western and rural settings (I like her insight that the New Age bookstore owner serves the same purpose in more recent years in giving the hero mystical insight). It was the 1930s that gave movie witches their first landmarks via Snow White (the Queen being the first Sexy Evil Witch) and The Wizard of Oz (Margaret Hamilton’s witch taking the Halloween crone used in cartoons for comedy and not only making her menacing but becoming the archetype). Later films shifted witches into real horror and rom-com such as I Married a Witch, threw in Wicca and Satanism (frequently mixing the two) and witch superheroes such as Charmed.

Greene also tackles the role of the male witch (where females usually use their power to get guys, the male witch uses power to get more power) and black women (more complicated than I can cover here) and argues that the witch in any film represents a rebellion against the constraints placed on women (so in the rom-coms I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle the witch gives up magic in favor of mortal housewifery). It’s a shame the focus is American (no Harry Potter films as their part-English made) but within that limit, a winner.

Andrew Norton’s SORCERESS OF THE WITCH WORLD supposedly ended that saga (the next book came out four years later) as Katthea, amnesiac from the previous novel, flees the Valley for fear the dark powers will find it too easy to control her. Her odyssey leads to her becoming a tribal shaman, then stumbling through a dimensional gate into a nightmarish post-apocalyptic world (one of the book’s pluses is that we never really learn what’s going on there) where she finds her parents and her Great Love. This bogs down during the tribal phase, picks up in the Otherworld but even as a kid I found the ending abrupt, summing up the next decade in Escore to tell us that the good guys won and evil was destroyed forever (this makes me think Norton really did expect this was the last Witch World story).

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Is our writers learning? Magicians on two different worlds

Today I look at two books from recent reading that I liked, but I thought had serious flaws (of course both authors are way more successful than me, so perhaps you should my opinions of them with a grain of salt)

After Year of the Unicorn Andre Norton returned to Estcore for WARLOCK OF THE WITCH WORLD, focusing on Kemoc, the second of the Tregarth triplets. In the aftermath of Three Against the Witch World, Kaththea has found a boyfriend, the noble warrior Dinzil. Everything about Dinzil sets off Kemoc’s alarms, but everyone tells him he’s just jealous of his sister finding someone besides him and his brother. He tells himself that’s right … but then, during one military sortie, he winds up injured, poisoned and alone. And he learns that Dinzil is, indeed, a dangerously bad dude, offering Kaththea training in magic with an eye to luring her to the dark side. With the help of the mer-woman Orsya, Kemoc journeys to Dinzil’s dark tower, picking up a magic sword along the way. Unnervingly, a seer predicts there are three possible outcomes, all of which lead to Kemoc killing Kaththea. As she can’t tell him what events trigger those dooms, he’s completely frozen in deciding what to do next (a nice touch).

The sword, unfortunately, is the book’s big flaw. It’s like a really overpowered magical item in D&D; in addition to standard stuff (flaring in the presence of evil) it can dig through magical barriers, move by itself and at the climax, when Kemoc does kill his gone-to-the-dark-side sister by throwing the sword into her heart, it’s the sword that saves her, turning so she’s just knocked cold by the pommel. That’s the part that really bugged me because it felt like a complete cheat.

AN UNKINDNESS OF MAGICIANS by Kat Howard (of Cathedral of Myth and Bone) takes place during a power struggle between the great Houses of New York’s magical community (if Howard referenced any magic outside of NYC, I missed it). Sydney is the key player among several POV characters: recently released from the House of Shadow (which imprisons mage children as a battery of power other sorcerers can draw on), she’s the champion of one man hoping to found his own house; has a hidden agenda assigned her by Shadow; and an agenda of her own, to smash the nightmare House of Shadows once and for all.

The magic system is pretty simple: apparently you just will it and it happens. As the effects are weird and colorful, this doesn’t come off as Charmed-style magic as psi-power. The magic duels are over fast, with little suspense (Sydney’s very, very good) but that’s okay as the focus is more on character and political scheming: actually winning the duels is secondary.

Where the book disappointed me is that all the character conflicts, the political scheming and Sydney’s war on shadow wrap up with about a fifth of the book left to go. The plotline veers to the mysterious malfunctioning of magic (something set up early on), a battle with one evil, ambitious schemer and Sydney sacrificing her own power so that magic doesn’t disappear completely. It felt like none of this tied in to what the book was about — Sydney’s sacrifice and the need for it came completely out of left field.

I liked both books, but I could have liked them a lot more.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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