Tag Archives: Andre Norton

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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Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

Sherlock Holmes was, of course, talking about double-checking your deductions when he said that: is there another explanation besides your theory? But I think it’s another of those Holmesian lines that applies well to writing. Because the last thing we want is for our readers wishing we’d done something different.

It’s bad if they read our writing and start correcting it (“There’s a much smoother way to say that.”). It’s worse if they start questioning the plot logic: wouldn’t it make more sense if X had done Y instead of Z? And it’s really bad if they finish and think “That’s not how it should have ended!”

This is not a new problem. People have hated the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for a couple of centuries (sticking with what was historically plausible, Scott has his hero marry the bland Rowena rather than the more interesting but Jewish Rebecca). Only in the 21st century, everyone can get together online to vent or Tweet their displeasure at you, which I imagine feels worse. In the Internet age, even a small group of dissatisfied fans can kick up what seems like a storm of negative criticism.

I doubt it’s possible to write a book so perfect nobody has problems. But I do think/hope it’s possible to write one good enough that the people looking for alternatives are only a minority. And that the majority is enough to make our work profitable.

At the words level, I like Kaye Gibbons’ advice: write and rewrite until the next word feels inevitable. I don’t always manage it, but I know what she means. At the plot level, it includes avoiding idiot plot: nobody should do something dumb just because that’s the only way to make the story work. They should have a very good reason for putting themselves at risk. The ending has to pay off on the story’s beginning; it has to be logical; and it has to be emotionally satisfying as well.

For an case study, let’s look at YEAR OF THE UNICORN, the fourth (others say third) book in Andre Norton’s Witch World series.

The protagonist, Gillan, is an orphan (one of her parents has Witch blood) in the Dales, across the ocean from Estcarp. The Dales have just emerged from a war with Alizon, which they won with the help of the shapeshifting Were-Riders; in return, they’ve agreed to provide the Riders with thirteen brides to take home. Frustrated with life in a monastic sisterhood, Gillan contrives to become one of the brides. She winds up paired with Herrel, as much an outsider among the Riders as she felt in the Dale. Unfortunately the unattached riders resent Herrel’s success and distrust the magic in Gillan’s blood. They replace Gillan with a magical clone and abandon the real woman to die. Can Gillan survive?

Norton made a number of surprising choices. She breaks with books one and two to give us a completely different part of the Witch World, one she wouldn’t return to for years. Year was her first story with a female protagonist. Rather than fantasy adventure, it’s a Gothic romance with a Beauty and the Beast element. As it’s first-person POV, the wording is archaic, almost stiff at times (but it does include the delicious line “He kept smiling. It was enough to make one dread all smiles.”). And in contrast to many romances, neither of the leads is stunningly good-looking — attractive, but not godlike.

These choices don’t work for everyone. The Gothic romance element when I first read the book turned me off. So did Gillan’s long quest to catch up with the Riders; it’s an interesting, eerie journey (That Which Runs the Ridges is a very ominous monster), but it’s a solo act, with no-one to talk to or interact with for chapter after chapter. And the point where Gillan recoils from Herrel’s shape-changing feels like she’s acting out of character to advance the plot. While I think most of Norton’s other choices were good, not everyone agrees.

But that’s the risk we all take when we write.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, mug by the Philosophers Guild. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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A psi spy, Helen of Troy and a return to the Witch World: Books

THE BRAIN BOY ARCHIVES by Herb Castle and Frank Springer (with Gil Kane providing art on the first issue) collects the adventures of psychic teen spy Matt Price. Recruited by the US government, he uses his telepathic and telekinetic powers to tackle various threats to America, most notably the Latin American dictator Ricorta, a psi himself.

I’d heard that this Dell Comics series was above average and it is. In Brain Boy #3, for instance, Matt investigates the disappearance of a number of Americans in the Arctic. Is the threat foreign espionage? No, it’s a Tyrannosaurus mentalis, an intelligent, psionic tyrannosaur! The plots in most of the issues (six total) are similarly well done. The only problem I had with it is that Matt’s girlfriend Maria, despite being another psi, is largely written as a typical 1960s nagging women-are-never-satisfied character.

I’d assumed HELEN OF TROY: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell would be a look at interpretations of Helen through the ages down to our own time, but Blondell instead focuses entirely on the ancient Greeks: how they prized beauty in women while fearing its ability to override reason, and how various poets, philosophers and writers rationalized waging a ten year war for a woman who abandoned her husband. Specialized, but interesting within that specialized range.

While jumping to the next generation is a common way to stretch out series, I’m surprised Andre Norton made the jump just three books into the Witch World saga. THREE AGAINST THE WITCH WORLD covers twenty years (following Web of the Witch World) in the first chapter or two, shuffling Simon and Jaelithe offstage in favor of their telepathically linked triplets. The Wise Woman of Estcarp seize the sister, Kaththea, as a new recruit, forcing her brothers Kyllan and Kemoc to free her, then head east into Escore, a land mysteriously blocked from the awareness of Estcarp blood (being half Terran, they can make it). Here they discover a region where magic was once much more powerful until a devastating war drove Estcarp’s founders out. Things are quiet but the Tregarth siblings’ coming is stirring up powers that were better left sleeping.

The levels of magic in Escore are much wilder, more alien and nastier than what we saw in the first two volumes, which makes this book work better for me. However it always seemed a little unfair that where his siblings have some degree of magic, Kyllan’s limited to controlling animals.

#SFWApro. Cover by Frank Springer, bottom cover uncredited, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Women of Wonder: This week’s reading

The Witch World sequel WEB OF THE WITCH WORLD is an apt title as the Kolder are now using mind-controlled Enemies of the Estcarp Way in an elaborate plot to ensnare the witches; when the scheme stretches to include kidnapping Loyse, Simon and Jaelithe start spinning webs of their own (though as other shave pointed out, their plots fall by the wayside). A major plot point is Jaelithe discovers losing her virginity didn’t cancel out her powers, leaving Simon worried she’ll return to her old life (it’s a nice touch that Jaelithe never sees any conflict between Career and Family) while the witches mutter about Jaelithe doing the impossible (which pays off in the next book). One of those sophomore installments that sells the series.

JUDGMENT NIGHT by CL Moore collects several short stories along with the eponymous space-adventure novel. Jaille is princess and heir to the reigning Galactic Empire, horrified her father is actually willing to talk peace with their rising rival, the H’Vali. Perhaps she should see to it that peace doesn’t happen … but then it turns out the H’Vali leader Egide is the man she had a one-night stand with on a hedonistic pleasure planet. Will either of them turn from their course? And what of the Ancients, the all-powerful entities getting ready to judge humanity and pronounce sentence on their continued rule of the galaxy.

This doesn’t work for me as well as Moore’s Northwest Smith stories does, partly because it’s more serious and less pulpish, partly because the protagonists are both antiheroes, and not the likable outlaw kind Smith embodies. Still, it’s a good story with a good female lead and I did not expect the way it turned out.

THE BEST OF LEIGH BRACKETT was part of the same anthology series as the Best of CL Moore collection I read a couple of months back. All these DelRey “best of” collections had an introduction and this one, by Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton, was one of the most fun. Hamilton talks about his wife’s writing, why they never collaborated except for one story (he plots everything out, she pantses) and a lot of fun personal stories.

The stories themselves are an excellent lot. The Jewel of Bas about two thieves caught up in a battle for the fuure of their world; Shannach — The Last! in which an ancient Mercurian enslaves human colonists; The Moon That Vanished, in which a broken man is forced on a quest for the ultimate McGuffin; and Enchantress of Venus, one of her Eric John Stark’s stories (if I still DMed, I’d totally work the Red Sea of Venus into my campaign). The other stories are good, except Vanishing Venusiasn with its ugly colonialism (“Wow, Venusians are soulless monsters, we needn’t have any qualms about wiping them out and taking their land!”). Hamilton suggests a running theme in Brackett is of a strong man who attains his dream and discovers it’s hollow; he has a point, but several stories also fit a theme of “reality is better than dreams” (made explicit in Jewel of Bas).

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders; top cover is uncredited, bottom is by Boris Vallejo.

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Bad girls, a future Earth, a nuclear hero and witches: books read

BAD GIRLS: Young Women, Sex and Rebellion Before the Sixties by Amanda H. Littauer is the flip side to Trials of Nina McCall, looking at the kind of sexually active women the American Plan longed to lock up somewhere. Littauer’s selection includes “victory girls” who partied with soldiers during WW II, lesbians, prostitutes, kids going steady (which teens rationalized made it OK to have sex) and women discussed in and responding to the Kinsey Report on female sexual activity. Informative, but Littauer’s style is stiff even for a university press book, and I can’t help feeling there’s something missing, though I’m not sure what.

EARTH’S LAST CITADEL by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner starts in 1943 as protagonist Alan helps a brilliant, crotchety scientist escape from the Nazis. As the Nazi agents (a former mob triggerman and an Karen, an adrenaline junkie who does spy work for the thrills) catch up with them, all four are trapped by an ET, then thaw out in the very, very distant future, after the ET’s race has xenoformed Earth to their liking, then died out. Exploring the strange title city, the quartet (fully aware that their political disagreements mean very little now) discover an Eloi like race, a malevolent telepath — oh, and one of the aliens may not have died after all …

This is exotic, imaginative and colorful, the kind of pulp stuff I love. However, while I enjoyed it, it’s kind of a mess; the plot changes direction so much I wonder if they were making it up as they went along and kept changing their minds (it was serialized, like a lot of SF stories at the time). Karen is an interesting character but she virtually vanishes, with more attention going to Alan’s Eloi love interest; nor do they do anything with the idea the scientist, while brilliant, would sooner party than work. by

Cary Bates redefined Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (the prototype for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) in his 1980s series, turning him into a government agent posing as a superhero to infiltrate the metahuman community. Nobody who followed Bates did anything good with the character, and DC’s New 52 turned him into a Dr. Manhattan knockoff. Now comes THE FALL AND RISE OF CAPTAIN ATOM by Bates and Greg Weisman which allows Bates to reboot the character close to Bates 1980s version. In his last battle, Captain Atom apparently dies but actually gets thrown back to the past. When he returns (I’m simplifying a lot of plot here)  he presents himself as a new, improved legacy hero — but what about the family he left in the past? And can he really trust his military superiors? Nothing’s been done with it since, and I’m not sure how it works for anyone who doesn’t love the 1980s version, but I give it solid thumbs up.

Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD was an insanely weird genre mash-up when I read it in the 1970s (about ten years after it appeared). Simon Tregarth begins as a veteran forced into a life of crime which is about to get him killed. A mysterious occultist offers him an escape via the Round Table’s Siege Perilous, which magically takes anyone who sits in it to the world they belong.

From that thriller opening (which I like enough I’m working on a variation of it) Simon arrives in Estcarp, a land ruled by a matriarchy of witches. Already surrounded by hostile nations, they’re now facing the threat of the sinister Kolder, who turn out to be a high-tech race as alien to the “witch world” (never called that, it’s just the world) as Simon.

It’s a good book with some interesting characters; I particularly like that Simon, while competent, isn’t a chosen one or a superman, he’s just a competent soldier. He doesn’t really do anything spectacular until the final section of the story. Given how many protagonists I see who are devastatingly bad-ass, this was refreshing.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Tim Hildebrandt, middle by Lawrence, bottom by Jack Gaughan

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Supergirl, POWs and Beast Master’s return: books read

Steve Orlando’s SUPERGIRL run has been uneven, at best, and Plain Sight (following Reign of the Cyborg Supermen, Escape from the Phantom Zone and V3, which I haven’t read) doesn’t improve things. The new boss of the DEO is a hardliner who believes any metahumans not taking orders from him are a threat, and so he keeps throwing villains at Supergirl in an attempt to — well, I’m not sure exactly. And cloning the TV show (instead of the previous set-up, which I liked) still doesn’t work for me, particularly when they throw in stock high-school tropes as well.

UNTIL THE LAST MAN COMES HOME: POWs, MIAs and the Unending Vietnam War by Michael J. Allen ponders how our lost soldiers became such a major issue when we had fewer of them than previous wars and they made up a smaller percentage of the troops. As Allen shows, the Vietnamese started the ball rolling by repatriating prisoners to anti-war activists (proving they could do business with reasonable Americans), then families of POWs began organizing as a political force. Nixon tried appropriating the cause (Allen argues that contrary to some historians, he was never the prime mover, though his insistence MIAs should be assumed to be POWs certainly stirred things up) as a reason to keep fighting, only to find many POW families wanted a quick end so the prisoners could be released. After the war, later presidents tried to exploit or bury the issue, with Reagan exploiting it best. However even he found giving lip service to Accounting For Every Last Soldier only set up hopes nobody could fulfill, furthering the POW advocates’ sliding into political paranoia (if I ever write a book on conspiracy theories in the real world, this topic’s going in there!) that saw recovering remains as proof of the conspiracy (why weren’t they recovering live prisoners instead?). An impressive stud, though I’d have liked Allen to tackle the theme in popular culture, such as the spate of Reagan-era movies including Rambo.

LORD OF THUNDER was Andre Norton’s less satisfying follow-up to Beast Master. A year after the first book, Hosteen Storm discovers a grand council of the native Arzorian tribes which several people worry is the prelude to war. On the plus side, it also provides an excuse for Stpr, to travel into the wilderness and hunt for the missing son of an offworlder (even at the time I imagine formally addressing the dude as “Gentle Homo” must have generated snickers). Things get complicated when it turns out a PTSDed Terran veteran is out to use lost ET machines to conquer the world, forcing Storm to pit his natural gifts against the cold threat of technology. The book has its moments, but the plots don’t knit together well and it lacks the first book’s emotional core (Storm finding his place in a new world). And like the first book, it’s an all-male story.

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The Arcana and a Beastmaster; two reviews leftover from last week

THE LAST SUN: The Tarot Sequence Book One by KD Edwards gets points for an unusual urban setting, the colony that Atlantis erected on Nantucket Island (apparently the continent’s sinking took place a lot later in this mythos) by transporting pieces of mundane cities to build it together, creating a rather eclectic layout. Protagonist Rune is the last of the Sun house (Atlantean aristocracy being modeled on the Major Arcana), a private investigator tricked into guarding the heir to The Lovers until he reaches age while also being hired to find a missing child of House Justice, all of which, of course, turns out more sinister than anticipated.

 

I enjoyed this, and would probably have liked it more if I were more of an urban fantasy fan. It’s competently plotted, and I liked that it had a gay protagonist. However I could have done without a tragic gang rape as part of his backstory. And given that Arcana heads seem to reflect the nature of their cards, why is Lord Tower relatively normal when that card is an ominous card of doom?

I’m a lot less fond of space Westerns than I am urban fantasy, but Andre Norton’s THE BEAST MASTER is a very good space Western. Protagonist Hosteen Storm is a Navajo veteran in te war with the alien Xik; humanity won, but Earth got blown to smithereens (fortunately we were already out in the stars). Storm, slightly PTSDed, shows up on the planet of Arzor, nominally to use his skills and his telepathic link with his beasts (eagle, meerkats, dune cat) on the frontier but secretly to avenge an old wrong. Much to his surprise and annoyance, he finds himself bonding with the colonists, even the man he’s out for revenge on. He also likes the native Norbies, who respect him as a warrior. Then he discovers a hidden Xik base on Arzor, from which the aliens are stirring up a Norbie/human war. It’s his chance to settle the score with the Xik — if he can.

Norton making her hero Native American was a radical step at the time, and Storm is indeed a hero, not a sidekick. He’s extremely capable and respected by everyone, though as Judith Tarr points out, Norton’s portrayal has problems. It’s an all-male cast, which surprisingly didn’t bother me as much as it usually does. My biggest problem is the handling of the aliens. The Norbies are very noble savage, the Xiks are pure evil, apparently willing to whip up a war just for kicks.

This might be Norton’s most successful work, in that it inspired the Marc Singer Beastmaster movies, which are fantasy and only carry over the idea of a hero with telepathic animal partners (as does the much less entertaining TV series). I was actually surprised how little role that aspect plays in the book; the animals need as much conventional training as they do telepathic guidance. The telepathy could probably have been dropped altogether.

Regardless, it really is a great book, if the flaws are not deal-breakers for you.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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