Tag Archives: Andre Norton

The Black Widow, other spiders and more! Books read

BLACK WIDOW: Sting of the Widow (by multiple creators) starts with Natasha’s 1964 debut in Tales of Suspensethen leaps forward to 1970 when a Spider-Man crossover served to introduce readers into her new series ——which as you can see debuted the leather jumpsuit that’s defined her look ever since. Credit goes to Spidey artist John Romita, who modeled the new look not on Emma Peel (a popular assumption) but the Golden Age hero Miss Fury.

The new take on Natasha is that having broken up with Hawkeye she’s trying to bury her past by living as a glamorous jet-setter (no explanation on the source of her considerable wealth) only to decide she needs action and danger more. While she’s relied on her weapons and her allies (Hawkeye, Crimson Guardian and others) in the past, this establishes her as a deadly martial artist. Which is, again, very Emma Peel though it also reminds me of Wonder Woman’s depowered years.

After a fairly stupid Hero vs. Hero fight with Spider-Man, she launches into her new series with Gary Friedrich scripting and Gene Colan as the primary artist. An activist group, the Young Warriors is taking over an inner city building owned by a corrupt NYC politician and Natasha winds up helping them, though pushing them to handle things through the system as much as possible (like a lot of “relevant” stories back then, it wants to be radical, but not too radical). It also has seriously dimwitted villains, as in they tie up the Black Widow but still leave her with her “widow’s sting” ray-blasting bracelets.

After guest writer Mimi Gold wraps up the story, Roy Thomas takes over as new scripter (Don Heck unfortunately replaces Colan on the art). Thomas’ story arc involves youth but less controversy — it’s a group of street kids and runaways who’ve been manipulated by a seemingly benevolent father figure into turning criminal (that one goes back to Oliver Twist). Natasha also has to deal with her growing worry that everyone close to her dies, which comes off a little overwrought. The main significance is that her chauffeur Ivan is elevated to a much larger role. He’s the one who’s watched over her since he found her as a toddler in WW II; he has the brute strength to be a formidable fighter; and he spouts cliches out of 1930s films because that’s where he learned English. He’d remain Natasha’s trusty sidekick all the way through the Bronze Age.

The book wraps up with Natasha guest-starring in Daredevil after her series went belly-up. This proved more successful as they became lovers and crimefighting partners for the next four years, with Black Widow getting cover credit alongside DD for some of that time.

Overall the material is readable. Not classic, and better for art than story, but I enjoyed it.

THE BOOK OF SPIDERS AND SCORPIONS by Rod Preston-Mafham is a very good overview of spiders (if you’re a scorpion-phile they get much less attention) covering biology, anatomy, classification, predation, web-slinging, life cycle, mating rituals, and weaponry (everything from a spider that spits sticky gumto one that can spit poison eight inches). I thought this would be a lot more basic than it was, but I’m very pleased with it.

THE X-FACTOR by Andre Norton has an alien freak (too big, clumsy and slow-witted for his elegant race) steal a spaceship to get away, crash on an alien planet and confront telepathic cats, imperiled archeologists, space pirates and the half-buried city of Xcothan. This is pretty good — Xcothan comes off eerie enough I’d incorporate it into my D&D campaign if I still had one — but so little explanation of anything it feels like it should have been Part One instead of a standalone. The ending is similar to several short stories in which a lonely disabled protagonist gets to live in a magical fantasy world, but at novel length it didn’t work as a payoff (though it felt less full of disability cliches than some of the shorts).

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Gil Kane. All rights remain with current holders.

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Books I reread recently, some on vacation.

As a mythology loving kid, I was thrilled to encounter DC’s Captain Action as a kid — what could be cooler than a superhero who got powers from magic coins left behind by the gods of myth? Solar powers from Shamash, lightning from Thor, speed from Mercury, fighting skills from Ares, wind control by Aeolus, all pitted against his archfoe Krellik, who gained evil magic from the Slavic dark god Chernobog. I’d had the collected CAPTAIN ACTION CLASSIC on my Amazon wishlist but while on vacation I discovered it on my library’s Hoopla digital service and so read it for free.

The first two issues, by Jim Shooter, Wally Wood and Gil Kane (cover to the left by Irv Novick) were as enjoyable as I remember, though with their illogical moments (Krellik has a perfect shot to take out his archfoe and gain all the magical coins, but decides to make him suffer instead). But the third issue, with Gil Kane writing as well as drawing, is just as disappointing as I remember. Captain Action loses most of his coins, vastly reducing the mythological fun, and we get long-winded speechifying from his archfoe Dr. Evil (Captain Action was an action figure line so the use of the line’s Dr. Evil was not optional — however they could have written him better. The remaining Gil Kane issues aren’t much better but the art is certainly awesome. Just look at Kane’s cover below.The Lone Pine Club were the cast of a long-running British children’s series by Malcolm Saville; so long-running, in fact, that I have Mum’s copy of the first book, MYSTERY AT WITCHEND, but I was buying new books in the series as a tween. This has the Morton family (Mom, older kid David, identical twins Dicky and Mary) relocating to Shropshire during the war where the three siblings and a couple of locals — most notably the tomboyish Petronella — form the club to have fun in the outdoors. But wouldn’t you know it, there are German sleeper agents in the neighborhood plotting to sabotage the local reservoir, though in contrast to so many Boys And Girls Own adventures the kids don’t stop the Germans, they just get caught up in the adult investigation.

Unlike some of my childhood reading, the book has aged fine, but it doesn’t work for me. It’s less the kids vs. spies stuff I remembered and more about them coming together, bonding and having fun together in the Shropshire wilderness. I can see why that appealed to me as a shy, introverted kid but it doesn’t have the same appeal now. I may ry a couple more to see if things pick up though.

PERILOUS DREAMS by Andre Norton is a collection of four stories linked by the Hive of Dreamers, psis who can draw their clients into dreams of sex, adventure or whatever. In the first two (one of which I also read in Norton’s High Sorcery), the dreamer Tamisen draws her new client into an alternate timeline of their world, figuring it’ll be something different from his past dream experiences. Unfortunately it turns out that a)his treacherous brother is rigging the dream to get rid of him; b)Tamisen can’t disengage; and c)she may have trapped them in a real alternate timeline.

The stories were enjoyable but the repeated emphasis that the dreamers, contrary to everything they believe, can alter reality, did make me wish one of the stories had dealt with that and what it signified. That aside, this was a fun one.


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Museums, comic books and Andre Norton: books read

I was puzzled why a theater historian would write WEIRD AND WONDERFUL: The Dime Museum in America, but Andrea Stulman Dennett’s book reveals that theater was a very large part of the 19th century dime-museum industry. As she details, early attempts by American museums — mostly collectors showing off their cabinet of curiosities to the public — to charge admission flopped. P.T. Barnum, however, found the magic formula, a mix of science, freak show and humbug, all carefully packaged to be family friendly (which brought in a female audience as it was a safe place women could go together).

Museums turned to adding theater because they could swap a new play in much faster than replacing a midget or a dog-faced boy; over time, they also added waxworks, novelty acts and even short film, making them the launching pad for vaudeville, cinemas and carnival sideshows. While the offspring outlasted the parent, Dennett points out that Ripley’s Believe It Or Not appealed to the same sense of wonder that had audiences flocking to Barnum and others, and ran well into the late 20th century.

AMERICAN COMICS: A History by Jeremy Dauber does a good job discussing how sequential art goes back a long way (do William Hogarth’s prints such as A Rake’s Progress constitute the first comic strip?). Dauber then traces the history from political cartoons through comic strips to the Golden Age of comic books … and after that everything became familiar so I stopped.

That is not the author’s fault but I did find some extremely bad errors. Luke Cage was not Power Man when he started out (see the Billy Graham cover here) and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl was a separate character from the one who appeared a few years earlier (if that’s not what Dauber meant, he wrote it poorly). So I’m even happier that I didn’t bother to go through it all.

GARAN THE ETERNAL is an oddball Andre Norton collection that includes two Witch World shorts; her first published story, “People of the Crater”; and it’s prequel, written years later, “Garin of Yu-Lac.” Comparing the two Garin stories shows how much Norton improved as a writer. The first one is an A. Merritt-style Lost World story but while Norton knows the elements it should include, she can’t make it sing. The second story is bigger and better but the characters are still stick figures.

The short story “One Spell Wizard,” by contrast, is a fun story about a shapeshift matching wits with a mage. It’s odd in that the magic seems like real magic rather than the more psi-oriented powers of the series. Still, it’s fun, and the other yarn, “Legacy of Sorn Fen,” is pretty good.

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


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Gymnasts, librarians and disability cliches: books read

BELLA AT THE BAR by Jenny McDade and John Armstrong is one of a number of British sports comic strips for girls (I know of several ice-skating ones for instance). Bella Barlow is that classic figure of children’s adventures, an orphan with cruel caregivers (Uncle Jed and Aunt Gertrude) who use her as unpaid slave labor. Bella, however, is a naturally gifted gymnast who has a shot at become a serious competitive athlete — as long as Uncle Jed doesn’t find out. While this doesn’t appeal to me as much as Fran of the Floods, it is an engaging enough adventure to work.

By contrast, CHIAROSCURO: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci by Pat McGreal and Chaz Truog was a slog. This is the story of DaVinci as told by his thieving, conniving but handsome servant Salai, who bitterly resents Leonardo for not being the father-figure he needs. Salai’s an unpleasant character and I know enough of the historical Leonardo that the details of his life, as presented here, aren’t terribly fresh. Truog’s art didn’t work for me either.

BLUE BEETLE: Shell-Shocked by Keith Giffen, John Rogers and Cully Hammer launched the Jaime Reyes incarnation of the character (the names been in use since the 1940s). El Paso teenager Jaime discovers a strange scarab which then bonds to him, turning him into a powerful armored superhero. This upends his life and puts him into conflict with the metahuman street gang the Posse, local crimelord La Dama and a lot of superheroes who aren’t sure he’s trustworthy.

The idea of introducing a young rookie superhero to the world of metahumans is one comics have tried several times in the past three decades. This is one of the few times it works. Jaime’s a likable character, the stories are fun and this seems to avoid Hispanic stereotypes (I don’t deny I could miss one). However because it’s tied in to Jaime’s role in Infinite Crisis some readers have a hard time figuring out some of what’s going on (a perennial problem with TPBs including Big Event tie-ins).

THE DEPARTMENT OF RARE BOOKS AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS by Eva Jurczyk is a literary mystery in which the aging second-in-command of a university rare book library steps in for her ailing boss and discovers the collection’s most prized antiquity has gone AWOL While I liked the premise, I gave up after fifty pages — Jurczyk is doing a literary mystery and her literary style left me cold.

HIGH SORCERY is a five-story Andre Norton collection in which four of the stories involve disability cliches about tragic deformed or disabled figures such as the musician in Ully the Piper (who gets a Miracle Cure as his reward). That aside the collection is okay, not great; Ully is a witchworld book but it could just as easily have been set on Earth. The most interesting is Toys of Tamasen about a dream-inducing psi who finds herself and her client trapped in the dream and Wizard World, which reads like a Witch World riff (Esper flees to a setting very reminiscent of Estcarp or Alizon).

Much like The Time Axis, Henry Kuttner’s Well of the Worlds seems overstuffed with ideas for a short novel. For instance, this 1953 book is set in 1970 but that doesn’t affect the story at all. The government assigns Sawyer, an investigator, to help Klai, the amnesiac owner of a uranium mine which is slowing production because of ghosts. Investigating the supposed spirits delivers Sawyer into the hands of the mine’s malevolent co-owner, then they and Klai get hurled across the dimensions to a world under the control of the godlike Isier. Being on an immortal race’s shitlist isn’t a good position to be in, but Sawyer’s ready to fight against all odds. This gets so wild, the climax resembles an acid trip of special effects, but I enjoyed it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by John Armstrong, bottom by Duncan Rouleau, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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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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