Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Unnumbered Reviews #7: Andre Norton -- Part I

Andre Norton is one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy -- one of the writers who moulded and influenced an entire generation of readers. Her work suffers, however, from a severe case of Heinlein's Syndrome: If you didn't encounter it in your teens, you may not care much for it if you encounter it now. In Norton's case, this is primarily because most of her early books were juveniles.

'Juveniles' is a slippery term in this context, since for much of the genre's history, most of the stories and novels were read by a relatively young readership. Until the last couple of decades, however, very few authors were explicitly writing science fiction for a young readership. The conspicuous exceptions were Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, and both exhibited the rare gift of writing for younger readers without writing down.

Yet Heinlein's novels tended to stay with those readers after Norton's were (fondly) left behind. Because Andre Norton's novels were adventure stories, tales of wonder and imagination, but not books that challenged their readers intellectually or philosophically. They still made wonderful reading for a thirteen-year-old or a fifteen-year-old, though.

The reason I've been referring to Norton's books in the past tense is that I'll be dwelling for the most part on her earlier novels, not her more recent ones. (For those, read "Part II", which I'm not planning to write.) That certainly leaves enough books to cover! Norton has written over a hundred books (and, with a librarian's neatness, has taken care to scatter the titles all through the alphabet).

There is a 'standard' milieu which houses a large fraction of Norton's science fiction, but it doesn't attempt to be a consistent future history. It's a multi-species galaxy, though humans predominate -- or at least are most numerous. (In none of her books does Norton slip into a humans-good-aliens-bad simplicity.) A precarious rule of law is provided by the Patrol, but space-farers who want to survive go armed. The Patrol itself is over-extended, and when it shows up, is as likely to deliver its own justice as to wait for the courts. (The other civilization-spanning organization is the Thieves Guild.) Starfaring worlds trade not only with each other, but also with more primitive worlds -- no Prime Directive here! Large corporations tend to control the more profitable trade routes, while independent traders work the exotic and peripheral ones.

Technology is advanced, but ill-defined aside from the ubiquitous spaceships, blasters, and advanced medical technology. Telepathic abilitiesare unusual, but not unknown. We don't see much large-scale government, but it presumably exists, as the backgrounds of many of the novels include interstellar wars, 'burnt off' planets, and displaced populations. And there's a back-history: In the millions of years before humanity came on the scene, many other races expanded and disappeared -- often leaving behind high-tech, high-psi, or even 'magical' artifacts of incalculable value. Obviously this is a varied enough background for any number of tales. Among the best of these:

"The Last Planet" (aka "Star Rangers", **** on an uncalibrated four-point scale. Warning: For this review, I'm not rating the books on how they would read if I reread them now, but on how I felt about them when I read them at age twelve or thirteen or fourteen. TLS, for instance, was one of the few books I read more than twenty times.) In "The Last Planet", Norton's standard milieu is only glimpsed in the background. An interstellar empire is collapsing, and the Patrol has become an embarrassment to the local authorities -- who order the few remaining ships on a mission from which they're not expected to return. The book opens with the last of these ships making its last crash landing on a primitive world which turns out to have remains of a high technology. Before the survivors can make a place for themselves on this world, they -- and other galactic refugees -- must first work through the conflicts they've brought with them: humans vs non-humans, telepaths vs non-telepaths, and the perennial problem of the power-hungry.

In "Dark Piper" (****-) too, the galactic milieu is only in the background. The Four Sectors War has just ended. The planet Beltane, settled as a scientific experimental station, rather than as a regular colony, was relatively unaffected by the war, and when Griss Lugard, one of the few veterans to return, warns that the galaxy is no longer as safe as it was, few wish to hear. Sure enough, the galaxy doesn't leave Beltane alone.When a number of the Beltane's youngsters are trapped with Lugard by a cave in, the accident winds up saving their lives: They emerge to find most of the colony dead, and their world in the hands of refugee veterans from other worlds -- or in the paws of the products of hitherto-secret biological research.

"Dread Companion" (***+), like many of Norton's novels, combines science fiction and fantasy. Kilda is a creche-raised youngster who takes a governess/teaching position as a means of getting offworld. She is made responsible for Oomark, a subdued but ordinary boy, and Bartare, a girl who is somewhat uncanny, and turns out to have a link to an unseen entity who is teaching her magic. Bartare is eventually drawn -- and Kilda and Oomark with her -- to another reality. Essentially, this reality is the land of Faerie -- a land of magics and monsters and shape-changed or enspelled humans -- and Kilda must cobble together tag ends of magic and legend in order to win them free. For practical purposes, the Faerie portion of "Dread Companion" would have been identical whether the characters had arrived there by sounding strange stones on a distant planet or by walking into an Elf mound on twentieth-century Earth.

"Star Guard" (****-) is one of the books placed in a 'relatively' near future, rather than in a distant future in which humanity has spread to the stars and Earth is a barely-remembered part of its prehistory. In this future, humanity's expansion was swiftly checked by other galactic races, who channeled humanity's aggression by making it Earth's chief export: Planetary rulers could hire human mercenaries (either 'Archs', for low-tech worlds, or 'Mechs' for medium-tech worlds) to fight their limited and regulated battles. After three centuries of this, neither humans nor aliens were completely satisfied: Some humans thought thesystem was just designed to keep Earth in its place, and some aliens thought that Earth wasn't being kept in its place -- and both started to cheat. When a small Arch 'Horde' finds itself facing high-tech weaponry, the chicanery starts coming into the open. I'd characterize "Star Guard" (1955) as a precursor to the military sf/f now being written by authors like Drake, Turtledove, and Stirling, albeit one that draws more on Xenophon than on Viet Nam for its inspiration.

"Witch World" (***+) introduces us to Norton's best-known and longest-running fantasy series. A man on the run from gangsters escapes through a mystical portal/plot-device which sends those who use it on a one-way trip to the world for which they are best suited. In short order he finds himself in the middle of a fight, and finds that he has rescued one of the witches of Estcarp. In time, he comes to play a pivotal role in Estcarp's fight for survival against its foes to the south. Good sword-and-sorcery, and more imaginative than most of the successors it inspired.

(Brief background: The Witch World is the fantasy equivalent of a post-holocaust milieu. Long ago, sorcerers of incredible power warred and came close to destroying their world. The last of these sorcerers were destroyed or imprisoned or chose to leave their world -- though they left behind artifacts which still have great power for good or evil. Most of the world's humans now live at a generic-medieval level of technology (with some odd higher-tech quirks), have little or no magic, and distrust it in others. Estcarp is a very old land -- trapped between enemies to the north and the south -- which retains some magic. Girls who are born with the power are taken young and trained as witches.)

"Witch World" spawned a large number of sequels, most of them (for a while) quite good. "Web of the Witch World" was a direct continuation. Then came the next generation, triplets, each of whom provided the viewpoint for a different book: "Three Against the Witch World", "Warlockof the Witch World", and "Sorceress of the Witch World".

"Year of the Unicorn" (***+) is not set in Estcarp (or the lands adjoining it), but in High Halleck, a land across the sea, poorer in magic use, but richer in ancient magic artifacts. Most of the High Halleck novels were written later than the Estcarp novels (they're also not as good, but that's just my opinion :), and interact with the latter only slightly, the main connection being that High Halleck is invaded by Estcarp's northern enemy. Most of the High Halleck novels are set against the background of that prolonged war and its aftermath. "The Year of the Unicorn"-- the first-written and best of the High Halleck novels -- begins at the war's end: High Halleck has won, partly because it recruited supernatural allies, and now the allies have come to claim their pay -- thirteen well-born brides. The trouble is, one of the brides is of witch blood.

It seems a quirk of Norton's writing (or perhaps just of my view of it) that one spends more time describing the milieu than the actual story. To her credit, she herself does not do so. The first few pages of a novel will often wax expository, but after that she sticks to her story telling. (Will you enjoy that story telling if you're not in your teens? If you haven't read any of her books, try a couple and find out.)

Other key titles include: "The Crossroads of Time", "Ordeal in Otherwhere", "Moon of Three Rings", "The Zero Stone", "Star Gate", "The Time Traders", "Star Man's Son" (aka "Daybreak, 2250 AD").

It would be unhelpful to list all the Norton books worth reading. Many or most fans who encounter Norton in their teens go through a phase of reading all of them. And there aren't many that aren't worth reading. There are some, though, and it's probably worth a few words of warning: "Quag Keep" (*) is the first and worst "kids find themselves living a fantasy roleplaying game" novel. Avoid. The 'magic' books (with titles like "Steel Magic", "Fur Magic", "Dragon Magic", etc.) are children's books, not so-called "young adults" books, and are written for younger readers. (That's a tactful way of saying I found them obnoxious -- except for "Lavender-Green Magic" -- but might have enjoyed them if I'd read them when I was nine.) "Huon of the Horn" (*+) is a novelization of one of the more irritating of the medieval romances. The romance involved numerous repetitions of the sequence a) Huon is warned against a danger; b) Huon barges in anyhow; c) Huon has to be bailed out. Norton's novelization is actually an improvement on the original, but... "Eye of the Monster" (*+) and "Sea Siege" (*+) were my introduction to the possibility that Andre Norton could write dull novels, though I subsequently encountered "Garanthe Eternal" (*+) and other confirmations. And Norton's coauthored works are, naturally, highly variable (but I give her credit that if her name is on the cover, her work is on the inside).

Different people will probably give you different warn-off lists. For that matter, different people will probably give different best-of lists.I've given what I think are some good starting points for a reader who is unfamiliar with Andre Norton's works.

disclaimer for the Unnumbered Reviews

%A Norton, Andre
%O yes, that's her legal name
%T The Last Planet
%O alternate title, Star Rangers
%T Dark Piper
%T Dread Companion
%T Star Guard
%T Witch World
%T Year of the Unicorn

Dani Zweig