Ms. Norton preferred to be known simply as "A staid old teller of tales."
Reviewed by Mike WinkleHere's a special area where I'll be reviewing Ms. Norton's books one by one. There are only 150 or thereabouts!
Ride Proud, Rebel!
Historical Novel; Drew Rennie #1Norton's 1961 novel of the Civil War came as an unexpected Christmas present from some "step-relatives" in Minnesota. As it is very difficult to come across, why bother reviewing it? Perhaps it will spur people into asking publishers to bring it back into print. (In a way I hope that for all my reviews!)
Drew Rennie grows up at Red Springs, a Kentucky estate presided over by his grandfather, Alexander Mattock. His mother fell in love with a Texan named Rennie and bore Drew out of wedlock, so the Mattocks have always treated the youth as a hated outsider -- typical of a Norton protagonist, whether the book is fantasy, science fiction, or historical. The Mattocks have Unionist sympathies, and Drew is quite happy to enlist in the Civil War -- on the Rebel side.
This is all backstory; Drew has been a soldier for years when the novel opens. General Morgan has sent him to scout out a rich Union estate with enough horses and supplies to replenish his men. Ironically, Red Springs looks ripe for the plucking. While spying out the area, Drew runs across Boyd Barrett, the younger brother of Drew's best friend Sheldon, who was killed in battle. Boyd insists on enlisting, but Drew will have none of it. The younger boy, predictably, starts out on his own the minute Drew is out of sight.
The novel then fast-forwards through the war, with Drew and Boyd -- plus Anse Kirby, a Texan, and various minor characters -- participating, it seems, in nearly every important battle. We see cowardice and bravery, hate and friendship, on both sides. Norton describes vividly the hard riding, the deprivation, the dirt and pain, the swift terror of battle and the slow despair of continuing an endless campaign.
Plenty of characters die, but a few -- a Cherokee scout and Kirby the Texan among them -- simply vanish in the dark of night, no explanation ever found. This makes me wonder if the story isn't based on reality; Norton's dedication mentions "the unpublished memoirs of trooper John Johnson" as a source.
Two animals stand out in this novel: Shawnee, Drew's superior horse, and Hannibal, a well-dispositioned mule that practically hauls the whole Southern army on his back. The horse is shot in combat, and the mule is simple ground into the earth with work. Grim, indeed, in an Andre Norton novel, where animals are often characters as important as the humans.
Finally the war ends. Drew and Boyd return to Red Springs to learn that Alexander Mattock has died. The rest of the family want Drew back -- to mold him into stifling conformity among the local rich folk. Drew wants their conditional acceptance no more than he wanted his grandfather's hatred. Fortuitously, he discovers two important tidbits of information concerning two "missing" characters that point to the far west.
This presumably leads to the sequel, Rebel Spurs, which is so rare even I can't find it. Still, Drew's new direction in life is a good ending. After concentrating largely on Ms. Norton's fantasy and SF, it's nice to learn she can write just as well in other genres. ****
Time Traders Omnibus
SF Novels; Ross Murdock #1 & #2The appearance of this omnibus volume of the first two Time Trader books is my excuse to add a bit to my comments (given below). First, I notice that The Time Traders has been very slightly updated. In the original version (1958), the fictional future is bereft of space flight, because the attempted landings on the moon crashed and burned. (Thus a concentration on time travel instead.) Having caught up to and passed this future, Ms. Norton simply replaces it with real history, mentioning instead that there were manned landings on the moon -- but the space race simply ground to a halt afterwards. The truth hurts.
The main character of the second novel -- the hero, to use an old-fashioned term -- is not Ross Murdock but a young Apache rancher named Travis Fox, who has tried to bridge the gap between the old ways of his people and the new ways of the whites. He rejected the modern ways when its educational system judged him unfairly, but he enters a very new way when he comes across the time travel project in a desert canyon. Essentially a captive at first, he joins the effort to find another ancient spaceship once the incredible adventure is explained to him.
As mentioned below, the time travelers not only find a ship but accidentally blast off in it. During the trip and on the brief excursions to the alien worlds, a hard-headed competition arises between Travis and Ross Murdock on who is ready to suffer most for the survival of everyone, whether it be in testing alien foodstuffs or exploring ancient ruins. Eventually, like Murdock before him, the tough individualistic personality of Travis Fox softens just enough to become one of this elite time traveling team.
A minor character, Renfry the technician, comes to the fore when the team is trapped aboard the alien vessel. He has an instinctive knack for machines. "You feel the desert out there," he tells Travis. "Well, I feel machines -- I've lived with them for most of my life." Renfry is no fighter or wise man, but he is the one who gets the group home. A machine-savvy hero is a rarity in Andre Norton, and the prominent and technologically "sensitive" character of Renfry is unique.
All in all, Time Traders omnibus is certainly worth ****.
Year of the Unicorn
Fantasy Novel; Witch World #3"How does one know coming good from coming ill? There are those times in life when one welcomes any change, believing that nothing can be such ashes in the mouth, such dryness of days as the never altering flood of time in a small community where the outside world lies ever beyond gates locked and barred against all change."
So begins Andre Norton's third Witch World novel, our introduction to High Hallack and the Dales, the lands across the sea from the setting of Witch World and Web of the Witch World. Gillan, our narrator, is a ward of Norstead Abbey, the Witch World equivalent of a nunnery. A foundling from a wrecked ship, it is implied that she is of the "witch" race from across the sea. At any rate, like most Norton protagonists, she is a loner, befriended only by certain of the abbey women, like Dame Alousan the herbalist, and the ancient Past-Abbess Malwinna.
The war with Alizon (from Witch World) rages on this side of the ocean as well, and the lords of High Hallack agree to provide brides for the mysterious shape-changing Were-Riders in return for their help. After the end of the war, the Were-Riders come for their brides.
Realizing that a dreary life in the Abbey is not for her, Gillan substitutes herself for one of the more reluctant brides-to-be. She becomes the bride of Herrel, the were-snow-leopard, himself an outcast among the Riders, having had an ordinary human mother. While the other women are ensorcelled to see their new husbands as handsome (and totally human) knights, Gillan's ancestry of "Power" allows her to see through illusions. This irritates the Were-Riders (excepting Herrel) rather out of proportion, and much of the novel consists of their ploys to destroy Gillan's body, mind, soul, or all three. Though she can't believe it at first, Herrel is on her side. Eventually, however, she does believe it . . .
Doubtless many young readers of Year of the Unicorn, in small towns across America and beyond, have echoed Gillan's words quoted above. Fortunately, they do not have to endure such hardships to fight utter boredom; in this twenty-first century world there are so many activities and entertainments, one could never experience them all.
Let us hope the art of reading is not one of the forgotten ones, and that people will always rely on books to take them from their mundane lives into realms of adventure -- books like Year of the Unicorn! ****½
The Crystal Gryphon
Fantasy novel (Witch World); "Gryphon" #1One of my all-time favorites! The basic fantasy novel, as far as I'm concerned, which shows both "ordinary" existence in the holds of High Hallack and the chaos caused by the coming of war. Kerovan is a sympathetic "outsider", visibly different from "normal" people, and Joisan is a competent, willful young woman. I hate to admit how much The Crystal Gryphon has influenced my own writing. *****
Gryphon in Glory
Fantasy novel (Witch World); "Gryphon" #2The first sequel to Crystal Gryphon is hard going for most of the book, mainly because Kerovan is such a dork, trying to leave Joisan "for her own good." Only three-fourths of the way through does he realize he can't live without her and vice-versa. We do get to see familiar faces from other Witch World tales, and we are finally treated to a genuine Gryphon (and an anthropomorphic gryphon-man). ***
The Crossroads of Time (1956)
(SF novel; Blake Walker #1)Norton's alternate universe adventure scoops up art student Blake Walker and sends him from a large city in our world (unnamed but obviously New York) across an array of worlds. As usual with Norton's SF, a complex idea is explained in only a few words:
"Tell me, have you ever heard of the 'possibility worlds' theory of history?"
"I've read some fantasy fiction founded on that. You mean that idea that two complete worlds stem from every momentous historical decision? One in which Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, say, and our own in which he lost it?"
"Yes. There would be myriad worlds, all influenced by various decisions." (p. 19, ACE edition)
With little more than that, Walker is kidnapped by a renegade possibility traveler and dumped in an Ice Age world where cannibalistic beast-women hunt prey with robotic centipedes. Somehow he accepts and understands these bizarre circumstances, as do the readers. Indeed, like all of Norton's protagonists, Blake Walker is strong-willed and independent, and he survives under conditions that would drive many people insane:
". . . deep inside him he had a new satisfaction. He had been moved about by the agents in the game against Pranj. And in turn he had been fooled by the outlaw. But he had escaped from Pranj. And here, without tools or any real knowledge, he had managed to achieve food and warmth. No thanks to anyone but himself." (p. 73)
Walker also visits an almost familiar Hitler-won-W.W. II world and something that has become a cliché in modern times, an "evil" world (i.e., ordinary household goods are in bottles shaped like demons and gargoyles; human portraits look harsh and sadistic, etc.). For once there is an explanation for the latter: It is a civilization that sprang from the Aztecs, complete with bloodthirsty gods and sacrifices despite its advanced technology.
As one might expect of '50s SF, the majority of characters are male, but a couple of key figures are black, which must have been hard enough to slip in. Particularly interesting is "the Sarge," who runs what's left of New York in the Hilter-wins world. Crossroads of Time is, in short, exciting, fast-moving, and has been much imitated. ****
SF novel; Blake Walker #2Walker is part of the Crosstime Patrol now, but an evil faction takes over the planet Vroom (!) and tries to destroy or maroon the Patrol. Spends too much time explaining Aztec world, and a third volume is implied (which never appeared). ***½
Daybreak -- 2250 A.D.
SF novelAlso called Star Man's Son, this is a novel set after a nuclear holocaust called the Great Burning. Fors of the Puma Clan is a typical Norton protagonist -- young, now orphaned after the death of his father, and an outcast because he is a mutant, with white hair and the ability to see in the dark. He expects to become one of the Star Men -- the society dedicated to re-learning the ancient sciences -- but only the importance of his father gave him a chance for that. Rebuffed, he leaves to explore the post-apocalyptic world on his own. (But he is not quite alone, for he has a psychic bond with Lura, a "sand cat"). Fors enters a city of empty skyscrapers and rescues Arskane, a young black warrior, from humanoid Rat-Things. Together they try to unite the scattered tribes before the Rat-Things wipe them out one at a time.
This is a fairly early (1952) SF novel for Norton, and a fairly early post-nuclear epic, a good bridge between old stories like Stephen Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon" and later tales like Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey. Back then Norton's characters were gung-ho about relearning lost technical knowledge and going to the stars; her "loss of faith" (to use Rick Brooks' phrase) came later. Arskane, the African-American warrior, is a major character, and his whole nation/society is shown in a positive light. Arskane's queen is a minor but notable presence in the book, as is the warrior's little sister. All in all, an exciting and memorable SF adventure. ****
The Time Traders
SF novel; Ross Murdock #1Time adventure scoots right along. Somehow the mix of Russian time travelers, ancient astronauts, the Battle-axe People, and Bronze Age traders works, although I liked Crossroads a little better. ***½
SF novel; Ross Murdock #2The time traveling is brief here -- after transporting an ancient alien spaceship to the present, the energies involved activate the vessel, sending it across the galaxy with Ross Murdock and company along for the ride. Again, somehow Norton mixes sabre-tooth tigers, Native Americans, creaking old robots, and nasty (and friendly) ETs believably. Even better than Time Traders. ****
Fantasy novel; Witch World #1Simon Tregarth, hunted by unidentified agents for an unspecified crime after World War II, flees Earth to another world via an ancient artifact (The Siege Perilous from Arthurian legend). Here he joins up with the Witches of Escarp against the invading Kolder, a race of technically advanced aliens. Again, by simply taking the characters (and the readers) through the amazing events in a serious and realistic way, Norton makes the fantasy and SF events seem believable on their own and when clashing together. Though not my favorite of the series, it is certainly a strong beginning (and a strong influence on my writing). I'd say I enjoyed it more now than I did in my teens. Funny how age makes some books seem better, while others fall away like dead leaves . . . ****
Web of the Witch World
Fantasy novel; Witch World #2Simon and his new wife (Jaelethe, one of the Witches) battle the Kolder again. Better than I remember; the descriptions of the quasi-medieval world are, as always, excellent, and Norton could describe an advanced race of aliens as well. Few could meld the two, however, as well as the Kolder in Witch World. ****
Here's an excerpt from my old web-page that I couldn't bring myself to delete:
I just received a hand-written note from SF/fantasy writer Andre Norton. This astounded me, because she is approaching her 93rd year, and the most I've heard from her for the past decade is the occasional Easter or Christmas card. Sad to say, after one more novel due out in April from TOR, it sounds like there'll be no more tales from that staid storyteller.
"When you can't do it anymore, it's time to rest. Stop writing books and read them . . . You've come to the bottom of the hill. Maybe there'll be a soft place to sit." -- Manly Wade Wellman, 1975
Andre has written more books and stories than most people will probably ever read -- 200+ volumes. I hope she's found a soft place to sit for a while. She's earned it.
(I barely wrote that entry before the Grand Dame of Fantasy and SF passed away on March 17, 2005. Andre will sorely be missed, but I guarantee she'll never be forgotten.)