The Beast Master, Andre Norton
The Beast Master (1959) and Lord of Thunder (1962), Andre Norton
Review by Jenni Scott
You might not be inclined to add Andre Norton’s name into a roll-call of science fiction names if you were asked to come up with one; partly because you might associate her with her more fantasy-based Witch World novels, and partly because you’ve probably forgotten coming across her books in the kids’ and teen section of your library. There were a lot of them, but they now come across as old-fashioned in tone – pulpy, chaste, science adventure stories that without the space trappings could be transferred almost whole into an American frontier milieu. Nevertheless, it’s not just as nostalgia reading that some of them, at least, are worth digging out.
There are various classic Norton titles that could be focused on further, but The Beast Master and sequel Lord of Thunder make good examples of the best of her work. (There are further Beast Master sequels that were written rather later – I assume they are less classic but haven’t happened to come across them to test that supposition.) First published in 1959, you may have seen the 1968 Puffin edition of The Beast Master in second hand shops – produced under the Peacock imprint, it is specifically branded as Science Fiction for young teens. Lord of Thunder was originally published a couple of years later in 1962, while the Puffin edition making a matched pair with the first book also came out in 1968.
The young reader picking these up was in for an exciting, atmospheric read. Heavily influenced by the American West, they are strongly plot-driven cowboys-and-indians style tales that nevertheless include something other than simple derring-do by way of interest. Genuinely gripping and atmospheric, the two Beast Master books show a very strong sense of place and geography, as the opening of Lord of Thunder shows:
“Red ridges of mountains, rusted even more by the first sere breath of the Big Dry, cut across the lavender sky of Arzor north and east. At an hour past dawn, dehydrating puffs of breeze warned of the new day’s scorching heat. There would be two hours – maybe three, yet – during which a man could ride, though in growing discomfort. Then he must lie up through the blistering heat of midday.”
They also include a strong sense of the importance of spiritual matters, of good and evil – though the characters both alien and human can make good or bad choices there is also actual evil afoot in Norton’s world, and of good that is ranged against it. Hosteen Storm, the eponymous Beast Master, is a Native American (specifically, a Navajo), and Norton projects extra sensitivities and abilities onto him by virtue of this status; whether wisely or not you can be the judge.
These two are very much “boy books” with a twist – the horned natives of the colonised world are the Indians, the Cowboys are not by any means clearly in the right, and greater forces than either are trying to manipulate them (although in some cases by means of pretty human villains). The character list is almost entirely male and the story is completely chaste without even a hint of romance; however, there is energy given to the development of comradeship between Hosteen and two or three of the other characters. Between that and the fact that there is plenty of the main character’s emotion and inner life depicted, a young female reader would also be likely to be enthralled (and the addition of various animals including a horse would certainly help).
A reader coming fresh to these books nowadays will find some aspects a little snigger-worthy, particularly Norton’s invented term of respect – “Gentle Homo”, indeed. (The feminine version, “Gentle Fem”, is only very little better.) The archaic language affected may also strike some readers as unnecessary, though I find it gives a strong stylistic effect that I appreciate. However, the plot zips along, the characters are interesting and involving, and overall it’s a very more-ish milieu that will keep you coming back for more.