The Zero Stone, Andre Norton

zero_stone_1969_95960The Zero Stone, Andre Norton (1968)
Review by Redhead

Can someone please tell me why it took me so long to read this book? Nearly every Andre Norton I’ve picked up has been excellent, and The Zero Stone is no different. Skillfully written and wonderfully imaginative, I think this is my favorite Norton so far.

The story gets rolling right away when Murdoc Jern’s patron is assassinated. Raised by a gem dealer with shady connections and then apprenticed out to the legitimate gem merchant Vondar Ustle, Murdoc knows everything there is to know about gems and stones, but he’s woefully naive about everything else. When Ustle is murdered Murdoc finds sanctuary and then takes the first available ship off planet.

All this time, Murdoc has been in possession of a singularly strange ring. Too large for any human finger, the ring holds a weird lusterless stone. It was found on a corpse in space, and it seems to offer guidance to specific people. What does the ring point to? Is this why Ustle was killed? Is Murdoc in danger?

Befriended by the ship’s cat, Murdoc accidentally allows the cat to eat a strange pebble. The pebble impregnates the cat, and a weird little mutant cat is born. The mutant cat, who calls itself Eet, is telepathic, intelligent, and refuses to tell Murdoc anything about its origin. Eet helps Murdoc escape from those who would do him harm, and a partnership is formed between the two. Not quite trusting friends, they do need each other. Eet is stuck in a tiny feline body and needs a strong person to help, and Murdoc could certainly use some help avoiding certain death and learning more about the powers and origin of the ring.

Murdoc isn’t your typical space adventurer (he doesn’t even want to have an adventure!), and Eet most certainly isn’t your typical telepathic cat. The ring guides them to a planet, and at first it is believed this is the home planet of the ring and other powerful stones. At first all Murdoc and Eet find are cannibalistic natives. Eet doesn’t so much offer suggestions of how to survive as made demands of what Murdoc should do to do and when. If Murdoc wants to survive, he better listen to the mysterious little mutant.

Like Murdoc, at first I was a little creeped out by Eet, but I quickly came to care about that bossy little alien freak. The Zero Stone is pure adventure, and fun on every page. If you’re new to Norton, this is an excellent place to start. The story continues in Uncharted Stars, and both can be found in the Omnibus Search for the Star Stones from Baen Books.

The only thing I can complain about with The Zero Stone is that even though the entire thing is perfectly paced, for the first half of the book or so you have no idea where the plot is going. This really isn’t a big deal, as that first half of the book is filled with Murdoc’s fascinating and funny thoughts about what’s going on around him, background information about his family, and of course, the oh-so-alien Eet. So even though I had no idea where the story was headed, I was having so much fun I barely noticed.

Something that surprised me was the complete nonchalance of a lot of the minor characters. When the cat is pregnant with an alien kitten, no one seems to care much. They lock her in sickbay, and don’t seem to mind when she escapes to give birth elsewhere. Things like that, that these days (thanks to decades of sci-fi horror movies) are big deals, back then it was fine to gloss right over them. I found things like that very funny.

I’ve already mentioned it, but if you are new to Andre Norton, The Zero Stone is a perfect place to start. The story will pull you in right away (even if you’re not sure where it’s going) and as soon as you meet Eet, you’ll be asking yourself the same question with which I opened this review.

This review originally appeared on The Little Red Reviewer.

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