Witch World, Andre Norton

WTCHWRLD1963Witch World, Andre Norton (1963)
Review by Megan AM

… but he could not accept the atmosphere of this place as anything but alien. And not only alien, for that which is strange need not necessarily be a menace, but in some manner this place was utterly opposed to him and his kind. No, not alien… but unhuman, whereas the witches of Estcarp were human, no matter whatever else they might also be (p 182)

How could two so widely differing levels of civilization exist side by side? …Alien, alien – once more he was on the very verge of understanding – of guessing – (p 171)

He never figures it out. At least, not in the first book of this expansive series.

And it’s odd to the see the term “alien” pop up so repetitively in a magic fantasy novel about witches, but it was a term to which I clung out of the hope that something really cool or meaningful would happen. That’s not to say I expected little green men to tromp around this world of witches (okay, maybe a little), but I hoped to extrapolate some deeper significance when considering the immigrant status of our good protagonist Simon Tregarth. It never happened.

Post-WWII, former soldier Simon finds himself wrapped up in some unsavory deals with dangerous folks. Now they want to kill him, but Dr. Jorge Petronius offers Simon the perfect, permanent hiding place in exchange for a large payment. Simon accepts the offer, goes through a door, and WHOOSH! He finds himself in an alternate universe where witches with vague and limited powers run the kingdom of Estcarp, which maintains unstable, often violent relations with at least five other provinces, including an evil, mysterious land beyond the sea. After weeks or years (I’ve reread this part a dozen times and I still can’t tell) Simon assimilates to his new culture and becomes a guard for Estcarp. His band of soldiers attack an enemy, then another, then another. There’s a big ship wipeout, and a cave, and some Falconers, and these zombie bird-men, and maybe some machines… that’s the alien part, I think.

And if you want to incapacitate a witch, and you haven’t any buckets of water, you can just rape her. Because a woman’s power is in her purity.

It’s possible that Witch World dangles on the cusp of the feminist fantasy genre, sandwiched between the stale gender roles in works by TH White and JRR Tolkein and the more subversive gender roles portrayed in works by Ursula Le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley. From Witch World, there is a small sense that Norton might attempt to do something different from her predecessors, which is why the most bothersome part of this novel is its absolute surrender to a dated worldview. It was a characteristic I was surprised to find in a sixties SF novel written by a woman, but an oversight that I think is corrected in the series’ later novels. Still, knowing that makes this installment all the more unsatisfactory, as its truncated story could have continued in longer and possibly more satisfying form. An omnibus version of the first three books was published in 2003, perhaps to address this issue.

Regardless of Witch World‘s potential social statements, the treatment of female magic is unimaginative and disappointing. The witches demonstrate small, covert powers that are easily neutralized by sexual intercourse. I had hoped that fantasy had shed its chastity belts by 1963, but in Witch World, only pure, virginal women can possess these vague, magical powers, although it is hinted that Simon, the strange outworlder, might also have a knack for psychic hunches. (I wonder if he’s had sex.) If a witch’s purity is sullied, she is essentially castrated. A witch who chooses to marry, chooses to [disarm] herself, put aside all her weapons and defences, given into his hands what she believed was the ordering of her life” (p 222).

And gender isn’t the only thing that receives old-fashioned treatment. Koris, the Guard captain of questionable breeding and unique stature, is basically an over-muscled dwarf, to whom Norton often refers as “misshapen”, “grotesque”, and “ill-formed”. These descriptors are not intended to be malicious, but communicate an ignorance that isn’t acceptable in today’s SF. Norton characterizes him with honor and respect, perhaps a “beauty on the inside” lesson, but it niggled my PC lobe. Beyond that, I was especially excited to discover a fantasy character named Jorge (a doctor of some kind, nonetheless!), only to be disappointed when his brief appearance involved underground dealing and scamming. Bummer.

The unresolved ending and sudden (oh, so sudden!) romantic tangles, which challenge the Estcarp status quo, indicate that the Witch World series has the potential to shed these antiquated worldviews, but not enough seeds are planted to convince me that challenging social roles was part of Norton’s original agenda. It’s common for even celebrated fantasy novels to embrace the rigid past and avoid social statements (beyond the “poor white boy becomes a hero” trope), but they make up for it in rich character development and tense plot movement – none of which happen in Witch World. Considering Norton’s long publishing history, I expected better technique and concepts, and was disappointed by her stilted narrative style. The story failed to keep my attention, often requiring me to reread passages with greater intensity than usual, which heightened my notice of confusing sections. It was a chore to read, but it might be an adequate story for a child. I stopped after the first novel, but the omnibus version might prove to be more satisfying.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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The Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton

nowhere_huntThe Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981)
Review by Ian Sales

The Haestavaada are desperate. They are an insectoid race, and one of their worlds is without a queen. A juvenile queen was sent from another Haestavaada world, but it was intercepted by enemy insectoids the Tikh’asfour, and the ship crashlanded on the world of Nowhere, which is currently travelling through the Zangaree Sink. This last means the okanet, a primitive planet, is hard to reach, and high technology won’t work on its surface. Three ships of Scavengers have already landed on Nowhere, and the Tikh’asfour are preventing anyone else from approaching. So the Haestavaada hire the Hunters of Wolff and ask them to assign Aleytys to retrieving their missing queen.

Roha and Rohit are non-identical twins and members of the Amar, Nowhere’s native race. Roha is the Dark Twin, she has some sort of magical connection with the planet, mediated by frequent ingestion of a local hallucinogen. She’s not happy about the arrival of the crashlanded Haestavaada and their queen – she calls them “demons” – or the Scavengers – she also calls them “demons”. She persuades the warriors of her people, led by Churr, to do something about it. So they trek into the Mistlands, where a nasty death awaits the unwary – thanks to hidden pools of quicksand, thin skins of rock over boiling hots springs, poison bushes, bushes that fire poisoned seedpods, the piranha-like Kinya-kin-kin, floating ghosts and the Mistlanders. The Amar attack the downed Haestavaada but are beaten off, suggesting the trek was more to introduce the Mistland’s perils to the reader than because the plot required it.

Then Aleytys is parachuted in – literally, she reaches the planet’s surface in a small capsule launched from a ship in orbit, in order to avoid the Tikh’asfour. Immediately after landing, Aleytys allows herself to be captured by the Scavengers. She allows herself to be beaten and raped by the Scavenger leader, Quale. But it’s okay, but she’s letting him do it. She needs the Scavengers to do the heavy-lifting, to fetch the queen and then escape in one of their ships with her. However, the Scavengers have been on Nowhere for a few weeks – the book’s chronology is hopelessly confused – and have yet to find the queen. They’re also being picked off one-by-one by the Amar.

Fortunately, Aleytys knows where the queen is and can guide Quale and his men through the Mistlands to her. As a prisoner, however. And the Amar are hovering around the edges, still picking off the Scavengers. It takes them three days, and by the time they reach the crashed Haestavaada spaceship, less than half of the two dozen Scavengers who started out have survived. Aleytys persuades the stranded aliens to go along with her plan and pretend to accept Quale’s help – even though it’s clear Quale plans to sell the queen to the highest bidder. But on the return to the Sc’venge’s’ primitive fort, Quale and Aleytys are captured by Mistlanders and tied to a tree. While trying to escape, Quale is killed by a floating ghost which sucks his mind from his body.

The diadem which gives this series its name, and Aleytys some of her special powers, also contains the minds of three previous wearers: Shadith (the musical one), Harskari (the wise one) and Swardheld (the warrior one). Since Quale’s body is there for the taking, Swardheld jumps out of the diadem – with Aleytys’s help – and takes over Quale’s body. This is a permanent arrangement. The two manage to the get the queen and surviving Haestavaada back to the fort, Swardheld finds the keys to the Scavengers’ spaceships, which he had hidden from everyone, and they successfully make their escape and deliver the queen.

After a couple of books in which Aleytys was presented as a strong, albeit somewhat over-powered, heroine in high-tech space opera universe, the series has back-slipped to men treating Aleytys violently once again. And not just her: on her arrival, Aleytys discovers that Nowhere’s resident xenologist had been taken as a sex slave by Quale. Happily, it’s not gone so far as to turn back into a peplum space opera, all swords and slavery and spaceships, but Aleytys’s strategy on Nowhere is deeply problematic. On the plus-side, Clayton is a dab hand at depicting alien societies, and the Amar are rendered quite convincingly. The flora and fauna of Nowhere are less convincing, however, although one or two are quite amusing. And, despite their lethality, there’s no much jeopardy in the plot. The spear carriers all die, but the major characters survive – and it’s pretty much obvious from the first chapter.

Having now read six books of this series, I’m still a little mystified by their evident popularity when they were published. These days, they’re mostly forgotten – as indeed are most of Jo Clayton’s novels (and she wrote a lot of them). I get the appeal of a special snowflake protagonist – it’s one of the reasons Dune has remained in print for fifty years – but was the level of sexual violence inflicted on Aleytys ever really acceptable back in the late 1970s and early 1980s? I don’t recall it appearing in the science fiction I read at that time – although a lot of the books I devoured then treated women very badly in other ways, or ignored them altogether.

There are a further three novels in this series, and another seven novels based on the characters in Aleytys’s diadem. The Nowhere Hunt was a step backward after Maeve and Star Hunters. I hope the next book, Ghosthunt, doesn’t continue the backwards slide.

Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey

dragonquestDragonquest, Anne McCaffrey (1971)
Review by Megan AM

How can two consecutive books from the same series be so vastly different? Despite the fact that Dragonflight and Dragonquest share weak writing, clunky dialogue, plot holes, the former is considerably more enjoyable than the latter. Dragonflight is an interesting story, with some writing mistakes. Dragonquest is just a boring story, written poorly.

F’lar, the weyrleader of the dragonriders of Pern, is facing unrest among his people. Although the fight against the Thread phenomena has resumed after four hundred years, the Pernese are far from cohesive. The traditional old-timers resist progress, and the grouchy lord holders bristle at any dragonrider authority. F’lar must unify these groups in order to maintain his position as weyrleader and protect his planet. At the same time, F’lar is also entertaining the possibilities of dragon travel into outer space.

The pleasurability of the first novel, Dragonflight, is partly due to its tight structure as combined novellas. In Dragonquest, McCaffrey has more space to amble and dally, and we see that loss of structure in pointless dialogue and dropped plot threads. In Dragonquest, there is a lot of standing around and talking. We experience boring meetings, in which people argue, and perspectives change jarringly, in order to inform the reader of each characters’ motivations. In some cases, characters abandon their argument a few chapters later, with no explanation. There is no action or context to develop or explain conflict. The reader is simply told through expository dialogue or subtextual narration. It’s poor storytelling at its worst.

One of two things happened here: Either the success of the Pern novellas spawned the need for a sequel so rapidly that McCaffrey had little chance for the fleshing out and editing of a good story, or McCaffrey is a weak writer who just got lucky on her first Pern novellas.

Aside from the amateurish writing style, the focus on dialogue as a plot-moving device is downright boring. Writers: I attend enough boring faculty meetings at work, so please don’t make me read about them in your stories. (Only Susanna Clarke can get away with that, and that’s just because she’s perfect and writes boring so well, and with such purpose, in that tongue-in-cheek, British fashion of hers.) It’s also irritating that the dragons know everything, yet share so little without prompting, but no one invites them to these big important meetings. It seems to me that the lead bronze, Mnemorth, should be running the meetings.

Also, the strong, rebellious character of Lessa, who drove the action of the first novel, withers into a shadow of herself in this novel. She devolves into a boring housewife with little to contribute, while the rest of the characters lose the few dimensions afforded them from the first novel. The mean and grumpy lord holders behave like sniveling children, and F’lar and F’nor fumble around as bullies and elitists. To top it off, we see the introduction of fire lizards as pets, a plot thread that had promise of a good conflict, but fizzled like a Thread sprayed by agenothree. The fire lizards are essentially the Ewoks of Pern – cute, but unnecessary, but maybe that will change in later Pern stories.

Dragonquest touched upon some promising themes: tradition vs. progress, arrogance vs. honor, dragons vs. fire lizards, but none of these themes were elaborated in any satisfying way. The emphasis on petty dialogue made me feel as if I skipped the page with the action that caused the arguments. In some ways, Dragonquest feels like it was produced as a response to critics of the first novel. We see more attempts at scientific explanations and a meek effort to plug up previous plot holes (“If dragons can jump space and time, why not destroy the Thread at its source? Because oxygen!”) In other ways, Dragonquest feels like it might be a bridge novel paving the way for a later, and hopefully better, story. Despite my dissatisfaction with this book, I have hope that the next book will be better.

My advice to potential readers of the Dragonriders of Pern series: read Dragonflight, but skip Dragonquest.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.