17 November 2009

Book Review: Web of the Witch World

Web of the Witch World
By Andre Norton (1964)

As I wrote last week, my feelings about Andre Norton’s popular fantasy novel Witch World have improved since the time I first read it, so I decided it was the right moment—with the travils of earth-vistor Simon Tregarth fresh in my mind—to move into the direct sequel, the following year’s Web of the Witch World. The title refers to the net of control that the mysterious Kolder of the first novel have spread throughout the continent. This is second adventure of the “Estcarp Cycle,” and picks up with the discoveries about the Kolder made at the end of Witch World: they are alien visitors from another world who arrived in this world of magic and feuding medieval nations (influenced by the Crusaders Kingdoms) through a gateway, much the same way that Simon Tregarth did.

Web of the Witch World has the same intricate political backdrop as the first novel, but it moves faster and delves deeper into the Kolder danger, finally offering a resolution that makes it almost a necessary read after the first book. The Kolder bring more of their scientific abilities, including submarines, energy weapons, and full mind-control devices into play, and the novel moves farther from straight-forward fantasy and into the realm of science fantasy. The cover I’ve picked to show here captures the sharp turn away from the more fantasy-themed first novel to the science fiction that was more common in Norton’s early writing.

Without needing to get Simon Tregarth from Earth and introducing him to the politics of the new planet, Web of the Witch World gets right into the aciton. In the first chapter, Yvain of Karsten declares open war with the witches’ nation of Estcarp. A feeling that Loyse of Verlaine, who fled from marriage to Yvain of Karsten in the previous novel, is in danger leads Simon Tregarth, Warder of the South, and his witch wife Jaelithe out from the the South Keep of Estcarp. They find a murdered girl of Loyse’s household and a spear left as a declaration of war. Yvain has kidnapped Loyse so he can seize control of her father Fulk’s city of Verlaine.

Simon and Koris of Gorm, who loves Loyse, make the tactical decision to raid Verlaine and take it from Fulk to use in bargaining with Yvain. However, behind all this is the puppetry of the Kolder, who have seized mental control of Fulk and Yvain’s love Aldis, all to kidnap Loyse as part of their grand scheme. The Kolder can control anyone who does not belong to the “Old Race” of the people of Estcarp—and that includes Simon, although as the novel progresses he finds way to break the control and even reverse it at key exciting moments.

The core of the book is Simon and Jaelithe’s quest to find and destroy the Kolder’s “nest.” The only opportunity to do this that arises, however, is when the Kolder capture Simon and Loyse and send them on a submarine to the Kolder base. Simon keeps a mental link with Jaelithe in the hope of bringing her and the Sulcar allies of Estcarp to wipe about the Kolder. Eventually, Simon faces the the gateway into the Kolder’s world and finds the mystery of their origin.

The Web of the Witch World has more memorable scenes than its predecessor: Simon trapped in the swamp of the Tormen after a ship crash; Jaelithe using oil and witch power against the deadly sea weeds of the Kolder, and the insanity of the finish where the Kolder have to confront a hell from their own world while Simon leads an attack on their keep with help of the sailors from Sulcar. The inclusion of strange technology in the hands of the Kolder, a subdued element in the first book, now breaks to front and makes for an unusual combination with the magic. The Kolder are fantastic and enigmatic villains who use their mind control to make surprising twists in the story.

The action moves fast—but again perhaps too fast. There are still many points I wish to savor, but Norton rockets the reader along so fast that action overwhelms almost everything. Jumps occur that make the story tricky to follow in places, and anyone who hasn’t recently read Witch World will find much about this story that is confusing. The characters are mere tools for the plot, and Simon is not as strong here as before, although Jaelithe grows as a character. She has an interesting conflict where she finds that her witch magic is coming back despite her marriage (which should nullify it), but she cannot reclaim her previous position with her people.

Although Andre Norton concludes the novel with the idea that many more battles await Simon and the people of Estcarp, even with the end of the Kolder menace, the author would turn away from them at first and in her next Witch World novel, The Year of the Unicorn, shift to another section of the planet and start “The High Hallack Cycle.”