08 November 2009

Book Review: Witch World

Witch World
Andre Norton (Ace, 1963)

I am about to reach my NaNoWriMo word-count goal for the weekend of 34,000 words—which means I have added 10,000 words over Friday and Saturday. So let me take a breather before the last 1,600 word dash for tonight and give you a book review. A review of the sort of book that helps me focus on what I want to achieve in my writing.

Andre Norton (born Alice Norton) is one the great masters of the Young Adult science-fiction novel, or as it was termed when she was first publishing, “juveniles.” But like Robert A. Heinlein, the other great in this field during the 1950s, nothing about her novels was “juevnile” in a derogatory sense. These books have just as much appeal to adults as they do to the teenage boys to whom they were initially marketed. Where Heinlein often wrote about younger main characters, and put his books in a milieu that highlighted politics, technology, and society, Norton wrote straightforward adventure tales, usually starring tough loners male figures.

Norton had a long and prolific career, the sort that makes even highly successful authors feel blocked and embarrassed. Successful speculative fiction writer C. J. Cherryh once remarked: “I’ve seen a complete collection of Andre Norton’s books, and it haunts me to this day, sort of like the sight of an unscalable Everest.” In the last decade of her life, Norton principally worked on collaborations with other authors such as Mercedes Lackey, Lyn McConchie, and Sherwood Smith. Norton died in 2005, and the recent dearth of titles from her on the bookstore shelves is due to the legal wrangling over her estate, which comprises a the massive number of volumes. According to her official website, the legal issues were finally settled in March of this year, and many of her books should start reappearing in book stores.

I love Andre Norton’s science-fiction novels, especially her early ones written in the ‘50s. They seem to me the quintessential space adventure tales. They lack pretentiousness or irony, and instead chart a path with great story filled with constant action and drama. The early novels in the ingenious “Time Traders” series (The Time Traders, Galactic Derelict, The Defiant Agents, Key Out of Time) and the “Solar Queen” series (Sargasso of Space, Plague Ship) remain thrilling works today that I would re-read at a moment’s notice. Other personal favorites are The Zero Stone (a later book, from 1968), and Star Rangers, where Norton reworks Xenophon’s Anabasis (a.k.a. The Persian Expedition or The March Upcountry) into a great SF military adventure. It’s interesting to compare this to Heinlein’s 1955 juvenile, Tunnel in the Sky, published two years after Norton’s book, which features a similar “expedition trapped on an alien world”—but takes an entirely different approach to the material.

But I must shame-facedly admit that I have never enjoyed Norton’s fantasy as much as her science-fiction. In particular, her most famous series, “The Witch World,” has never absorbed me like the pure science-fiction novels do. The first time I read Witch World, the inaugural title of the long-running series that she worked on for the rest of her life, I felt disappointed. I had not read many of her other novels at that point, and might not have read any more if it wasn’t for a recommendation to read Zero Stone, which hooked me on Norton for good. This month, while pounding away at writing my own “juvenile,” I decided to return to the starting point and look over the first book of the Witch World once more and see if my further reading of Norton has altered my view.

I appreciate Witch World more now… but it’s still not a favorite of mine among her books.

Witch World was first published by Ace in 1963. Aside from beginning the series of adventures in the fantasy dimension of magic-wielding women, it also started a sequence within the series, known as the “Estcarp Cycle,” after the nation of witches that form its core. The book that immediately followed it, Web of the Witch World (1964), continued the story with main character Simon Tregarth, while 1965’s Year of the Unicorn would switch to another part of the setting and start “The High Halleck Cycle.” Tregarth’s children would pick up the Estcarp Cycle and continue it through many more volumes.

Witch World uses a classic example of the trope of the “displaced modern” who enters into a fantasy world. Many early fantasy novels used this device to explain the existence of their strange land. The most well-known example of this is in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. But the hero of Norton’s novel could not be more removed from Lewis’s quartet of innocent British children. Simon Tregath is a former military man who fell into black-market affairs (apprently unintentionally) and was discharged. When the story begins, unspecified dealings have marked him for death. Norton crafts opening pages that feel like a John le CarrĂ© thriller, with a hunted man slouching through European back alleys, watching out for the killers he knows will come for him.

And then… Arthurian legendry enters the story. A mysterious Dr. Petronius approached Tregarth with an offer of permanent escape. The “Siege Perilous,” a gateway to other dimensions borrowed from the Arthurian cycle, will take Simon Tregarth permanently to another world, one where a man like him will be most at home. Simon has little choice, and the lure of adventure would never let him refuse, so he passes through the Siege Perilous and into the Witch World—and immediately into danger as he rescues one of the magic-wielding females from the men hunting her. (The witch keeps her name a secret from Tregarth until the end, an excellent character touch.) Simon transitions to the new world of adventure rapidly as he joins the witches and people of the nation of Estcarp in their struggle against the bizarre Kolder, who have gained a hold on the continent through the conquest of the island of Gorm.

Witch World moves fast. Too fast, sometimes, which is the main reason I have never fully fallen for its spell. The books becomes most intriguing when it starts to border into science-fantasy. Simon Tregarth uncovers evidence of technology that the Kolder use to make their slaves, and that the Kolder are dimensional visitors like him. Simon’s period trapped on Gorm and his escape are the novel’s most gripping, since they start to unveil secrets hidden behind the people of Kolder. Also excellent is an early battle when Estcarp helps its ally of the traders Sulcarkeep against on onslaught of the Kolder, and which builds to a nihilistic and exciting conclusion.

But too often, the writing in Witch World moves along so fast that it’s easy to miss transitions, and important information often flies right past. Readers might assume that Witch World is a breezy fantasy adventure like many on the shelves today, but it’s quite dense with plot and intra-world politics, and anyone who reads it should know that the straight-forward prose does not mean a simplistic story. The rapid plot movements can cause a reader to get lost at a moment’s notice, often over the space of a single page—and consquently start to lose interest in the novel’s story. This happened to me the first time I read the book. This second time reading it, I got deeper into Norton’s setting, but I still found the hop-skip-and-jump from plot point to plot point frustrating. Sometimes I wished I could ask Norton to please slow down and let me savor some of the fortresses, battle planning, and matriarchal society of Estcarp.

Norton also structures the novel in a way so that “Part II: Venture of Verlaine,” interrupts the build of the action with Simon Tregarth and the defense of Sulcarkeep. The action switched to the character of Loyse, daughter of Fulk of Verlaine. This plot strand eventually reunites with the previous story, but it’s too much of a pause in the action—and Loyse as a character never rises to such importance again in the rest of the story as her dominance in this part would seem to indicate.

I plan to move on to read the follow-up, Web of the Witch World, because unlike the first time I assayed reading Witch World, I feel much more intrigued with the setting and future battles of Simon Tregarth and the people of Estcarp against the mystery of the Kolder.

With the legal affairs of the estate settled, a Witch World movie seems a possibility. Despite some of my reservations about the book, I think it would make a fresh fantasy movie among some of the tired and YA-oriented affairs the studios have trotted over over the last four years. The estate also wants to make sure that any adaptation of the the “Witch World” setting avoids the full junking of Norton’s source material that occured with Beastmaster. Whatever you may think of that movie (I have an affection for it), it had very little connection to Norton’s science-fiction novel from which it took its name.