Werecats and Moon Magic: Andre Norton’s The Jargoon Pard

After the slog of Year of the Unicorn, The Jargoon Pard reads as if Andre took readers’ criticisms of first book, thought carefully about all of them, and wrote a better, tighter, stronger book. I was surprised to find I really liked it. I devoured it in an afternoon, and was actually sorry when it ended. When I first started rereading, I hadn’t remembered much except the title—I’m a sucker for unusual words—and a vaguely positive vibe about the book. As I got into it, I remembered more and more, including the fact that I enjoyed it a great deal the first time I read it, too.

This is a sequel to Year of the Unicorn, though that’s not immediately obvious. The structure by now is familiar. Our young, usually male protagonist tells his life story from birth onward. This time we’re told that our hero is named Kethan and he lives in Arvon. He’s the heir to one of the four clans, Redmantle—which points right away to the previous novel, in which Herrel is the rejected offspring of a lady of that clan and a Wererider who won her by magic and lost her after the child was born. Herrel was raised in the Redmantle keep of Car Do Prawn until he came into his Were heritage; then he went back to his father.

So that’s in the background. So is the fact that inheritance in Arvon passes not through the lord’s son but through his sister-son. Kethan is supposedly the son of the Lady Heroise, whose brother is the lord. The lord’s mother is none other than Herrel’s mother, who went on to produce non-Were children.

Kethan does not know until well along in the novel that he is not actually Heroise’s child. Heroise, with the help of the Wisewoman Ursilla, made a dark bargain to secure herself a son who would be her puppet; she would rule through him.

She gave birth with Ursilla’s assistance in the shrine of the fertility goddess Gunnora, in the midst of a violent storm. Another child was born simultaneously, to another woman whose husband was seen doing the daddy pace outside. His horse was an odd one, very long-legged, with a strange dappled coat. (This is significant. It’s not spelled out till much later, but the sharp-eyed reader will recognize the breed ridden by the Wereriders.)

Heroise’s child was a vast disappointment: it was a daughter. But Ursilla was undeterred. The other child was male, and she knew exactly what to do. She worked a powerful spell, blanked the memory of the other woman and her midwife, and swapped the babies. Heroise rode home with a boy, and the stranger woman and her husband were delighted with their new daughter.

(By that time I had a pretty good idea who the couple were, and a fair sense of how the ruse would play out.)

Kethan grows up very much under his mother’s thumb. He’s lonely, without friends or trustworthy allies. When he’s old enough to leave the women’s tower, his mother and her Wisewoman bind him with a spell, the purpose of which he won’t understand for years: it’s intended to suppress his Were heritage and keep him bound to Heroise.

His life continues to be lonely. He has one person on his side, the old soldier Pargvin who protects and teaches him. His uncle is indifferent. The uncle’s son Maughus is actively hostile and resents that he won’t inherit the lordship, and the lord’s daughter Thaney, whom Kethan is supposed to marry when they’ve both grown up, is spoiled and petulant and doesn’t like Kethan at all.

When Kethan is finally old enough to marry, his life changes completely. A trader named Ibycus arrives with a caravan of wares, one of which proves to be Kethan’s fate: a fur belt with a jargoon clasp carved in the shape of a cat’s head.

Jargoon is a variety of zircon, Andre/Kethan explains, and it’s a browny-gold color. The fur is that of a pard, which is a big cat. Since it’s described as being from the Southwest and its coat is not described as spotted, I see it as a puma.

Kethan is a sensible young man, and he can’t afford an expensive trinket. He passes on it with great regret—but Ibycus has Reasons, and he makes sure Kethan gets the belt. It comes to him as a birthday present from his nominal grandmother Eldris.

Who is, not coincidentally, the Wererider’s former bride, and Herrel’s mother. (And therefore she actually is Kethan’s grandmother, just not in the way everybody thinks.)

It’s clear well before it happens, that Kethan is going to put the belt on and turn into a pard. Or, in my head, a puma.

Naturally he’s caught, and he’s robbed of the belt while he’s in pard form, which means he can’t change back into human. He’s literally hounded out of Car Do Prawn by Maughus, who is thrilled to be rid of the obstacle to his lordship.

While on the run, Kethan comes across a strange and beautiful Star Tower inhabited by an equally strange and beautiful Moon Witch, along with a Green Witch and a Wererider whose second form is that of a snow cat.

We’ve read the previous volume, and we remember the opening chapters, so we know who this has to be: Herrel, the Dales bride Gillan (who is actually a war orphan from Estcarp), and the daughter Heroise rejected. But Kethan knows none of this, and none of them will give him a name. Names have power, he understands, and they don’t trust him.

The tower is protected by a magical barrier, which Kethan can’t cross at first. But later, when a mysterious hawk tears off his belt and wounds him, he’s let in and tended, and he falls in love with the Moon Witch. But she doesn’t reciprocate.

The people of the Star Tower break the spell on Kethan and restore him to human form, but the restoration is temporary, made possible by a sprig of moly in a crystal globe. As long as the moly lives, he’s human, but once it dies, he’ll be a pard again. The spell only works once per user. It seems the only other way he can get his human form back is to get back the belt.

It was Ursilla’s magical hawk that stole Kethan’s belt. She and Heroise still see him as their path to power—even more so now he’ll be dependent on them to stay human. As long as they have the belt, they can control Kethan.

For his own safety Kethan can’t let them keep the belt, but there might be another way for him to get his human shape back. The Moon Witch says she can’t tell him what it is, but she drops enough hints to give him a direction.

Kethan leaves the Tower voluntarily, rather than risk drawing pursuit to it. He travels back slowly to Car Do Prawn, thinking hard as he goes—and he finds the key the witch mentioned. He can will himself to shift.

It’s hard work and he’s not particularly good at it by the time he reaches the keep, but he’s afraid he’ll lose his humanity if he stays a pard much longer. He infiltrates the keep in human form, and runs into Ursilla.

By now he understands how powerful a witch she is, and he’s no match for her. She captures him and lets him know she still has a use for him—above and beyond anything Heroise might intend. She’s not going to let him find the belt, either. She’s not that stupid.

Ursilla’s magical investigations have not tended toward the arts of the light. With Maughus hot on Kethan’s trail, she takes him on a journey into the underworld beneath the keep, to caverns older even than the Old Race—and the Old Race is very, very old. The powers down there are neither light nor dark, and she plans to use Kethan as a sacrifice to gain power for herself.

What she hasn’t reckoned on is that Kethan has backup. While Ursilla draws both Heroise and Maughus to her for use in the working—Heroise brings the belt with her—she is startled to discover that Gillan, Herrel, and the Moon Witch have also followed Kethan down into the earth.

The battle is somewhat lengthy, but not nearly as much so as the one in Year of the Unicorn. In the process Kethan learns who his real parents are and how he came to be raised in Car Do Prawn, both Heroise and Ursilla are shocked to discover that the daughter they rejected has grown into such a powerful witch, and Gillan and Herrel have known for years that Aylinn isn’t their biological child—and it doesn’t matter.

Poor Kethan is all verklempt. He’s all alone, nobody loves him, and the parents he should have had have given it all to Aylinn instead of him.

He doesn’t get to feel sorry for himself for long. With his newly discovered family, he defeats Ursilla and her allies, the very very old thing she tried to enlist on her side ends up taking her as a new sacrifice, and Kethan gladly gives up Car Do Prawn to Maughus. He has a new place to live now, the Star Tower, and a new family. And Aylinn isn’t indifferent to him after all.

This book is like a Greatest Hits album of Andre Norton favorites. The hero with the K-name joins his predecessors Kerovan, Kemoc, and Kyllan—not to mention, from another universe, Krip Vorlund. Like Kerovan, Kethan comes from a strange heritage that he only comes to understand in adulthood, and he even has a brief encounter with a crystal globe—containing moly instead of a gryphon, but the similarity is apparent. Like Kyllan and Kemoc he’s the son of a witch of Estcarp, and like Krip he’s more or less tricked into animal form and falls in love with a Moon Singer. Gillan’s wand is a bit like Maelen’s in how it works, and Ursilla has an evil version.

And of course there’s mental contact with one’s parent, like Kaththea’s with Simon and Jaelithe, with similar sharing of wisdom and advice. And journeys through underground places, a bit of dream-journey (but not too much, thank goodness), weird alien beings with formless globelike heads, a mysterious trader and traveler who acts as a deus ex machina at key moments. (I wonder if Ibycus and Neevor are the same being? Or at least related?) About the only thing we don’t see is Kethan tripping over an ancient weapon and becoming its new wielder/servant. But the belt might serve in that capacity.

It could be a terrible mishmash, but it works. The pacing is fast for the most part, the stakes are nice and high, and Kethan manages to balance loneliness and isolation with a refreshing lack of oh-poor-me. He has moments when he feels sorry for himself, but the vast majority of the time, he keeps his chin up and carries on. Even while the different elements are familiar, the way they come together is fresh enough to make them all seem new.

We learn so much as we go, about Arvon, about the Old Race, about the types of magic that operate in this world. Now I know Arvon is still in the same continuum as Estcarp, but with mountains and magic in between. The Old Race is so long-lived it might as well be immortal (the Dales people are mayflies in comparison), but individuals apparently mature at the normal human rate. The world is even older than they are, which makes it unbelievably ancient. And there have been beings working magic in it for a very long time.

I also know more about how the main line of magic works. It’s based on the color spectrum—hence the blue-green rock and the quan-iron of earlier books, versus the ickier colors of evil things. There’s a school for moon witches, which Aylinn attends. Gillan must have been self-taught, unless she spent time with the Green People—that’s not quite clear. Wereriders have their own powers, and those are strong; Kethan is only a quarter Were and he can still shift, though maybe he needed the belt as a catalyst, unlike his father who just up and shifted when he reached the right age.

There’s a distinct undertone of Tolkien in all this, maybe inevitable in the early Seventies when it was written. Tolkien was everywhere then. We have the Old Race being rather like Elves. There’s the Year of the Orc. And I was sort of right in my previous estimation: Arvon is sundered from the rest of the world the way Valinor is, and accessible only to those with the right key.

It’s all great fun. This was one of my favorites back in the day, and I find it still is. I’ll move on to Trey of Swords next, which I do not remember at all. We’ll see if reading it jogs my memory.

Judith Tarr forayed into the Witch World with a novella, “Falcon Law,” in Four from the Witch World. Her first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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