I still remember the first time I saw Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings. It was sitting on the New Releases shelf at the Carnegie library in the little town in Maine where we spent our summers. The summer was nearly over, and the family was moving from an apartment to a house on a lake twenty miles away. I was also changing schools.
It was a great deal of change in a small span of time. I was twelve, which is the age of wonder in any case, and here was a book with the most intriguing cover: a person in a cloak, carrying a wand, escorted by a strange-looking, lionlike, wolflike, but distinctly alien animal.
I was supposed to be returning the summer’s stack of library books, but my grandparents lived in the town and yielded to my pleas to let me borrow one last book. They promised to make sure it went back where it belonged when its two weeks were up.
I curled up on the back seat of the parental station wagon and dived headlong into the world of Krip Vorlund the Free Trader, Maelen the Thassa Moon Singer, and the planet Yiktor under three-ringed Sotrath.
This book had everything. Archaic prose that sang in my twelve-year-old ears, which were just about a month away from discovering Tolkien—“Talla, talla, by the will and heart of Molaster and the power of the Third Ring, do I begin my part of this tale thus as would any Deed Singer of some upcountry lordling?” Spaceships and magic in the same place. Alien beings interacting with humans. Strange animals and a stranger culture. Danger, adventure, terrible and wonderful things happening to characters who mattered to me from the first page. Not only that, there were two of them, two very different people, and they each told their side of the story from their first-person viewpoint. I didn’t know you could do that.
I was enthralled. I’d discovered science fiction not long before, and read my way through most of two libraries’ collections. If I’d noticed Andre Norton’s name on any of the books, I don’t recall. I was a voracious and omnivorous reader, but I tended to sweep through, devour, and move on.
This time, I noticed. I didn’t know Andre was a woman, and it didn’t matter. I knew I wanted more of this particular brand of magic.
I imprinted on this book. When I had to give it up, I went back to my own library and found it again. I read and reread it. It rocked my world.
I wanted to tell stories like this. Stories about cultures meeting and clashing. Traders in space. Animal lovers on alien worlds. Body-swapping!
That was freaking amazing. Krip, in serious trouble and needing a way out that doesn’t involve getting killed, allows himself to be talked into having his consciousness shifted to the body of an animal, while his own body is carried off, Maelen assures him, to a sacred valley of lost souls, where he can be reunited with it and safely spirited away offworld. Except that Maelen isn’t nearly as good at predicting human behavior as she thinks she is, and Krip’s body never makes it to the valley. Instead it’s returned to his ship and taken away into space. Which leaves Maelen in a quandary, but she has a solution for that, too: the body of her sister’s life-mate who died in animal form while in Moon Singer training.
Of course Maelen pays a terrible price for all of this. In some ways it’s more terrible than the one Krip pays in losing his own body and being permanently relegated to the substitute. Maelen has the best of intentions, but she’s broken multiple laws, and there is no going back from the things she’s done.
So complicated. So engrossing. My heart beat hard when Krip woke as a barsk and realized exactly what Maelen had talked him into, and even harder when he came to as Maquad the Thassa. Then I cried because he still wasn’t who he seemed to be, and poor widowed Merlay knew it instantly. Maelen knew, too, but it didn’t stop her from trying to soften her sister’s grief.
And the Thassa…! Ancient race of magical mysterious beings with very pale skin, silver hair, and slanted eyebrows—Star Trek hadn’t happened yet, but we knew elves, and the idea of people like that in a world with spaceships was breathtaking. Life-changing.
When I discovered Tolkien not long after, that changed my life, too. But if any one book started me on the path to being a writer, Moon of Three Rings was it.
I reread it every so often after that first astonished meeting, and it still enchanted me. When, a couple of years ago, I found a copy of the edition I’d found in the library, complete with library dust jacket and Dewey Decimal label, I snapped it up and read it again. I still loved it.
Not only that, I found out what a barsk was, thanks to social media. A maned wolf! Well, except for the tail, which a barsk doesn’t have, but it’s an alien animal, after all.
Rereading the book this time in public, so to speak, has been a bit of a different experience. Before, I read it purely as reader, with most of my twelve-year-old self intact. I didn’t think, I just felt.
Though very early on, I did see the problem with the name of the Thassa supreme being. Molaster? Seriously? And then in volume three of what turned into a series, either the copy editor went nuts correcting to a familiar spelling (autocorrect not really being a thing ca. 1985), or Andre forgot the original spelling and it became… Molester.
Another lesson learned from Andre, this time in the Don’t-Do column. Names matter.
For this reread I applied a bit of reviewer-critic-brain, and writer-reading-source-text brain. It was hard. I love this book so much, and for me it’s not really anything but perfect. Of its kind. Because it’s so much a part of me.
I see that the prose is a bit thick. It’s very much of the yea-verily school, more so for Maelen than for Krip.
But you know, in context it works. They’re both not of our time or place. Krip is more accessibly human, and at the time it was default for the accessible viewpoint to be male. Maelen is alien in ways that become more apparent to us and to Krip as the story goes on, but she tells her story from her viewpoint, and we get to be a Thassa Moon Singer with an agenda that’s both deeply human and even more deeply not.
I didn’t realize how radical that was for 1966, or how downright revolutionary it was in science fiction for a female protagonist to be a fully rounded human being with a full range of agency, without standing on a pedestal like Galadriel or serving as a trophy like, for example, Guinevere. Maelen does not exist to be rescued—exactly the opposite, in fact. If there’s any damsel in distress in this book, it’s Krip.
Maelen is complex and conflicted, and she isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is. She makes huge mistakes, but she makes them out of honor and love.
She is not a Love Interest. Krip is fascinated by her, but there’s nothing romantic about it. She’s alien, she’s interesting, she’s powerful. Their relationship is that of two people caught in the same predicament and doing their best to find their way out of it.
Sex and gender don’t come into it in any perceptible way. They’re partners in an adventure. And Maelen, step for step, is the senior partner.
Maelen is a remarkable character. Krip is more the standard young male undergoing Life Experiences. He’s well drawn and there’s a subtle twist to the way he talks about the planet and people of Yiktor: he’s not a part of them, in some ways he’s above them, and when he first shows up, he’s just visiting. It’s only with time and trauma that he develops something more like respect for the world and its inhabitants. Especially the Thassa, who are completely unexpected, but who end up changing his life completely.
Maelen’s role here is wonderfully subversive. Star Trek was considered radical because it allowed women to go into space. The original female first officer was removed by the network in favor of a male alien—that was how unacceptable it was for women to even think about being equal to men in a science fiction adventure. They could be secretaries, receptionists, or nurses (in their tiny, skin-tight miniskirts), and even that was a major departure.
Now, mind, Norton’s human world is like the network’s world. All the Free Traders and the Combine commanders and crew are men. There are, apparently, no female humans on Yiktor.
It’s a man’s universe. We know Krip has a mother, but she’s an appendage of a male Trader, who abandoned her child to go off with husband number whatever. There’s no sense of female space. At all.
Except among the Thassa. The ancient alien species with, apparently, full equality of the sexes. (And who knows, maybe there are more than two.)
And we get to live in Maelen’s head. To know what she thinks and where she comes from. She’s not The Girl. She’s not a cipher or an armrest or an unsolvable mystery. She’s a person. Just as if she were male. That’s…really something.
The message I took away from it at age twelve is that our bodies aren’t who we are. It’s what’s inside that matters. Whatever shape we wear, we’re still ourselves. And that includes gender as well as all the other aspects of our identity.
And Andre did it without preaching or polemic. It just was. Seeing that, finally, after all this time, makes me love the book even more. No wonder I grew up with a slippery sense of genre boundaries and a propensity for matching my early default-male protagonists with uppity, complicated women. Andre corrupted me in the writer-cradle.
Thank you, Andre. And thank you, Maelen, for being you.
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.