As I carry on with my reread of the Witch World books, I’ve come to realize that I don’t remember the plots of these books at all. I remember the characters. I remember who pairs up with whom. But the details of What Happened? Total blank. So it’s been like reading completely new books inhabited by characters I remember more or less clearly, but whose adventures add up to, “I know they all survived because they’re series regulars, but that’s about it.”
That sensation is particularly acute with the stories of Simon and Jaelithe’s three children. Each book stands more or less on its own, but they fit together so closely that the effect is straight-up fantasy trilogy. Events that are left open-ended at the start of the first in the series are resolved by the end of the third, but meanwhile, each protagonist gets to tell his or her individual (but interlinked) story.
Not that the title of the first one makes that any too obvious. The “Three” of the title are triplets, named Kyllan, Kemoc, and Kaththea, but this is primarily Kyllan’s story. His whole story, from birth onward.
This makes for a slow beginning. We hear all about how traumatic the triplets’ birth was, how Kyllan came first and then Kemoc and Kaththea hours later and close together, then their mother went into a coma for months, which caused their father to refuse to have anything to do with them. But a Falconer woman with healer skills, whose name was Anghart, mysteriously appeared (armed with even more mysterious sword) after Kyllan’s birth but before the unexpected appearance of the other two, somehow (mysteriously) inciting Jaelithe to rise up and declare that they will be “warrior, sage, and witch,” before collapsing back into her bed.
Anghart fascinates me, but we never find out what brought her there or where she got the sword, let alone where her skills and apparent seer’s powers come from. She disappears into the role of the children’s nurse, and Loyse more or less takes the place of their mother, while Simon and Jaelithe go about their own business. Which, all too soon, means Simon disappears at sea, and Jaelithe—after using the children as fuel for a magical seeker spell—disappears in search of him. And that’s that for his parents, as far as Kyllan knows.
Meanwhile Anghart continues to serve as nurse (without any further evidence of magical powers), and Loyse and Koris take the place of parents, until the boys are old enough to join the border guard of severely embattled Estcarp. Kaththea meanwhile spends her time eluding the witches, until finally they suck her in and take her off to their secret Place of Silence.
While all this is going on, the political situation just keeps getting worse. Karsten, destabilized by the events of Web of the Witch World, has given rise to another aggressive warlord, and his priority is to take over Estcarp. Alizon continues to be a problem as well, but Karsten is the more dangerous enemy. Kyllan spends a great deal of time warrioring, as does Kemoc, until Kemoc is laid up, possibly permanently, with a severe hand injury. Kemoc treats this as an opportunity rather than a tragedy, and takes off for Lormt, which is ancient, ruinous, and full of forbidden lore.
This leaves Kyllan alone, but still mentally linked with his siblings, though Kaththea is next to impossible to reach now she’s in the witches’ clutches. He keeps on fighting, until he receives an urgent communication from Kemoc. Kaththea is about to be bound by the witch oath, and she wants out. Bad.
They have one chance. The witches have gone for the nuclear option against Karsten: they’re going to raise all their powers, move the earth, and block off Estcarp from Karsten. This is what they did once, Kemoc has learned, to escape from another impossible situation in a direction no one of the Old Race can even think about: the east.
There’s a magical compulsion against looking, traveling, or even contemplating anything in that direction. The triplets, being half Earthling, can overcome the compulsion, but it’s not easy. Kemoc has studied in Lormt and thinks he knows how to get there—and it has to be now, before Kaththea is completely absorbed into the witches’ Gestalt. He figures that if they can get over the mountains and into the unknown country, the witches won’t be able to follow them, and therefore won’t take Kaththea.
The only time it’s possible to do this is right after the great working, when the witches are so weakened that the brothers might be able to break into the hidden place and free their sister—then get away before they’re caught. Which in fact is what happens, with great trouble and danger.
They make their way into the east, with difficulty: Kaththea has been among the witches long enough that she can’t even see where she’s going, and Kyllan struggles as well. When they finally make it, they find a strange country full of dark and dangerous places and creatures, interspersed with oases of safety (mostly colored blue or blue-green).
This the aftermath of a magical apocalypse. Adepts overstepped badly and devastated the country. The witches managed to shift the mountains—the same working that they used against Karsten—and escape into the west, leaving behind a whole lot of Shadow and an assortment of mutated or magically altered creatures. One such human subspecies are the Green Men, who have horns but otherwise look human, led by Dahaun, the Lady of the Green Silences, whose appearance changes constantly and apparently in relation to the time of day and the mood she happens to be in. There are also various animal species; one, the renthan, are sentient and acts as allies to the people of the Green Valley.
Kyllan finds them by accident, after succumbing to the spell of a Keplian: a gorgeous black stallion that turns out to be completely evil. He’s nearly killed, but Dahaun heals him with magical mud—the Green People are all about earth magic. Meanwhile Kemoc and Kaththea, separated from their brother, get into serious trouble though ignorance and badly timed and miscalculated magic, particularly on Kaththea’s part. Kaththea has a severe case of not knowing what she doesn’t know.
Ultimately the siblings are reunited, but the Green Valley is besieged by evil, and the triplets’ arrival has escalated the situation past critical. Kyllan is taken over by a mysterious force, and compelled to go back into Estcarp and try to recruit warriors to help with the war. But his mission doesn’t turn out the way he thought it would. He only makes it to one holding, and apparently fails, to the extent that he’s ambushed and tortured and generally not treated well by some of the lord’s men.
But! it’s all right, more or less, after all! He wasn’t supposed to be a recruiter, he was a carrier for a disease, a compulsion that spreads along the border, to overcome the ban and move eastward not just in military bands but with women and children.
It’s all very weird and shadowy and mysterious, and there’s some sort of godlike power involved, but we never do find out what. He ends up back in Escore, in the Valley, and he and Dahaun have paired up. And that’s his adventure.
What strikes me most about this novel is how peripheral Kyllan is to the most important (and interesting) parts of the story. While he’s trudging along being a soldier, Kaththea is learning to be a witch, and Kemoc is exploring the tantalizing mysteries of Lormt. And let’s not even get into where Simon and Jaelithe are. Everybody is having adventures except Kyllan.
I want to know about Lormt. And I want to know about witches. How are they trained? What are they like when they’re at home?
But no. All that’s happening elsewhere while Kyllan trudges from scouting expedition to smirmish.
Kyllan is a classic example of what in recent years writing teachers and reviewers would call the problem of agency. He never does anything on his own. He’s always pushed along by someone else, whether Kemoc, the Keplian, Dahaun, the mysterious Powers…
No wonder I couldn’t remember the plot. All the cool stuff is happening to other people. Kyllan has little to do but slog and suffer. He gets the girl in the end, but in classic Norton fashion, it’s all terribly inarticulate and understated.
He’s not even a full member of the triplet club: Kemoc and Kaththea are much closer, and he trails along the edges. He doesn’t end up recruiting effectively; he’s just a carrier for the Must Move East bug. I’d feel sorry for him, except he seems content to roll with it.
Dahaun is an extremely interesting character, though in this book she’s essentially a green Smurfette. All the Greens appear to be male except Dahaun. (Yes, I know, I read ahead. But here, she’s apparently the only female Green.)
But that’s fairly standard for Norton and for men’s adventure in general. The majority of people in these books are male, and male is default. Female characters are often protagonists but are few and exceptional.
By now I’m remembering the pattern of Norton tropes. Postapocalyptic settings with ancient races who have forgotten where they came from, check. Characters with elf-like features and longevity and mystical mind powers, also check. (Though that makes me wonder: will Simon age out and die on Jaelithe or…?) Manichaean dualism, Light and Shadow, yep. Critters with tufted heads and tufty tails—renthan and various Yiktorian animals, got those. Zero sex, but it’s obvious who will pair up with whom. If she’s a magical mystical female who rescues him from terrible awfulness and he’s the protagonist, it will happen.
There’s a distinct thread of warning against absolute power and corruption. Too much knowledge leads to abuses leads to destruction. Then everyday people and animals have to try to survive in the ruins.
Rebels get things done, but those things can be destructive and wrongheaded. Sometimes just blundering along can be catastrophic. Other times, greater powers take charge, and then all humans can do is go along for the ride—resisting, maybe, but generally without success.
There’s a sense of the numinous, but no religion as such. Greater powers are evident by their actions and interventions. People don’t pray and there are no temples in any organized sense, though sometimes an entity like Volt may have been venerated as a god. The witches don’t seem to bow to any power but their own, and they’re quite arrogant and high-handed about that.
Then again, as depleted as their numbers are, and as dependent as Estcarp is on them, it’s not terribly surprising that they take power wherever they can find it. They need Kaththea, regardless of how she or her family may feel about it. Therefore they take her.
Kaththea is terribly selfish, and she comes by it honestly. Jaelithe drops the witches cold for Simon, gives up her powers (and their utility for Estcarp), as she believes, though she soon discovers that she’s kept them after all. For someone supposedly indoctrinated by and for an arcane sisterhood, she leaves awfully easily. And Kaththea doesn’t want to be a part of it at all, though she absorbs the knowledge willingly enough, as far as I can tell.
Her brothers really ought to know better. They’re both fighters and wardens for Estcarp, but the minute she needs to get out of witch school, they’re there—Kemoc with no evident second thought, and Kyllan only slightly missing his duties and his comrades in arms. Whether because they were effectively orphaned or because they’re just missing something essential, they have no loyalty to Estcarp, only to each other.
I blame Jaelithe. She lays a geas on them at birth, and it sticks. “Warrior, sage, witch—three—one! I will this! Each a gift. Together—one and great—apart far less!” It’s like a big huge flipping of the bird at everything she’s lived and fought for, and all the loyalty she and Simon have given Estcarp. They keep on giving it, but by the Powers, their children will go their own way. (Seriously, there’s got to be backstory here, but we don’t get it. What’s Jaelithe’s damage?)
When the triplets break through into Escore, Kaththea immediately starts stirring up things that shouldn’t be stirred up. She’s plowing around with a complete disregard for the consequences. That’s going to bite her. Hard. But in this book, she has very little clue, and less restraint.
Kyllan the goodhearted jock doesn’t have a lot to do here but follow along and blunder into situations that turn out all right in the end. The real center of the triple threat is Kaththea, and to a lesser extent Kemoc, who serves mostly as Kaththea’s enabler.
The narrative structure is clear enough. Oldest and least complicated sibling starts off. Middle sibling with greater powers and twistier personality follows next, in Warlock of the Witch World. Then finally, with Sorceress of the Witch World, Kaththea gets her innings—and her comeuppance.
But it makes for somewhat choppy reading, and a story that doesn’t really get going until well along in the first volume of the three, told by a character who misses out on most of the moving or shaking. It’s a little too schematic, and a little too illustrative of the shortcomings of third-person limited narration. If that person is not the actual primary mover of the plot, he’s not so much the protagonist, and he ends up feeling peripheral and somewhat disconnected.
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.