I’ve jumped the line a bit on the publication order of the Witch World novels after completing the Tregarth sequence, because The Crystal Gryphon has always been my favorite of the Witch World novels. I just had to see if the love was still there.
I’m delighted to report that it is. Kerovan remains his damaged but sweet and honorable self, and Joisan shows even more depth of character than I remembered. I’d go as far as to say that for me, along with Moon of Three Rings, this is one of Norton’s best.
I have other favorites, which we’ll come to, but these are definitely up there.
By this time I’m seeing a pattern in the Norton oeuvre. She loves to write from two viewpoints, one male, one female. Her characters are often misfits in some way, or become so. And in the Witch World, the Old Ones and their warring magics are a constant challenge.
Life in this world is a process of navigating through a postapocalyptic hellscape dotted with ruins, some benign (usually distinguished by a blue-green glow) and many downright malign. In High Hallack, a Scottish Highlands-like mosaic of mountains and dales, inhabited by very loosely affiliated feudal lords and their followers, people walk well shy of the evil places and worship some of the more kindly powers. High among these is the fertility goddess Gunnora, who oversees women and childbirth. This is literal. Prayers to Gunnora may be answered, explicitly and with visible power.
The humans here, as often in this world, seem to have come from somewhere else, probably through a gate between worlds. They huddle in and around strong fortresses, and do their best to avoid the Waste, which is the haunt of strange creatures, dire magics, and random Old Ones.
Kerovan (Norton does love her K-names) is the byproduct of a demonic bargain gone wrong. His mother tried to make a pact with one of the darker Old Ones, but when he was born, she realized that her attempt had failed. He bears the mark of the nonhuman Other: cloven hooves and amber goat-eyes. But he claims no arcane powers and spends a great deal of time trying his best to be a normal human being (complete with special boots to hide his feet; nobody seems to notice his eyes unless the plot needs them to).
Rejected with extreme prejudice by his mother, Kerovan is still, in a backhanded way, accepted by his father, who is the lord of Ulmsdale, the sigil of which is a gryphon. Tephana absolutely will not let the changeling be raised in the keep, and Ulric has his own reasons for not wanting people to know that his sole male heir is…different. He sends Kerovan away to be raised by a retired master at arms and, eventually, by a scholar/seeker/would-be wizard named Riwal.
Kerovan grows up somewhat wild and quite solitary, but always aware of his rank, his family situation, and his physical differences. While he is still a child, his father undertakes to strengthen his heir’s position and the family’s prestige by marrying Kerovan by proxy to an equally youthful heiress, Joisan of Ithkrypt.
Joisan has her own family troubles, what with her awful aunt and her horrible female cousin, and her not at all awful male cousin who falls hopelessly in love with her and tries repeatedly to convince her to repudiate the husband she has never seen and marry him instead. But Joisan is honorable right down to the bone, and she will not break a promise, even though she knows nothing about her husband and only hears rumors that make him out to be a monster.
Just about the time the two of them would finally meet and consummate the marriage, disaster comes to High Halleck: the Hounds of Alizon, whom we met in the Tregarth sequence, stage an invasion with the help of Kolder machines, and systematically destroy the dales. Joisan is forced to abandon Ithkrypt and flee with the few women and children and old men she’s able to save—notably the large and formidable Nalda—and Kerovan has to see Ulmskeep fall to the inept and overweening magic of his mother and his cousin Rogear.
Dalesmen fear and avoid magic, but a few have aptitude for it. Joisan has been raised by wisewomen, one of whom, Dame Math, magically destroys herself and the keep of Ithkrypt rather than see it fall to Alizon. Kerovan, tutored by Riwal, has glimpses of what else he could be—he’s the avatar of an Old One—but tends to resist it. He’s different enough as it is.
He does however come across bits of ancient and useful magic. One is a wristband of blue-green metal that glows in the face of danger and protects him against attack. The other is a crystal globe encasing a tiny gryphon; he sends this to Joisan as a gift, and it protects her. Over time she learns to use it, and even, occasionally, to wield it as a weapon. She can also, very occasionally, communicate in a dim and dreamlike way with Kerovan, and vice versa.
When husband and wife finally meet, High Hallack is overrun and Joisan has fled with her band of villagers. Kerovan overreacts to her initial shock at his half-human appearance by deciding not to tell her who he is. Kerovan has severe problems with his self-image.
Since he refuses to give her a name, she decides he’s an Old One and calls him Lord Amber because of his eyes. He helps her shepherd her charges to an island of the Old Ones that he’s found, which is amply supplied with gardens and orchards gone wild. Then he takes off to brood and feel sorry for himself, because he’s convinced Joisan wants nothing to do with him.
Kerovan, as I said, has serious self-image issues.
When he finally makes his way back to the island, he gets a profound shock. Someone else has shown up and claimed to be Kerovan. It’s Rogear, who survived the wreck of Ulmskeep and is now prowling in search of we’re never quite clear what, but random magical items would definitely be on the list. Joisan’s crystal gryphon will do nicely, and so will Joisan.
The upshot of this is that Joisan does not like “Kerovan,” actual Kerovan is keeps telling himself that Joisan doesn’t like him either, and Rogear sees an opportunity. He cold-cocks Joisan and steals the gryphon, then blinds Kerovan with it (see above re. weaponized artifact).
Kerovan’s pity party is now a full-on rave. As Joisan falls under a spell and takes off from the island, Kerovan figures out how to use his wristband to heal his eyes. When he goes to tell her what he’s done, she’s gone. He entrusts the island and its inhabitants to Nalda (who is awesome) and takes off after Joisan.
He finds her in the Waste with Rogear, Tephana, and Tephana’s two other children, gathered together to raise the Dark Powers and finish what Tephana began all those years ago. The gryphon is their key, Joisan is under their spell, and they’re perverting both to dark uses.
In the battle that follows, Joisan learns who Lord Amber really is, Kerovan channels the Power within, and the rest of the family meets a grisly end. Kerovan finally discovers how Joisan really feels about him, and they proceed to get it together.
As a twentysomething I adored this book. I loved Kerovan’s moping and glooming, and I got that he had Reasons for being the way he was. Rejected by his mother, neglected by his father, being called a monster—no wonder he was a mess. I wanted, like Joisan, to hug him and squeeze him and call him Lord Amber.
Joisan didn’t impress me as much then as she does now. I was caught up in loving poor damaged Kerovan, who was really a great Power and a lovely person and who needed, badly, to realize how awesome he actually was. Joisan was kind of ordinary.
Now I realize how extraordinary she is. Joisan is a well-adjusted, decently educated, solid young person with no illusions about herself or her world. She has no problem being married off in childhood to a total stranger. It’s her job, and she’s determined to be good at it. She is concerned when nobody will tell her what kind of person she’s been married to, but she doesn’t want to break that promise, even against strong pressure from a man she could, in other circumstances, easily love.
When she finally does meet someone who claims to be Kerovan, she doesn’t like him, but she understands her duty. She does her best to keep her side of the bargain. Once it’s made clear to her that the man is an impostor, she’s glad—but she never regrets the marriage itself.
Kerovan is the one who keeps trying to cut her loose, not because he dislikes her, but because he sees her quality. He doesn’t want her to tie herself to a misfit and a monster.
Joisan doesn’t see him that way at all, despite what he thinks. She’s startled at first to meet a man who “stood upon hoofs like one of the cows,” but she’s not repelled by him in any way. She comes to like and respect him, and eventually it’s clear she loves him.
Kerovan is a callow young thing who is going to get much worse before he begins to get better (though we can understand why he’s the way he is). Joisan is amazing. She has absolute integrity. And nothing, except strong black magic, will shake her from it.
Yes, I still love this book, even while I see Kerovan more clearly for what he is, because of Joisan. She makes the whole story shine. She’s so different from the standard rebellious princess; she doesn’t object to the arranged marriage, she gets why it has to happen, and she sets out to make the best of it. That she ends up loving her husband is a bonus—even though he keeps trying to ditch her “for her own good.”
Nevertheless, as they say, she persists. While keeping her people together, protecting them as long as she can, and then making sure they’re well looked after. Lord Ulric was a lousy father, but he did well by his son when he arranged that marriage.
That’s the thing about this book. It has heart. Some characters are just plain bad—notably Tephana and Rogear, and Joisan’s dreadful cousin Yngilda, and of course the Hounds of Alizon—but mostly they’re just trying to do the best they can with the destinies they’re dealt. They’re not suburban Americans in costume. They’ve very much of their world and culture, and that is as authentically medieval as I’ve seen in fantasy. Right up to and including Joisan’s acceptance of her role in the world.
Next time we’ll move on to the sequel, Gryphon in Glory. See you there!
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.