As I (re)read the works of Andre Norton, I’ve made a decision not to include the collaborations—Norton wrote enough solo books to keep me going for quite some time to come. I’m making one exception, and this is it. Partly because I love the solo Gryphon books so much and could not resist reading the conclusion of the saga, and partly because the collaborator, Ann Crispin, was an old and dear friend, lost to us much too soon, and I love her writing. Call it an Executive Decision.
I quite like the combination of Ann and Andre. We have Andre’s half-ruined world with its striking combination of ordinary humans, mutated humans and nonhumans, good and bad magic, and bits of high tech among the swords and armor. And we get Ann’s warm heart, her horse knowledge, her clear eye for human quirks and foibles.
Kerovan is still his damaged, severely self-image-challenged self. Joisan has lost not one jot of her stubborn refusal to stop loving him and let him dump her. When we meet them again, three years after the end of Gryphon in Glory, life has not been as easy as they hoped. They have no home and can’t seem to find one; and Kerovan still isn’t free from magical meddling.
For most of these years, the two of them have been wandering from place to place, settling for a short time, then being pulled onward by the same sort of compulsion that originally sent Kerovan into the Waste of Arvon. As the story begins, they’ve been in one place for a year. Joisan is assisting the village healer and developing her inchoate magical powers, and Kerovan is making himself useful as a hunter. There’s the constant stress of not knowing when they might be pulled away again, on top of the knowledge that this isn’t really home, and they want a home desperately. Joisan also desperately wants a child, but there’s no way that can happen as things are.
Kerovan has pulled away emotionally again, as well. There’s not much Joisan can do about that. And then he’s literally pulled back out onto the road—the same compulsion or possession that’s come over him before.
He’s being called to the mountains of Arvon, and he can’t resist the call. When he can think, he’s back to wondering why Joisan wants him, and now he’s started thinking about a baby, too. Of course that can’t happen, for oh so many reasons.
While they’re on their way to the mountains, they share a vision of a horrible thing, a weird shadowy mist that rolls over the hills and destroys whatever it touches. This is That Which Hunts the Ridges, and no one knows what it is, except that it’s dire.
Joisan continues to exercise her powers, using them for protection—in detail that we haven’t seen in the solo books; we get full rituals here—and to guide them through the wilderness. They meet a new nation of people, the Native American-like Kioga, through the rescue of a mare in distress; Kerovan is able to save her life and deliver her twin foals.
The mare rejects one of the foals. Joisan calls on Gunnora, and is answered. She saves the foal, just in time for the mare’s owners to appear. The Kioga are horse people, and we hear a lot about this, as we do about the fact that they’re exiles from somewhere else.
Most of the people of Arvon seem to have come in by portal, and they’re an eclectic mix, from the Kolder to the Hounds of Alizon to the feudal society of the Dales, and even a stray witch of the blood of Estcarp (whom we’ll meet again shortly). The Kioga came into the mountains by portal and settled happily there, but were driven out by some unspecified horror, and their dream is to return to the mountains.
While Joisan and Kerovan are guests of the Kioga, Joisan has a magical sending from, by the evidence, Gunnora, and acts on it with Kerovan. This is definitely Ann and not Andre, as is the Kioga sequence in general, between the horses and the fulfilled romantic aspect. It fills a gap we’ve noticed before in Andre’s solo work; romance, let alone sex, is not a thing that Andre is comfortable with, or does well at all.
Kioga horses, like Lackey’s Companions, Choose (capitalized in the original) their people. We learn this as Kerovan volunteers to go on an epic hunt with a select portion of the tribe; he barely stays a day in camp before he has to go, leaving Joisan behind. She accepts this because, well, reasons. Not exactly in keeping with all her vows never to be separated again, but there we are. It all comes down fast, and they’re whirled away from each other.
So Kerovan is off exploring, having made numerous new friends including the adorable young Guret, and Joisan stays behind, having made new friends and one significant enemy: the shaman, Nidu, who does not work on the light side of magic. Kerovan’s adventures involve a great deal of riding, intervals of storytelling and backstory, a thrilling river rescue in which he saves the life of Guret’s equally adorable younger sister, and a truly scary monster in the shape of an alluring desert oasis. Joisan meanwhile discovers that she’s pregnant, deepens her devotion to Gunnora, and continues to develop her powers.
While this is going on, she and Kerovan communicate occasionally by telepathy. They’ve been doing so for quite a while; it’s a new thing in the trilogy, and it’s sometimes useful, though it’s not totally reliable.
Joisan does not tell Kerovan about the baby. Some of her friends pick up on it, especially the young mother Terlys, whose son she cures of a fever. And, in time, Guret. Basically everybody but Kerovan.
Joisan’s saving of the young boy’s life puts her in direct conflict with Nidu, who regards it as a trespass on her prerogatives as the tribe’s shaman. But Nidu was not available and it was an emergency. Joisan can’t just let him die.
Nidu confronts Joisan and tries to drive her out with a vision of Kerovan in danger, but Joisan’s stubbornness keeps her where she is. She starts having dreams of being someone else, not human, and probably very long ago. This person lives in a mountain fastness and looks like a sort of humanized bird; her brother is a magical adept, and as the dreams progress, it’s clear he’s been turning to the dark side.
As Joisan discovers that Nidu is trying to drive her mad with dark spells, Kerovan manages to defeat the well monster with powerful magic. He doesn’t believe it’s his; it must come from his quan-iron wristband, which has always worked to protect him. But the Kioga aren’t so sure. At that point they decide to give up on finding a new place—this country is just too dangerous—and head back to camp. Kind of a fizzle all around, except insofar as Kerovan makes new friends and Joisan makes an enemy.
Kerovan’s reunion with Joisan is passionate and fraught—then Nidu adds a terrible complication by demanding a human sacrifice to feed her power, and choosing Guret. She’s getting back at Joisan and Kerovan, of course.
Also of course, the very next morning, Kerovan has to leave again. He’s so strongly compelled that Joisan has to tie herself ot him in order to keep from being left behind.
Her dreams continue. They’re a story from the past, about a birdlike woman named Sylvya and her wicked brother Maleron, whose keep is called Car Re Dogan.
In waking life, Guret joins them. He’s slid out of Nidu’s trap on a technicality: claiming he owes Kerovan a debt for saving his sister. Joisan’s dream continues and nearly consumes her.
It’s all leading toward a mysterious misty barrier that, once passed, reveals an abandoned keep and a fertile valley. It’s called Kar Garudwyn, Kerovan says, and it belongs to the Light. More: it belonged to Landisl, the gryphon lord who was, to a large extent, Kerovan’s creator—he interfered in the dark bargain between Kerovan’s mother and the evil Galkur.
This, in all ways that matter, is Kerovan’s ancestral home. That’s what’s been calling him. This is where he’s supposed to be.
They settle in it, but there’s still an ancient conflict to resolve. The keep’s neighbor is none other than Kar Re Dogan, and they discover that Maleron committed a terrible evil and was cursed to run the ridges with a wild hunt, devouring souls as they ran—starting with his half-sister, the bird-girl of Joisan’s dreams.
Then, because there’s always a then, Nidu appears. She’s still in a dark and jealous rage against Joisan, and she wants Guret back. She’s riding a Keplian; we’ve met those before, and they are serious bad news.
The culminating magical battle of this book features Nidu and the wild hunt on one side and Kerovan, Joisan, and Guret on the other, along with an old friend who was left somewhat abruptly behind in Gryphon in Glory: the Dales warrior Jervon. He was traveling with Elys, but they stumbled across a portal and were torn apart. The hunt, we soon learn, has absorbed her. Jervon barely escaped to tell of it.
Nidu wants to release the hunt from the mountains and turn it loose on the lands beyond. Our heroes and heroine face the shaman and the creatures contained in the hunt, among whom they find both Sylvya and Elys. In the resulting melee, the hounds of the hunt destroy Nidu, and Maleron is ready to burst loose all over Arvon. Elys and Sylvya join the good guys to bring him under control. Then Kerovan channels Landisl to show Maleron the error of his ways and convince him to surrender. He submits himself to be imprisoned and destroyed.
The undead hunt is still there and still a threat, but Joisan has a fix for that. She calls on Gunnora yet again, channeling the strong power of her unborn daughter (of whom Kerovan is still unaware but shortly will be), and opens a Gate and sets all the lost souls free.
Sylvya is still alive in Arvon, as is Elys. Kerovan finally realizes he’s about to become a father, and to everyone’s surprise including his own, he’s glad. Apprehensive, but glad.
He has a home now, and the Kioga can finally come back to the mountains. He and Joisan will rebuilt Kar Garuwyn, and Sylvya will move back into Car Re Dogan, and all’s well that ends well.
This is vintage Norton, with its conflict between light and dark magic, its wicked sorceress, its ruined strongholds, and its warring Old Ones. But it’s also a richer, more emotionally satisfying story, and where Norton handwaved and skipped over the practice of magic, here we get whole rituals and complex spell workings. And we get closure on Jervon and Elys, who dropped abruptly out of the last book and never came back.
That Which Runs the Ridges is serious nightmare fodder. That toxic mist, that shapeless bloodthirst, that horrible droning moaning sound it makes—it’s truly ghastly. And then we learn what it is, and it’s a combination of sick and tragic, with zombies and lost souls. Plus the iconic Norton twist of the male adept who overreaches without fully realizing what he’s done, and the witch who turns to what, here, is called the Left-Hand Path.
Kerovan finally gets to sort himself out, and manages to come to terms with his peculiarly mixed heritage. Joisan gets to have a baby. And the baby—there’s another story there, though I don’t know what it was ever written. She’s certainly in the category of massively powerful, magically awakened fetuses, along with St. Alia-of-the-Knife and, in its way, Clarke’s Starchild.
I like the way this ends, with an indication that the world, and the story will go on, but also that the characters we’ve come to love have found peace (and love) for the time being. It’s a worthy conclusion to my favorite story and characters in the Witch World.
Next time I’ll circle back in the timeline and reread Year of the Unicorn, then tackle the rest of the tales of High Hallack. There’s still quite a bit of the world to discover.
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.