An Independent Woman: Andre Norton’s Zarsthor’s Bane

I still have no memory of having read this book the first time, but I know I did. It’s been on my shelf since it was new. So now it’s new to me, and reflected through the rest of the Witch World books that I’ve been reading throughout this series.

Let’s see what we have here.

Classic Norton Plot Elements

  • Solitary protagonist from noble Dales House destroyed in the war with Alizon
  • Lengthy quest through eerie Waste
  • Evil creatures of the Darkness chasing our protagonist
  • Powers of the Light protecting same
  • Protagonist has no idea how or why she does things, she just does them
  • Mysterious member of the Old Race
  • Equally mysterious ancient ruin to which characters are mysteriously drawn for mysterious purposes, with weird gack of a name; in this case, An-Yak
  • Evil enemy creatures are weird toadlike things—very ugly—and weird sexualized female bird-woman-thing, also ugly, and not sexual in a good way
  • Strange dreamlike travel sequences
  • Equally strange dreamlike visions of the past
  • Warring Old Ones repeating (or concluding) their ancient conflict through contemporary avatars or vessels
  • Protagonist caught in literal hellscape between the warring factions

But A Little Bit Different Here

Brixia is an orphan, raised by her nurse, a woman with the peculiar even for Norton name of Kuniggod. Kuniggod seems to be a Wisewoman (which is classic) and has connections with the Abbey we’ve seen before—notably in Year of the Unicorn.

Three years before the book begins, Brixia’s House was destroyed. She’s been surviving on her own ever since, fighting off outlaws, learning to feed and clothe herself, and living an extremely solitary existence—except for a single companion, a mysterious cat named Uta.

We’ve seen cats like Uta before; Joisan connects with them in the Gryphon series. But here, the association seems a bit more equal. When we meet them, Brixia is traveling with Uta and feeding her. As the story advances, Uta becomes a guide and protector for both Brixia and the two male humans whom Brixia is compelled to follow and help.

Brixia is also guided and protected by a mysterious tree that gives her one of its blossoms. This blossom is a major magical McGuffin and guides, guards, and defends her. It’s a bit of a change from the usual magical weapon, stone, jewel, or crystal globe, in that it’s organic. It’s very cool.

The mysterious man of the Old Race is insane, alternately catatonic and deluded, and obsessed—when he is conscious—with something called Zarsthor’s Bane. He sings a song about it, which is rather terrible poetry, but everyone acknowledges that. His name is Marbon and he’s a lord.

He has a companion/protector/caretaker/squire named Dwed (yes, Dwed), who is fairly persistently hostile to Brixia, thinks she’s an outlaw and (in so many words) a slut, and is generally not nice to her.

They are all forced together by Outside Powers, which returns us to Classic Norton Plot Elements.

Brixia finds herself caught up in a dream-sequence in which she sees the wars of the past, confronts the two ancient lords who are fighting over Zarsthor’s Bane, and is—without agency of her own—compelled to judge between the combatants. Neither of whom even remembers what they were fighting over, or why.

The Bane is a stone, and it is the power of destruction. The flower she’s been carrying is its opposite. The flower transforms the stone, which destroys the flower but turns the stone into a power of light. This breaks the geas (a favorite Norton term and concept) which has bound the combatants in this hell.

They go off together, leaving Brixia alone in hell. She calls Uta to help. Uta helps her find her way back to her own world, where Marbon is restored to mental health and Dwed is dying. Brixia masters her newly found powers of green magic and calls him back to life.

And now there’s a new song—just as bad as the first, and just as aware of its own badness—about how the Bane is gone and the land is transformed. Brixia doesn’t want her powers, but Marbon insists on calling her Wise Woman. Eventually she comes around to accepting it.

The three of them seem to have decided they’re a family, of sorts. Dwed has always been Marbon’s foster son, Brixia seems to be connected to them in some way nobody really understands, and Uta being a cat makes her own choice to come and go between them.

It’s not the usual inarticulate “suddenly we’re lovers” ending of other Nortons. Marbon isn’t a love interest, and Brixia doesn’t look at him in that way. It’s more like comrades in arms.

Which is very interesting. She starts off as a truly independent woman. She follows the trajectory of other Norton protagonists from not knowing any magic to discovering she’s full of it. She’s also manipulated by ancient Powers, which means precious little agency as such, but those Powers ask her to judge and make choices.

She makes a frequent point of being her independent self. “I am me, Brixia! And I serve no will save my own!”

Except she does serve another will. But she insists it’s her choice. Even when there is none.

It’s an odd paradox. She’s independent, self-sufficient, a survivor. But in the end she’s as much a pawn of the Powers as anyone else.

And That’s a (Somewhat Weirder Than Usual) Wrap, with a Bonus:

It’s illustrated!

Profusely, by Evan TenBroeck Steadman, with whom I’m not familiar. It’s mostly landscapes and weird growing things, with the occasional naked female torso, interludes of flora and fauna, and numerous architectural details. We see Brixia frequently—in a Barbarella bikini and looking like a sort of proto-anime character, though in the text she’s sensibly dressed in (admittedly very worn) pants and shirt, with a rabbit-fur jacket she made herself and eventually dismantles to make sandals for crossing a desert.

Someone really wanted this book to be unusual, and paid for multiple illustrations. I don’t know that it does much to enhance the story, but I’m not the demographic for it; I do not “get” graphic novels, they mess with the pictures in my head. Nor do I know much about the history of the illustrated-fantasy genre, whether in 1978 a novel presented like this would reach out to the more visual sector of the market. Anybody know?

It’s an interesting experience, I have to give it that. I don’t connect with Brixia; she spends most of her time alone, being led around by outside forces. Marbon is mostly not there, and is a bit scary when he is lucid. Dwed alternates between nasty and defensive. Uta is a cat, and as such is charming, and clearly there’s more to her than meets Brixia’s eye. Uta makes the rest worthwhile.

Next time, rather appropriately, we’ll move on to Gate of the Cat.

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 dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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