I’m glad my whim and the vagaries of my bookshelves brought me to ’Ware Hawk after The Gate of the Cat, though it was published earlier (1983 versus 1987) and falls earlier in the chronology of the Witch World books as well. It was no problem to move back in time to a period soon after Trey of Swords, years after the Witches of Estcarp moved the mountains against Karsten, and this is a much better book. I can mercifully forget the adventures of—who was that again? What adventures?
Here we have a collection of classic Norton tropes: a mismatched pair of misfit humans, a battle between Light and Dark, interfering Old Ones, a quest through death and beyond, and of course, a geas.
Norton loves a geas. Character or characters driven by forces beyond their control? Compulsion so strong they can’t resist? Unseen and unknown Powers manipulating humans like pieces on a gaming board? That’s your standard Witch World plot. The Old Ones even recycle. Here we have Ninutra again, the neutral force of Trey of Swords (Ni-Neutral? Get it?).
This time she’s messing with the last (or so the character thinks) scion of a noble house of the Old Race in Karsten, driving her through dreams and visions to return from exile to the ruins of Hawksholme and claim a mysterious and dangerous artifact. What makes this particular version of the trope rise above the rest is the quality of the characters.
When Norton’s characters are on, they really are on. Tirtha does Strong Norton Female exceptionally well. She’s tough, trail-wise, smart, and while she’s geas-bound, she works actively to make it happen. She’s not a passive instrument. She embraces her destiny.
Part one of her plan, as far as the novel goes, is to hire a guide through the broken mountains to Hawksholme. The single candidate at the hiring fair is another exceptional character: a one-handed, falconless Falconer, whose name, we eventually learn, is Nirel. (Falconers, like the Witches they notoriously loathe, keep their names to themselves.)
Nirel is an interesting person. We only see him through Tirtha, and she sees him through a filter of assumptions about Falconers. They’re clannish, secretive, and ferociously misogynistic. She’s not even sure this Falconer will agree to work for her, and is surprised when he does.
She continues to be surprised as they travel together through the dangerous terrain of this world. Like several characters before him, he happens across a mystical weapon, a dagger that clearly is not meant for use as such, but has magical powers—and he doesn’t shy off it as Tirtha expects: Falconers hate magic, she’s been taught. He uses it early and often to protect them and to find their way. Late in the story we learn that it has a long history, and its name is Basir’s Tongue.
The dagger brings Nirel another and possibly even more precious gift: a hawk named Wind Warrior. Or maybe it’s the other way about: the hawk reveals the dagger to Nirel. We learn a great deal about Falconers and their birds. Men and hawks communicate in bird language, the birds have their own clans and leaders, and individual birds make a conscious choice to bond with a man.
What we don’t get from Nirel is any genuine hatred of Tirtha as a woman. She keeps expecting it and assuming it, but he serves her loyally and will not let her dissolve their bargain before the expiration date. When that date gets closer, and Tirtha has told him the truth about her mission, he voluntarily extends his service indefinitely.
By that point it’s quietly clear, though not to Tirtha, that Nirel doesn’t hate her at all. Quite the opposite. It’s subtle, understated, and far from explicit, but a glance here and an action there tells us that his feelings for her have developed and grown. If he ever really did hate women, he certainly learns not to hate this one.
Tirtha is much slower with her own emotional arc, but she has an awful lot on her mind. She doesn’t have time to worry about matters of romance. She’s busy being geas-bound, questing for the place of her dream, and dealing with a band of enemies who are also looking for the magic box—and one of them is a Power of the Dark, named Rane as we discover, which further ups the ante. When she finally makes it to the box and takes possession of it, she’s pretty thoroughly convinced that she’s dead and her spirit is haunting her body, which holds the box in a literal death grip. It’s not until somewhat later, when Nirel also is presumed dead, that she starts to recognize her feelings for him.
As Norton romances go, this is as good as it gets. It’s mostly hints and glances, but they add up. The conclusion actually feels like the culmination of a believable arc. I was ready for it and I cheered when it happened.
Even Nirel’s transformation from dour warrior to happy young man in love makes sense in context. We don’t get any of his internal progression from doubly maimed Falconer to willing Lord of the Hawk, but we see just enough of it to deduce the rest.
This being a sequel to Trey of Swords, we actually have a trio here (and if we happened to miss it, it’s pointed to in so many words later in the book). The third member of the fellowship is an unusual character for a Norton novel.
We first meet him as a child driven catatonic a by horrific attack on the walled farm compound he lives in. And not only catatonic—magically invisible. It’s the hawk who finds and is able to see him. The humans rescue him by feel, and Tirtha, who keeps insisting (with various degrees of frustration) that she has no major witch powers despite being of the Old Race, has enough healing power, assisted by Nirel, the hawk, and the magic dagger, to make him visible and bring him out of his catatonia.
His name is Alon, and he’s older than he looks. Sometimes he seems much older. We never learn who or what he really is, except that he’s probably at least part Old One, his powers are enormous but he doesn’t know much about them yet, and he was brought to the farm by a Wisewoman named Yachne.
Yachne is a loose end here. All through the rest of the story we keep getting hints that she disappeared before the attack on the farm, she found Alon somewhere and had plans for him, and she may be following him now. But she never shows up, and we never find out what’s going on there. Alon helps a great deal with the finding of the box and the defeat of Rane, but he drops out of the story after that, and there’s no closure except Tirtha’s observation that he has more to do in this life. If that sequel was planned, I don’t think it ever hapened, unless there’s a short piece somewhere.
He’s a lively and intriguing character while he is on stage. There’s always the danger he’ll slip into catatonia from terror again, but when he does seem to do that, it becomes evident that he’s feigning it in order to keep his enemies off balance. When he’s not a captive, he’s an interesting combination of child and ancient creature of power. Both Tirtha and Nirel feel very protective of him, but are also in awe of his capabilities.
For quite some time the story seems to be about Tirtha finding Hawksholme and the magic box, and fighting Rane and his human allies for possession of it. When she finally claims the box, the plot takes a sharp turn. Nirel is apparently killed, the hawk is maimed and transforms into one of Ninutra’s supernatural birds, and Tirtha commits suicide by ingesting poison—but remains conscious inside her moribund body.
Because the body won’t release the box, and the one bandit who tries to take it meets a fate no one will specify except that it’s horrific, she’s hauled off, box and all, out of the ruined castle and into Escore. Rane, it seems, has a plan, and that involves using the box to ramp up the power of the Dark in Escore.
But Ninutra also has a plan, which she has been orchestrating for years. Tirtha is not the only one of the Hawk’s blood to have been called by geas. Before they meet Alon, Tirtha and Nirel find the body of a man of the Old Race who wears the lord’s ring of Hawksholme, but Tirtha doesn’t recognize him. He carries a scroll in a magically secured container, which Tirtha eventually manages to open, but none of the fellowship can read it.
To keep the theme of threes going, there’s one more Hawk pulled into the quest: a half-Sulcar man whom Tirtha knew as a child. Rane and company capture and torture him, and force him to help them capture the box—attached to Tirtha, but since she’s dead, there’s nothing she can do about it.
Ninutra, however, is still in control. She guards Tirtha with the Shadow Sword, and eventually we meet the human woman who won it in Trey of Swords: the Wisewoman Crytha, along with her companions, Uruk the ancient axeman and Yonan.
I think Norton had a thing for Yonan. He shows up all over the place in the late Witch World books. Here he’s the same person, more or less, that he was in Trey of Swords, though not nearly as conflicted about being the reincarnation of an ancient adept.
The three of them help Tirtha and Alon and a badly wounded but still living and ferociously determined Nirel to wield the box, fulfill Ninutra’s plan, and defeat Rane and company. They all end up in what we can presume is the Green Valley, though the most we see of it is the magic mud that we encountered in the Tregarth series.
I knew that was coming as soon as I realized they were all headed for Escore. Tirtha turns out not to be dead at all; what she thought was a poison was a powerful paralytic drug. She did break her back and suffer other agonizing injuries, but the mud takes care of that.
It really takes care of Nirel and the hawk, who gets his own body back when Ninutra is done with him. The hawk grows a new foot, and—even more miraculous—Nirel grows a hand. And they’re all healed and healthy and happy and together, though Alon is off somewhere denying us closure.
This was a satisfying read, page by page. Loved the characters. Didn’t find the standard endless quest narrative as annoying as usual—it moved along fairly quickly, it had a point to it, and there was that twist after Hawksholme.
Even the standard weird dream-sequences worked for me, and traveling for a third of the book with a character who thought she was dead was actually interesting. We could only know what Tirtha knew, with her very limited vision and her frequent lapses into comae. It could have been frustrating but it was rather intriguing—a bit of a tour de force in unreliable narration.
I enjoyed it. It actually made up for the slog of The Gate of the Cat.
Next will be the last of the Witch World novels on my list: Horn Crown. Then we’ll move on to another Norton universe.
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.