This is a strange book. It reads well, the pacing is brisk, the characters are memorable if not always likeable. Chronologically it’s the first of the Witch World books, though it was published fairly late, in 1981.
It’s also the most sexual of the books in the series. Not that that’s saying much—it’s still PG-rated for some nudity and a small quantity of sexual imagery. But after reading as many Norton novels in a row as I have, I’m a bit gobsmacked by a book about, for real, sex. As in, characters coming to maturity and voluntarily giving up their virginity.
This is the story of the arrival of the Dalesmen through one of the many Gates scattered around the planet. They don’t remember why they left their former world, there are faint hints that they might have originated in the Witch World but nothing clear or concrete, and no one thinks too hard about it. They pour into what looks like a deserted landscape with occasional ancient ruins, they divide up the country, they settle it and learn to deal with its dangers in quite short order.
The protagonist is a Norton classic: a minor nobleman related to the lord of a very small clan, young and somewhat of a loner. He’s a warrior, that’s all he ever wanted to be, but of course, as the story unfolds, he discovers unknown depths and alien powers.
And of course he’s cast out of the clan, because Norton heroes pretty much always are. Elron’s particular sin is not reporting that the lord’s daughter Iynne (not Lynne, as I kept wanting to read it) has been sneaking out against the lord’s orders to visit the ancient ruin nearest the dale, a shrine to a being or divinity of the moon. When Iynne disappears and Elron is exiled, he takes it on himself as a matter of honor to find Iynne and bring her back to her father.
The names in Norton are always a bit…odd, but here I kept wondering if Elron’s name is a homage to Tolkien or to Norton’s contemporary whose nickname was Elron. He’s infamous now, but back in the day he was one of the gang, writing science fiction as L. Ron Hubbard. Then he got the idea of turning his work into a religion, which meant it would no longer be taxable. And things got strange from there.
In any case, I kept blinking at this particular name. The others aren’t bad, except Iynne. Elron’s opposite number is named Gathea, which recalls Katthea, the Tregarth triplet who trained to be a Witch of Estcarp and whose many failures drive the action of her brothers’ stories as well as her own.
I don’t think that is a coincidence. Gathea is a Wise Woman’s apprentice. She’s arrogant, high-handed, and flagrantly sexist, and she chafes at having to slow down and learn to use her powers in the ordinary way. She’s furious that Iynne got to the Moon Shrine before she did, and never stops raging about how that mealymouthed little “Keep girl” has taken what belongs to her. That’s her insta-power. Her very personal and private Old One.
She’s awful about women who haven’t made her personal choice to become a magic user. She’s horrible to Elron, persistently declaring that Men Don’t Do Power, even after Elron has obviously been blessed by the fertility goddess Gunnora and given the cup of the Horned King, who answers his call in emergencies. Nope, says Gathea. Nope nope, men don’t do magic, never mind all the evidence, nope, no way. You’re just an ignorant male. How Dare You?
Gathea is supposed to be badass, but mostly she’s just a pain in the ass.
She’s on the hunt for Iynne, too, accompanied by one of the best characters in this series: the huge snow cat, Gruu. Gruu is awesome. He guards her, guides her (though she doesn’t deserve it in the slightest), and eventually comes to tolerate Elron when he attaches himself to them in order to find Iynne.
Elron grits his teeth through Gathea’s anti-male rants, rescues her when she’s completely taken in by an evil illusion, and finally serves as Gunnora’s instrument to show Gathea that the celibate life is sterile and empty and heterosexuality—emphasis on the sex—is the best. He does this by passing on a kiss that Gunnora bestows on him. Very tween-sexy, though we get clear indications that Elron is having natural male reactions to female bodies and sexuality.
Yes, he finds Iynne, she’s not nearly as drippy as he thought (he takes time to reflect on how he never paid enough attention to her to really know her), but she’s still whiny and silly and rather more like Gathea’s scathing assessment than Elron likes to think about. She’s totally deluded by the bad guys, but in the end he manages to extricate her, whereupon she’s wafted back to daddy and he forgets all about her.
Along the way we get a selection of classic Norton plot elements.
-Empty country full of ancient ruins, some good, some bad, with various creatures attached to both
-Abandoned but nearly intact castle, illusory banquet in distant past of said castle, mysterious connection between protagonist and ancient people, who reach forward into protagonist’s time and meddle in his life and actions
-Battle between Light and Dark—really explicit here: every power of the Light has its exact counterpart in the Dark, and there’s a whole sequence about how you need a balance of both to keep the world going as it should
-Magical McGuffins—not weapons here, for a change, but a cup and a leaf, which Elron uses at key points to save the day
-Old Ones using modern humans like puppets, modern humans powerless to resist
-Long meandering quest through both physical and magical landscapes, including captivity by evil monsters who want to use characters for nefarious purposes, but characters prevail thanks to McGuffins and Old Ones and own personal stubbornness
-Characters who have not been getting along at all manage to hook up at the end (in this case, via something just a little bit rapey, to the eyes of 2017)
As I said, it’s a strange book. It has distinctly problematical elements. The only really honorable or likeable characters are Elron and Gruu. The women are devious and dogmatic and wrongheaded. There are no men really except Garn, the lord who nearly kills Elron for misplacing his daughter, and the villains, Tugness and his creepy son, who quickly turn out to be red herrings. The real bad guys are Old Ones and their evil minions.
The one truly good being is Gunnora, but she’s so sexually overpowering that Elron has to take her in small doses. And then she basically forces him on Gathea, never mind what Gathea might want or plan for herself. It’s portrayed as a good thing, but it’s kind of not.
It bothers me that the three phases of the standard woman’s life, based on the Celtic triune goddess, consist of the cold and remote, strongly anti-male Maiden, the oh-so-wonnnnnderful Mother, and the disgusting and evil Crone. Maiden is a stiff stick but she’s not actively bad. Crone is bad. There is nothing good about her.
What that says, intentionally or no, is that the only good woman is somebody’s wife and mother. The woman without a man, who doesn’t want a man, is sterile and barely human. The woman who is old, who is no longer breedable, is just plain evil. Combine this with Gathea’s high-handed treatment of our nice honorable young man and you get a terribly retro view of women’s roles and function.
Which is odd because other Norton novels have said just about the opposite. Crytha in Trey of Swords gets to choose the witch’s way. Many other female characters end up partnered with a man, but they live independent lives and make their own choices: Joisan in the Gryphon books, Tirtha in ’Ware Hawk, Gillan in Year of the Unicorn, Jaelithe in the Tregarth books. There is distinct bias against men among the Witches of Estcarp, but it’s seldom as fierce as it is here, except in the last and in my estimation least of the solo Norton Witch World novels, The Gate of the Cat.
I’m left feeling ambivalent about this one. I enjoyed reading it, I liked Elron, I appreciated the chance to find out what High Hallack was like when the Dalesmen first came to it. But its sexual politics are weirdly dated and not comfortable to read in 2017.
I had recalled that Gunnora played a much larger role in the Witch World books than she actually does. Maybe because I remembered her part in Horn Crown, which otherwise I did not remember at all. She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with here.
At the end I couldn’t quite see where Elron or Gathea would go. Back to the abandoned keep? On a long exploratory journey? Where would they settle? What would they do? There’s no clear answer. Just the kiss and boom—standard romantic-movie ending. I end up feeling as if Norton didn’t really get romantic love, but she felt she had to write it, and somebody told her to put more sex in, so she did what she could stand to do.
She certainly didn’t have much sympathy for the Witches at any point in the series–not that these are Witches of Estcarp, but the beliefs and the rants are the same. The best use for a Witch is to get her hooked up with a nice magic-using guy, and then her life can be, as they said in the Fifties, fulfilled.
After this I had been going to start rereading one of the science-fiction series, the Forerunner books, but the comments on these latter posts have persuaded me to try one more collaboration, again with A.C. Crispin, Songsmith. Which even has music for the songs!
I want to find out what happened to Alon. Then we will move on. Really. For sure.
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.