Farewell to the Witch World: Norton and Crispin’s Songsmith

I’m glad I let myself be talked into reading Songsmith. It’s a nice coda for the Witch World books, and it was a good, fast read, with engaging characters and some enjoyable reunions.

Andre Norton and A.C. Crispin make a good writing team. Norton’s distinctive worldbuilding meshes well with Crispin’s skillful characterization (and horse details!) and lovely prose.

This is the story of Eydryth the bard or songsmith, who is looking for a cure for her father Jervon’s magically induced dementia (caused somewhat indirectly by the disappearance of his wife Elys), and a mysterious young man whose black stallion is half Keplian. Eydryth sails to Estcarp from Arvon, hoping to get help from the witches.

The witches, true to form, adamantly refuse to have anything to do with a mere man, but one of them, who is not yet sworn to the sisterhood, prevails on Eydryth to help her escape and marry her sweetheart, which will put her out of reach of the witches. Eydryth, who does not believe she has any powers at all—and she thinks she would know: she was raised in Kar Garudwyn by our favorite Witch World couple, Kerovan and Joisan, and has grown up with their very gifted children—manages to get the young woman out and then escape capture herself.

But the witches are convinced Eydryth has powers, and pursue her. She seeks out a horse fair to buy a mount so that she can move on to the next possibility for Jervon’s cure, the ruined scholars’ city of Lormt. At the fair she literally runs into the stallion, meets his rider, and has to depart at speed.

The rider, who eventually reveals that his name is Alon (yes, that Alon), offers to show her the way to Lormt. But there is no cure there, either. Alon knows of a place, however, that might help: the Green Valley in Escore, with its pools of magic mud.

In the meantime Eydryth is pursued by the witches, and Alon has his own problems: the death of his Falconer friend, which he believes he caused (and now the falcon, Steel Talon, follows him in search of revenge), and the reappearance of his old foster mother, Yachne, who turns out to be a very evil witch indeed.

The pair make it to the Green Valley for a brief stop, obtain some magic mud, and take off to save Kerovan from Yachne. Yachne is on a campaign to strip Adepts of their powers to feed her own. She has already destroyed Kaththea’s old flame Dinzil, who didn’t die when Kaththea and Kemoc vanquished him. Her next target is Kerovan.

This gives Eydryth a double mission: to cure her father and warn her foster father. She also, rather incidentally, hopes to find her long-lost mother, whose was abducted because of Eydryth’s mistake. It was this disappearance that eventually caused Jervon’s illness. In short, everything is Eydryth’s fault.

Alon reveals himself to be an Adept of no little power, which explains why he’s never learned to use weapons—a lack that Eydryth sets about remedying. The two of them hunt Yachne down, catch her in the act of creating a Dark Gate, and combine forces to reopen the Gate and transport themselves to Arvon.

Eydryth discovers that she does indeed have powers, and that they’re connected with her music. It’s no wonder the witches want her.

Opening the Gate and working with dark powers affects both her and Alon badly, but they’re saved by the powers of light manifesting through the Fane of Neave. In the process, they discover that they’re in love with each other.

Once they’ve reached Arvon, Eydryth rides the stallion on a long, brutal race to Kar Garydwyn, while Alon sets off with the falcon to find Yachne and stop her before she attacks Kerovan. Eydryth nearly kills the stallion, but makes it in time. She uses the mud to cure Jervon. Then the whole family, except for the younger child and Sylvya the half-human, half-bird woman, take off to help Alon.

In the end, of course, the good guys prevail. The stallion is cured, Jervon is cured. They find his beloved Elys, not a day older or more pregnant, immured in a crystal prison right in the place where they had their showdown with Yachne. Elys goes into labor and delivers a son who will become one of the Seven Guardians of the world—Kerovan and Joisan’s two offspring also being of that number, along with Alon and, apparently, Eydryth. Eydryth and Alon marry, and everything, at least for the time being, is wonderful.

As late-era Witch World novels with big family reunions go, Songsmith is a far better book than The Gate of the Cat. In some ways it feels like an antidote to that earlier, solo Norton novel. It’s better written, and the characters are much more relatable.

My biggest problem with it is that it feels as if it needs at least one more good editing pass. Parts of it are quite rushed: I can hear the plot tokens clinking on the table. Go to the witches, get dissed by the witches, rescue the not-yet-witch, off she does, witches forget her, chase after Eydryth, but wait! Alon makes magic! Witches wander off, never to be seen or worried about again!

And then! Off to the Valley! Meet Dahaun! Meet Kyllan and Ethutur! Quick, quick! Magic mud! Check it off the plot synopsis! On to Arvon! Our young couple get it together! But! There’s so much to do! Off to warn Kerovan! Gotta cure Jervon! Now rescue Alon! Blow up Yachne! Bye-bye falcon, revenge at last! Oh! And there’s Elys! Wow! Elys has baby! Yay! Wedding! Happy! Done!

And that’s just the surface read. Stepping back to breathe, I found myself wondering all sorts of things. And reliving some of my own editing passes, because I write like this, too: fast, get it down, then go back and fill in. Except much of this did not get filled in.

First I wanted to know why Eydryth would even bother to ask the witches of Estcarp to cure her father. She’s right there in Es. Why doesn’t she simply go to the citadel, ask for Jaelithe, and get her to help? She knows all about that saga; she’s singing it. Jaelithe, like Kaththea, gets effectively disappeared after Sorceress of the Witch World. We see the male Tregarths again and again, but even when Jaelithe might have played a useful role, she’s not there. She’s just…gone.

If Eydryth has been singing the Tregarth saga everywhere she goes, she must also know about Escore, the Valley, and presumably the magic mud because of Kyllan’s experiences there. Not to mention Lormt, where Kemoc studied. But she acts as if she’s never heard of either of those places.

The only reason to go to the witches, at all, is to rescue the one who’s in Kaththea’s former position, but that doesn’t do anything except provide Eydryth with the information about Lormt that she should already have known. Plus give us a bit of cuteness with the young ex-witch and her adorable young man. Then the witches’ pursuit fizzles to nothing, except insofar as it outs Alon as an Adept. That could happen in any number of other ways, considering the difficulties of the journey and the appearance of Yachne and her minions.

It feels cluttered and a little confused. Editor-brain says drop the witches, focus on the Yachne plot, make that the big pursuit that it is in two-thirds of the book. There’s no real reason to have them, or to go to Lormt, either, except for the fan-service of finally seeing what the place is like.

Sort of. We mostly just meet the nice old couple who run it. There’s no scholarship and no research, just a fast magical McGuffin in the very conveniently placed book that Alon can very conveniently read.

Eydryth is not the only one who doesn’t know things she really ought to know. Alon is completely useless as a warrior—despite having grown up male in a warrior culture. He’s not quite congruent with the character in ’Ware Hawk, in that he’s supposedly the same age as Eydryth, nineteen, but in the earlier book it’s implied that he’s older.

It’s cute that Eydryth teaches him to fight, and he uses his one effective move to help destroy Yachne, but it’s not sold as well as it might be. Nor do we ever learn who he is. There’s one throwaway about how he and Dinzil could be twins, which I thought might add up to something—another unholy alliance such as the one that produced Kerovan? But nothing comes of it.

The end is kind of a mess. Eydryth’s wild ride ends with Kerovan not even being in any real danger, just a handwave and poof, fixed. Then she takes a big chunk of time to fuss with Jervon, while Alon, we’ve been told, is on a desperate race to save everything including himself. Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to have to make another wrenching choice, decide to rescue Alon and then cure Jervon? And wouldn’t it then make sense for her headstrong foster brother to steal the box of mud and do the job, because after all it was his lack of impulse control (along with Eydryth’s failure to control him) that caused Elys to be kidnapped and led to Jervon’s current state? And then we have everybody together when we need them, all set to take down Yachne and find Elys.

As it is, everything is quick and easy: the sort of thing that happens when the synopsis says things have to turn out X way, but the layers and the shadings and the complications haven’t been worked in yet. The characters are After School Special-y, as well, which is another manifestation of not-quite-final-draft-itis. The emotions aren’t quite fully developed and the interactions don’t quite have the resonance they might have had. Too much ticking off of boxes, not enough time spent filling in the finer details.

I enjoyed the book a great deal, even if it did trigger my editor circuits. It answered some questions, though not the one I came in with, namely Alon’s true origins. It let me revisit some old favorites and get to know a few new ones. It was worth the venture. It’s a nice coda to the series, with a sense that even while we achieve closure here, life and the characters go on, and there are many more adventures ahead.

As for us, we’re headed back into space. Forerunners! I’ll start next time with Storm Over Warlock (edited, with thanks to commenter–I had the wrong title in original post). Join me?

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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