In moving on from the Witch World to the Forerunner novels, I thought I’d be shifting from fantasy with a dash of science to good old space adventure. So what did I find? Witches on a world called Warlock, magical coins and telepathic aliens, and a fast-moving adventure that straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction.
And I liked it. I liked it just fine.
This is one of the earliest of all the Norton genre novels, published in 1960, but it shows a sure hand and a thorough knowledge of the genre. Shann Lantee, brought up under brutal conditions in the slums of a world called Tyr, has finally realized his dream of joining a Terran Survey team to explore and colonize new worlds. His rank is so low he doesn’t even have one; he’s grunt labor, assigned among other things to look after the survey’s experimental animals, a pair of genetically modified wolverines.
Shann has been letting the wolverines out against orders, and he’s already in trouble for it when the animals make their own break for freedom. He’s terrified that he’ll lose his job, but his desperate hunt for them saves his life: while he’s out of the camp, it’s attacked and all personnel slaughtered by the alien Throgs.
The Throgs are standard-issue Evil Insectoid Aliens. They’re nasty, brutish, and completely inhuman. Also, they smell bad.
They’ve been leapfrogging the Terrans across the galaxy, competing for habitable worlds. The Terrans have found a way to protect their colonies from Throg attacks; that’s what Shann’s team has been doing on the world called Warlock. But the Throgs have attacked before the protective grid is up, while the colony ship is still on the way.
With the rest of his team dead, Shann is stranded on an alien world with minimal supplies, no food, and a pair of wolverines whom he can, more or less, enlist to help him hunt and escape the Throgs. But he’s not alone for long. In fairly short order, a Terran scout ship crashes, shot down by the Throgs. The pilot dies but the passenger survives, and Shann knows him. He’s a Survey officer, Ragnar Thorvald.
Thorvald is built like a Nordic god, and Shann fell in love with him at first sight, the day he shipped out on this mission. Thorvald doesn’t even remember him, and he doesn’t give Shann much credit for saving his life, either. Thorvald is more than a bit of an asshole.
He’s also an experienced scout with serious wilderness skills. He takes charge of the mission, enlists Shann and the wolverines to raid the Throg-occupied camp for, he claims, food and supplies. What he doesn’t mention is the map collection he rescues at great risk to life and limb—both his and Shann’s, as well as the wolverines’. Thorvald, it’s clear, has ulterior motives. He’s looking for something: signs of an alien race, represented by a strange coin that the First-In Scout found on a beach.
With the Throgs in pursuit, the Terrans and their animal companions make a run for it. Shann doesn’t agree with Thorvald’s choice of destination, the western sea, but Thorvald has the rank and the experience. All Shann can do is follow.
That’s not to say Shann is passive. He soaks up what Thorvald will teach him of wilderness skills. He’s also dreaming of a strange island like a dragon’s skull—while Thorvald is dreaming of a weird green veil.
Dreams are a thing on Warlock. They drove the First-In Scout mad, but Shann’s team hasn’t had any issues.
Shann is troubled by his dreams, but Thorvald is frankly possessed. He abandons Shann on a desert island, sails away with all the supplies. Poor Shann has to figure his own way off the island, but as he tries to construct an outrigger canoe using the shell of a large and very dangerous creature, which is an extremely messy process, he’s possessed as well, and destroys his work overnight.
But Shann is tough and smart, and he realizes that he’s being manipulated. He sets a trap for whatever is trying to mind-control him, and catches a young alien, a dragon-like creature who is, he realizes, a female. She controls him through a mysterious coin, just like the one that Thorvald had with him.
The alien abducts Shann and the wolverines and spirits them away underwater to a hidden city. Shann manages to escape her control partway through the voyage and nearly drowns, but manages to survive. Once he’s confined in a roofless cell, he climbs out, finds the wolverines in a cell of their own, and makes his way to a council of elders.
All of these aliens are female; they’re shocked that he’s a male and sentient. Their males are incapable of volition; the females control them using the magic coins. They put Shann through a range of psychic and emotional tests in the weird green fog of Thorvald’s dream, during which he finds Thorvald, also being tested and not doing particularly well. They team up to escape the test and the fog, and end up outside on a beach. There Shann rescues another young alien from a rampaging sea creature, and is tapped to make contact with a third prisoner.
That prisoner is a Throg officer. The aliens, whom Shann has taken to calling Wyverns (and also witches), hope he can communicate with the Throg. Terrans have had no luck doing any such thing, but they haven’t had telepathic witches to help, either.
Shann’s efforts not only fail, he’s taken prisoner. The Throgs need a Terran to set a trap for the colony ship, to reassure the ship that all’s well and it’s safe to come in. Then of course the Throgs will destroy the ship and take full possession of the planet, which is in a key location for galactic trade routes.
Shann is in terrible danger, not to mention considerable pain and fear, but the Wyverns have discovered that their telepathic powers mesh extremely well with Terran minds. Shann manages to contact them through Thorvald, and they lay a trap of their own for the Throgs. Shann tweaks the message just enough that the incoming ship knows there’s trouble; meanwhile Thorvald and the Wyverns trap the Throgs in a version of the psychic fog that drives them mad through their own worst fears.
In the end, the Terrans have found new allies, Warlock is no longer open for colonization since it’s already occupied by a sentient species, and Shann gets his first promotion to Survey rank. There’s even some hope that eventually Terrans and Wyverns might be able to find a way to communicate with the Throgs. The Wyverns would like that to happen, and Shann can see how it might make things easier on the exploration and colonization front.
In some ways it’s hard to believe this book was published in 1960. Shann is in love with Thorvald; even after he sees how severely imperfect his idol is, he still obsesses over Thorvald’s physical beauty. It’s this obsession that saves him when he’s captured by the Throgs; he constructs a mental image of that gorgeous man, and through it manages to make psychic contact.
Shann isn’t standard-issue white American, either. He’s quietly but definitely Black, as he describes himself as being much darker than Thorvald, and twice the narrative mentions his tightly curled black hair. He’s smart, tough, and resourceful, and what he lacks in field experience, he more than makes up for in sheer stubborn refusal to let anything get in the way of his survival.
In other ways, the novel is a product of its time. Nearly sixty years later, the tech seems frankly quaint. Rocket ships that sit on fins. Throgs zipping around in metal plates (flying saucers, surely). Physical maps in an actual case—Google Maps (not to mention cell phones and the internet) would have been pure science fiction to the author writing at the end of the Fifties.
And then there’s the gender politics. There are no Terran females. All the Terrans are male, and despite a handwave or two in the direction of the Throgs’ possibly not having gender in the human sense, they’re all referred to as “he,” even by the Wyverns. As far as I can tell, Terrans must be grown in vats, because there’s not even a mention of a female Terran.
The Wyverns are female, of course, and they’re a clear precursor of the Witches of Estcarp: powerful, magical, and convinced that males are inferior beings. These witches however are open-minded enough to work with human males. They discover in the process that their powers are considerably enhanced when channeled through one of their coins into Thorvald and, to a lesser extent, Shann.
It’s odd now to think that a female author, albeit writing under a male pseudonym, should so thoroughly erase her gender from the Terran universe. The only fully sentient females are profoundly alien and reflexively anti-male, which became a theme in the Witch World books. Strong, independent women, apparently, must by definition be profoundly sexist.
At least these females are willing to cooperate with males. They don’t ask about Terran females, either; maybe they assume the creatures are as devoid of intelligence as their own males. Which for all we can tell from what we’re given here, may be the case. Even the wolverine female is a much less vivid personality than her mate, though that could be Shann’s bias in action, too: he bonds more closely with the male because he’s never had any female contact.
Really, he must have been grown in a vat.
I note that the next installment, Ordeal in Otherwhere, has a female protagonist, so there must be sentient Terran women after all. I’ll be interested to see how that adds to the picture of Norton’s spacefaring 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.