Long before McGyver ran through a big rattly circle into strange worlds in the beloved TV series with an almost-identical title, in 1957, Andre Norton had a go at gates between worlds—in this case, parallel worlds. My copy happens to have been slapped together with Sea Siege, but it’s not immediately obvious why. Star Gate is a different kind of story in every way. All it has in common with Sea Siege is a set of late and passing hints that the Star Lords came from Earth. The two books are completely different in voice, style, setting, and characterization. They are literally not even in the same universe.
If I were going to put Norton books together in sets, I would hook up this one with The Jargoon Pard or possibly The Crystal Gryphon. Star Gate reads like proto-Witch World. It has the odd, archaic style and the low-tech setting with hints of higher tech: medieval-like cultures clashing with and invaded by aliens with machines that allow them to travel not only through space but between universes.
Our protagonist , Kincar, is a small, gracile, six-fingered alien who learns that he is in fact a human-alien hybrid. He lives on a world called Gorth, rides a weird, four-eyed, clawed war-creature called a larng, and has a tenuous bond with a flying predator called a mord who, from the description, is a sort of four-legged pteranodon. Andre Norton animal companions for the win–and these are nicely drawn, especially the ferociously independent mord.
When we meet Kincar, he’s the heir to a feudal holding with a matrilineal inheritance structure: he’s the sister-son of the current, and dying, lord. He does not know of his alien ancestry, and only finds out from the lord on his deathbed. The old lord gives him his inheritance from his alien father, along with a mysterious stone called a Tie, and sends him in search of his other family before a rival claimant to the title can tear the holding apart in a civil war.
Kincar barely escapes both his rival and an army of outlaws. In the process he finds the aliens and their hybrid relatives, all of whom are abandoning this world. His father, he discovers, is dead, but another alien, Lord Dillan, takes Kincar under his wing—and Kincar eventually discovers that Dillan is his father’s brother.
The Star Lords came to Gorth to raise up the natives, and now they’re strongly divided as to whether that was a good idea. There’s much discussion of colonialism, which is amazing for 1957, and they’ve decided to leave Gorth to its own people. They’ve long since sent their ships away, but Dillan and his fellow scientist/engineers have built a gate that will, theoretically, transport them to a parallel Gorth.
It does exactly that, but the other side of the gate turns out to be a mirror universe with evil Star Lords, horribly abused slaves, and a slave rebellion. Kincar’s father is alive there, though Kincar was never born, and there’s an evil Lord Dillan.
The new arrivals can’t help but leap straight into the middle of it all, ally themselves with the rebels and with a population of tiny “inner men” who have absolutely no use for the gigantic Star Lords, and tip the scales of the conflict in the natives’ favor. Ultimately they crash a meeting of all the evil lords on one of the starships, and launch the ship into space. They don’t want to kill their evil twins; they just want to get them away from the planet and its people.
Kincar plays a major role in all of this, between the fact that he doesn’t show any of his alien heritage at all so can pass as a native, and the fact that he carries the magical Tie. This stone of power reacts extremely badly to alien energies, but it also gives him the ability to heal himself, and it protects him against brainwashing by the evil aliens.
He’s not really the kind of priest/magic user who usually possesses a Tie, nor does he want to be one. In the end he passes it to his parallel-world brother, and is happy to carry on as a more or less ordinary human-alien hybrid.
Aside from the theme of colonialism-as-bad-thing, there’s quite a bit else to be amazed by. The world isn’t entirely male, for one thing. There are female Star Lords, including the powerful healer, Lady Asgar, who could stand up to a Witch of Estcarp and get the better of the encounter. She’s smart, kind, sensible, and extremely competent. And she’s clearly seen as an equal by her male compatriots.
All the mention of magic is pretty clearly a factor of the viewpoint. Kincar equates magic and science, but even the Star Lords don’t understand what a Tie is or how it works. It’s a proto-version of the Crystal Gryphon and many another magical tool or weapon of the Witch World.
Kincar himself is a classic Norton protagonist. He’s the child of two conflicting worlds, he doesn’t know who or what he is until late in life, he’s driven out of the lordship he was born to by a hostile pureblood, but in exile he discovers the nature and extent of his true powers. He finds his family, too, and friends and allies who understand and respect him.
This is an interesting book, especially for its time. It’s fast-paced, with frequent twists and turns, and of course we get to see Dillan versus Evil Dillan, because how can we not? I love Lady Agnar; she’s badass. And Kincar, though shy and often out of his element, is plucky and smart, and very little manages to faze him.
It’s not a book I would put together as a duology with Sea Siege, but it’s worth reading on its own merits. Especially considering how much of the Witch World it foreshadows.
I’ll be reading Night of Masks next. Back to space, and more testing of boundaries—this time, physical disability. We’ll see how much of its time it turns out to be.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published 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.