Fans love this entry in the Norton canon. It’s got breakneck adventure, weird inhospitable one-climate planets, unspeakably grotty slums on worlds where the income inequality is off the charts, not to mention Free Traders, the Thieves’ Guild, the Patrol, and Zacathans. And Forerunners, both live and long, long, long dead.
Murdoc Jern still can’t catch a break. He and his alien partner Eet managed to get the price of a ship out of the Patrol at the end of The Zero Stone, but in this heavily pragmatic economic universe, it’s not working out the way he’d hoped. He needs a pilot in order to get the ship off-planet but can’t afford a good one and refuses to take the one the Patrol keeps offering him. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the port fees are piling up.
At the very last instant, with Eet’s help, Murdoc finds a pilot drunk and down on his luck but still in possession of a valid license. Ryzk is a Free Trader; we never learn exactly why he was cut loose, though his dedication to substance abuse has to have been a major part of it. He and Murdoc close the deal and head for space, just ahead of the Thieves’ Guild and the Patrol.
Murdoc has a plan. He’s looking for the source of the zero stones, but in order to afford the voyage, he has to do some gem trading first. He has Ryzk lay in a course for a planet Murdoc’s late boss/mentor discovered, and stocks up on very specific trade goods for that planet.
This turns out to be a bad idea. Just as Murdoc reaches the planet, he finds that another gem dealer has got in ahead of him—with better trade goods. He manages to just about break even, but this has not been a good run. It’s also disrupted the rest of his plan, because his rival is headed off to the next stop as well.
He has to come up with a Plan B, which is a crazy gamble but he’s becoming desperate. At which point he discovers that he’s been blacklisted—he can’t sell anything legally. At all. The best he can do is try to slide underneath the legal radar, and hope the Guild and the Patrol don’t both come down on him.
He runs afoul of a crew of Jacks or hijackers that have attacked a Zacathan archaeological expedition excavating a Forerunner tomb, and rescues the sole survivor, who is severely injured. Zacathans are the scholar species of this universe, extremely long-lived lizard people who appear to be universally male (versus the female-dominated Wyverns, whom we meet somewhat sideways via a shady gem dealer who happens to be a male of that species). (I love Zacathans. I wish we saw more of them. They’re awesome.)
Murdoc and his slowly expanding crew end up on Waystar, a secret hideout of the criminal element, and in possession of the most important contraband from the Forerunner tomb: a bowl set with a small zero stone, which happens to be a star map. It leads them to the place where the stones were manufactured, resolves quite a few of the mysteries of both books, and reveals who—and what—Eet really is.
The ending is typically abrupt, and there’s room for more, as always with Norton. I would have loved to see what happened next.
As it is, this is a compulsively readable book. Poor Murdoc just keeps getting smacked in the face—often literally—but he never gives up. He has a somewhat extended sequence of rebellion against the people who have told him what to do all his life, culminating in a determined refusal to ask Eet for help when he really should use it. In the process he learns a great deal about his own mental powers, which aren’t tremendous to begin with, but Eet has taught him just enough to get him started.
The main psi-magical trick here is the art of both illusory and literal transformation. Eet assumes various disguises, and Murdoc masters a simple one at first—a scar that keeps people from noticing anything else about him (shades of Night of Masks)—and then a full-body transformation into the appearance of his dead adoptive father, Hywel Jern, in order to infiltrate Waystar. He becomes quite good at this, even without Eet to enhance his abilities. And he discovers that a zero stone not only increases the power of a spaceship, it can also ramp up psi powers.
Murdoc’s move toward independence is a nice development, but in the end he realizes that he’s best off as part of a team. Ryzk is more than unreliable—he tries at one point to dispose of Murdoc and Eet and steal the ship and its cargo—but ultimately he plays along and keeps his contract. The Zacathan archaeologist proves to be an invaluable ally, and in my head canon, he serves as a patron to Murdoc and Eet in their future adventures. With someone like that in their corner, they won’t have to worry about the Patrol or the Guild. Neither would dare touch a Zacathan protege.
The big reveal at the end disappoints and upsets a lot of readers. I can just hear Andre cackling gleefully as she blows it all wide open—including Murdoc’s own, very sexist view of the universe. He actually says of one of the alien tribes he tries to deal with, that “of course” all the active members are male. And he’s decided that every otherwise unlabeled alien he meets is male. Including the most important one in his life: Eet.
Of course Eet is not male. Eet is revealed to be of more or less the same species as the red-haired Forerunner with the predilection for cats whose body Maelen transfers into in Exiles of the Stars. Eet, in short, is a girl, and Murdoc immediately falls head over heels.
As I said, the ending is abrupt. Norton often does that, especially when she’s trying to do a romantic conclusion. She is not comfortable writing the kind of character development that leads to this conclusion. Her characters bicker and hassle and hustle and struggle, then in the end, boom.
Still, in this case, because the narrator has assumed that his partner is male, the relationship between them can develop more or less naturally, without the sex thing. Murdoc kicks hard at Eet’s arrogance and presumption of superiority—while dealing, mostly unconsciously, with his own assumptions about small furry animals. Discovering she’s a humanoid she and a very attractive one at that throws him for a complete and amazingly happy loop—though I’m not sure if Murdoc has the faintest clue what to do about it after the first flush of excitement. One hopes she does.
Norton seems to have liked this plot. Exiles of the Stars, also a sequel with a protagonist ostracized from his family/clan/ship, has the same outline. Protagonist struggling to make a go of it in a universe into which he no longer fits, small furry animal companion who is much more than that in reality, Jacks and Forerunners and a dramatic transformation of the companion into a gorgeous human redhead.
The difference is that Krip knew Maelen in her original form, saw her powers, and fell in love (awe) with her before she was transferred into the animal body. They don’t have Murdoc and Eet’s prickly, edgy, sometimes contentious relationship. When Maelen becomes humanoid again, the sexual tension has already been there. For Murdoc, it’s a brand-new thing.
I wonder how he would have treated Eet if he had seen the human female first. Seeing the animal whom he assumes is male allows him to kick and fuss and fight instead of being all worshipful. Their interactions are more interesting as a result, though I can’t help it, I love Exiles so much more, because I love Maelen.
Krip is kind of a drip. Murdoc is more complex, and tries much harder to make things happen, even if they’re not the smartest or most successful things. He has more agency, as we say in the lit-crit business. Eet pushes him around, but he doesn’t go tamely. He makes choices of his own, not necessarily with Eet’s interests in mind. He’s more selfish.
But then Krip is a member of a spacefaring clan that survives by cooperation. Murdoc is planet-born, his father was in the Guild, and he’s thrust out on his own and forced to survive however he can. He has to be more assertive. His whole life demands it. Even while he’s bucking the control of father, employer, or alien partner, he’s still acting as an individual. He isn’t conditioned to think in terms of functioning as part of a larger unit.
That’s a thing I’ve come to enjoy about doing this reread: not just reading each book on its own or as part of its specific series, but also keeping track of the big picture. I can see patterns and follow paths of development as Norton evolved as a writer, and as the world changed around her. This particular set of plot elements pushes a lot of my love-buttons.
I’m headed back to another series now that was published in the late Fifties and early Sixties, beginning with The Time Traders. Real time travel as I think of it this time (vertically rather than horizontally). But also more trade and commerce—another classic Norton preoccupation.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent 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.