Touching Magic with Andre Norton’s The Hands of Lyr

One of the really interesting things about reading and rereading an author with a career as long as Andre Norton’s is the ability to see how her work evolved over decades—and how it stayed the same. Jumping ahead from the Sixties and Seventies to The Hands of Lyr, published in 1994, turns out to have been less of a leap than I expected.

All the classic Norton elements are there. The misfit protagonist—in this case doubled: Nosh the war orphan living with a wisewoman in an apocalyptic wasteland, and Kryn the heir of a broken noble house (complete with ancient sword). The dualistic cosmology: light versus dark, good versus bad, good gods versus bad wizard/demigod. The city of merchants and the criminal mastermind who preys on them. The love of gems and crystals tied in with an avowed belief in psychometry. The animal companions: the lizards called zarks, the water-buffalo-like varges (including one large varge), the alpaca-like, camel-like Ushur. The awkward character interactions and abrupt romance, and the rapid rush to the ending after a long, long, long, slow buildup.

There’s not as much underground adventure as Norton loved to write in the Sixties; hardly any at all, in fact. Ancient ruins feature less prominently than in the Witch World or the Forerunner books; there are ruined temples but they’re relatively recent and directly the fault of the near-immortal evil sorcerer who drives most of the plot. The power of light, Lyr, is a Gunnora-like healing force who manifests through her devotees’ hands. Her avatar is a set of crystal fingers which were shattered by the evil sorcerer and dispersed within a fairly small area by some of her surviving priests and priestesses.

The novel is a quest to collect the fingers, defeat the evil sorcerer, and restore Lyr’s power. In traditional Norton fashion, the main quester, Nosh (short for Alnosha), is moved around by powers outside herself. When she does take action, it’s to set herself up for another push-by-Other, often literally. The more fingers she finds, the less agency she has. By the time she gets to the end, she has no volition. She feels the urge to find the finger, she charges toward it, regardless of the danger.

Kryn has his own arc, from family destroyed by minions of the Big Bad to life as an outlaw to gradual and extremely reluctant devotee of Lyr. Nosh has trouble at first believing she has Powers, but Kryn doesn’t even want to believe in them until suddenly, with only a couple of hiccups, he does. He’s a master of wilderness survival, as is Nosh, and in contrast to her generally sweet disposition, he is fairly universally cranky. When he finally cracks a genuine smile, it’s Lyr’s doing and we’re most of the way to the end. And then he and Nosh get naked and there are Implications.

The story takes a long time to get going. We get in-depth details of Nosh’s early life and her mad skills in making clothes out of basically nothing, as well as a lot of interactions with the zarks and a long apprenticeship to the wisewoman Dreen. Kryn transcribes a similar arc from the fall of his house and the surrender of his father to the wicked “Templers,” through his escape and his acceptance into a band of outlaws.

Events speed up after Nosh destroys the outlaws’ lair with a blast of uncontrolled Lyr-power. The outlaws have to find a new lair while being hunted by Templers; when they find one, they’re quickly joined by a merchant caravan that is also under attack.

Outlaws and Nosh make a deal with the caravan to escort it to its city of origin. Kryn wants to buy weapons for the band; Nosh is looking for Lyr-fingers. She’s already found several, including one in the bridal crown of the caravan master’s new wife. There’s danger and adventure, entanglement with the wicked leader of the city’s protection racket, whose followers are called the Creepers, and the discovery of a new subspecies of zark which happens to be nonfatally venomous.

Nosh partners with the zark, Kryn very unwillingly partners with Nosh, and the quest for the fingers continues out of the city and back into the wasteland. On the way, they meet the last survivor of a raided town, a child accompanied by a herd of malodorous but intelligent and extremely valuable Ushur. She and her animals are instrumental in the conclusion of the quest.

Names, like elegant prose, were never Norton’s strength. I tripped over Nosh’s nickname—bagels and nosh, anyone?—and the large varge, and the word “creeper” has a particular resonance in this age of #MeToo. And then there’s Kryn’s house name, which is rather too similar to Q-Anon. Of course Norton would not have realized what would happen with the latter two, but nosh was a thing in the Nineties, and so were creepers.

Nevertheless, once I got into the story, it pulled me along—and that was Norton’s gift. She was a storyteller of great skill, and even when she was writing in the leisurely mode of epic or quest fantasy, she knew how to keep the pages turning.

Some things had changed since the days of all-boy adventures. The novel has a number of fairly interesting older women characters: wisewoman, priestess, farmer, head of a merchant guild. Norton is conscious of the ways women can make and take power in a patriarchal society, though she has an apparent antipathy toward traditional wives as opposed to single working women—the caravan master’s wife is a close relative of Kaththea’s antagonist among the tribesmen in Sorceress of the Witch World. It looks as if something wants to come of her antagonism toward Nosh, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and Nosh and Kryn are soon gone in pursuit of the next plot coupon.

There are attempts to show some introspection on the main characters’ part, too, and even a hesitant attempt at suggesting sexual feelings. Kryn starts to notice Nosh is a girl, though he swiftly suppresses it, and Nosh kind of likes Kryn once he eases off on acting like a complete jerk. Their antagonism manages to signal that it’s meant to turn into something else, and it takes a little bit of time to get there, though they still go from eeuuww to clinch at a rather accelerated pace.

Romance never was Norton’s priority, even when she wrote more convincingly of heterosexual relationships—Kerovan and Joisan in particular, and the various pairings of the Tregarth family. The romance here, such as it is, has more to do with two people of similar age and history finding common cause and working together to save the world. Insofar as anything does happen between them, it seems more Lyr’s idea than either of the humans’.

It all adds up to a nice solid quest fantasy in a world that’s just a little alien. The humans seem human enough, but the animals and plants are not Earth-native. I almost wonder if, below the surface, Norton was thinking of this as one of her non-Earth worlds, pre-First-In Scout and not consciously connected with Forerunners. Even the Witch World has a substantial population of Earthlike creatures, notably horses. This world’s animals are all of another world.

In any case, it was an enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to the next in the series, The Mirror of Destiny.

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.

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