Amping Up the Weird in Andre Norton’s Wind in the Stone

Wind in the Stone is a strange, dark, uncomfortable book. The plot turns on torture, slavery, and sexual violence, and every twist and reversal is telegraphed well before it happens. In many ways it’s the antidote to The Scent of Magic with its strong, proactive characters and its clear focus on the sense of smell.

Supposedly the sense here is that of hearing, but Norton seems unable to focus on it. The Wind of the title is one of the power-McGuffins, but it doesn’t operate so much through sound as through touch or physical force. Once in a while she seems to remember what the sense is supposed to be, and briefly deafens or blunts a character’s hearing, but she quickly shifts back to other forms of magic. There is the magic Wind, dualistic forces of Light and Dark, book magic, crystal magic, stone magic, demons and portals to hell, a faceless green Lady of the eco-powers, and a whole tribe of Sasquatch. There’s everything here including the kitchen sink (literally, in the dun), but hearing gets barely a mention.

It’s as if Norton threw every element she could think of into a big box and shook them all together, then dumped them out onto a gaming board. There’s the impossibly ancient and nearly defunct school of magery from the Witch World series, the Forest defending itself against decay and destruction from the Janus books and this novel’s own prequel, the hidden dales that eschew magic but preserve a dim memory of it à la the High Hallack books, the mage who knows too much and gets into serious trouble for it in the fashion of many a mage in the Witch World and notably the Adept Hilarion, the post-apocalyptic landscape that’s become a persistent trope, and of course the orphan of unknown heritage who discovers great powers.

The result is a distinctly skin-crawly read, particularly the first half, in which we follow the nasty, sneering, deceitful Irasmus on his campaign to bring Darkness back into a world already terribly scarred by it. Irasmus hoodwinks the good professors of the Place of Learning, steals what he needs and uses it to call up demons, then sets off to do horrible things to unsuspecting traders and even more horrible things to even less suspecting inhabitants of the isolated region of Styrmir.

Meanwhile the giant, hairy Sasqua(tch) live peaceful, happy lives in the hidden Forest where the Wind still holds power after destroying half the world in the last battle of Light versus Dark. A magical Covenant prevents it from traveling far from its boundaries, though it manages to touch certain people of Styrmir who have inherited the Talent. (There’s a lot of Portentous Capitalization of Nouns in this book.)

Irasmus’ evil plan requires him to mind-rape all the humans in Styrmir except the inhabitants of a particular dun. One of those he does capture, a boy named Yurgy (names were never Norton’s strong point), and Irasmus does awful things to Yurgy, forcing him to read horrible awful squicky pornography and then physically rape one of the few truly Talented girls in Styrmir. We know from the first that he’ll die for it. We’re told so, repeatedly.

So he does. The girl conceives twins, and things get worse and worse and progressively worse, and then she delivers a son, whom Irasmus literally rips from her at birth. She crawls off into the Forest and delivers a daughter and dies, but not before one of the Sasqua takes the child and fosters her.

And so it goes. In the second half, which picks up years later, life for the humans has become worse and worse and worse and progressively even worse. Irasmus raises his foster son to become his evil mini-twin, but young Fogar has help from elsewhere and manages not to go over to the dark side. We’re told he’ll have a choice to make, but he never really does. He’s pretty much always one of the good guys, even when he’s being forced to do bad things.

The professors, you see, have been monitoring the situation, and manipulating what they can. So has the Lady in the Forest, who rules the Wind. While the mages secretly teach Fogar, the Forest people raise his twin Falice to be a moon witch (as we’ve seen in many an earlier Norton novel).

Irasmus spends nearly twenty years lining up all his evil plans, until he’s finally ready to call the Big Bad into the world. But not only is Fogar not completely his minion, Falice has been doing her bit, and even the duns have a heroine ready to go, the twins’ plucky cousin Cerlyn, who was born just a week after them. Cerlyn stands up to Irasmus, backs up Fogar, and helps the mages lay the groundwork for Irasmus’ defeat.

Finally Irasmus opens the portal—and all his lovely plans collapse with a dull thud. The Big Bad isn’t about to answer the call of any human, nope, no way. The one who does show up is the same fairly low-echelon demon lord he summoned all the way back at the beginning, and his lordship is not impressed. Irasmus is a big loser. The humans and the Sasqua are finally free of him, the Wind is free, and Falice merges with the Lady of the Forest. Fogar and Cerlyn fare off into the future together with the usual Nortonian abruptness.

As I read, I kept thinking of one of the other hats I wear, that of freelance editor. I reflected particularly on the way plot can take over a novel and control the characters. Rather than being living creatures with minds and goals and motivations of their own, they’re game pieces to be moved around by the needs of the plot.

This novel seems to embrace that. Irasmus has agency, and uses it for evil ends. The mages also have agency, and use it against Irasmus. Each side of the duality states up front what his plans are (it’s almost universally his, though there are frequent, almost pro-forma interpolations of “or her” in reference to the mages). We’re told up front who will die and who will live, and it’s clear well before the dénouement that Irasmus the deceiver is himself deceived and won’t get what he’s been devoting his life to getting. What he gets instead is a big giant slap in the face.

The presumed protagonists are all manipulated by forces both good and bad. They do nothing on their own. It’s all imposed on them from outside—if not explicitly by Light or Dark, then implicitly by their genetics, their inborn Talents. That’s the point of Irasmus’ forced-birth program, and the reason why he targets Styrmir in the first place. The Talents have been bred out everywhere else—and they’re what he needs for his evil plans, just as the Light needs them for its anti-evil plans.

It’s all about blatant manipulation, with side notes of badly misplaced complacency in both Irasmus and the mages, and a truly dire series of human-rights violations. The end is optimistic and that’s nice, but the process of getting there ranges from uncomfortable to actively unpleasant.

None of it has much to do with the sense of hearing. When Irasmus makes his last major mistake before the failed summoning, instead of being struck deaf, he’s struck blind. There’s more attention paid to sight, smell, even touch, than to hearing.

It would not have been difficult to make this plot work, with all its flaws and its visible scaffolding, with the sense of hearing as a focus. Magic could have been spoken or sung rather than written or drawn—one of the major ongoing magical workings that reflects and predicts events is that of the artist Halwice—and the Wind could have been far more explicitly about sounds and voices rather than pressure and physical force. And certainly Irasmus could have been struck deaf at the end, and therefore unable to hit the correct notes of the summoning chant; instead of a crystal ball he could have had some sort of musical instrument.

It’s a puzzlement as to why, in a series about the five senses, one sense barely gets to feature in its own story. But then the novel as a whole is puzzling, and much too dark and conscientiously dreary for me. The in-your-face plot-over-character is the mayo on the durian sandwich.

I have a new least favorite Norton novel. All that kept it from being a hard DNF was the fact that I’m here to read it so you don’t have to.

The last of this series is a collaboration with Jean Rabe, A Taste of Magic. In general I’ve avoided the collaborations, as there are still so many solo novels to visit or revisit, but in this case I’ll be a completist and finish out the set. It will be interesting to see what the second author added to the mix.

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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