Swan Song: Andre Norton’s A Taste of Magic

The introduction to A Taste of Magic presents it as the last novel with which Andre Norton was directly involved. She made notes on it and attempted to write it at the end of her life, when, according to the introduction, she had finally escaped the difficulties and betrayals of her later years. But her health was failing and she despaired, until she was able to share her concept for the book with one of her dear friends and collaborators, writer and editor Jean Rabe.

It’s a poignant story, heartbreaking at times, and it makes reading and reviewing the novel difficult. How can I criticize it when she struggled so hard to bring it out into the world?

Andre was a great lady in many senses of the word. She was unfailingly kind and generous; she loved to share her worlds and characters with younger writers, and one of her great pleasures was to use her own successes to help others. That’s visible in her work from early on: She was careful to write about characters and cultures other than default white and usually male, and she tried to honor the differences as well as the commonalities of human experience.

The Five Senses series is in many ways a reflection of her personal struggles in the Nineties and the early years of the new millennium. The overall concept, of female magic users discovering their powers and contending with political and personal conflicts in separate but similar secondary worlds, is consistent from book to book, and except in Wind in the Stone, she’s careful to focus the magical system on one specific sense. Here we have the sense of taste, and themes familiar from the previous volumes: a protagonist who is more powerful than she knows, tangled political machinations, desperate flight from deadly danger, complicated family situations, animal companions, supernatural “Green” beings, a touch of romance, and of course rapid pacing and breakneck adventure.

Here we have a young woman named Wisteria, who has been fostered by a noble lady in a medieval-style empire and educated by a retired master of an elite military cadre called the “Moonsons” (which my eye persisted in reading as Monsoons—it’s that time of year in Arizona). Wisteria’s world is full of magic and magic users, and humans share it with supernatural “Green” beings who are capable of interbreeding with humans. She comes from a magical family; her father is the Emperor’s taster, and she has the taste magic as well, though she frequently observes that her brother, who is off in the military somewhere, does not.

In addition to Wisteria, there’s a secondary main character, Allysen, a young child descended from a mysterious and politically perilous family of strong magic users. Allysen, it turns out, is half Green, and her powers are dangerous enough that her room is the only one in the keep with a lock on the door.

In classic Norton fashion, the story begins with Wisteria out hunting with her trusty bonded steed, returning to find her home destroyed and her foster mother horribly murdered, along with everyone else except Allysen. Allysen has been placed under a spell of invisibility by a mysterious and frequent guest, a Nanoo or woods witch. The Nanoo has disappeared. Wisteria, apparently because of her powers, can see Allysen. The men who slaughtered everybody could not.

These men, Allysen tells Wisteria, are led by a horrible “demon-of-a-man” named Lord Purvis. Some of them, to Wisteria’s confusion and horror, are Moonsons. Moonsons are supposed to be noble and honorable warriors, but here they have committed a terrible atrocity. They are, apparently, looking for Wisteria, whose father is dead, as is the Emperor; the Moonsons and Purvis serve the Empress, who has staged a coup.

Wisteria and Allysen gather supplies and horses and flee the scene of the massacre. Wisteria intends to take Allysen to the Nanoo’s people, who can keep her safe while Wisteria pursues her formal “bloodoath” against the monstrous murderer Purvis.

This plan goes sideways at once. First the fugitives have to defend themselves against a huge and horrible fosebear. Then Allysen rescues a weird magical bird-creature trapped in the wood.

At first the creature seems to be one of Norton’s wise alien animal companions a la Eet, but the girls gradually discover that it’s evil. It forces them to wander far out of their way, draining their magic in the process. Worst of all, it kills Wisteria’s beloved horse. But the girls’ magic in the end prevails, and they finally make it to the Nanoo.

Allysen cheerfully agrees to stay there, but the Nanoo who used to visit the village is missing—worse, she’s been taken captive by Purvis. When Wisteria sets out again, the chief of the Nanoo comes with her. Their mission: to rescue the captive, and then Wisteria intends to take off alone and kill Purvis.

This, like the rest of Wisteria’s plans, doesn’t not turn out exactly as she expects. The Nanoo has been tortured; she’s in the custody of Moonsons. Wisteria ignores her companion’s advice and convinces the Moonsons to let her speak to the prisoner, then easily rescues her. But she gets a shock in the process: She learns that Purvis is none other than her brother. Not only that; he has magic after all. And he’s using it for evil. He killed the Emperor and his own father.

Wisteria, therefore, has sworn “bloodoath” against her own blood kin. She also discovers that she wasn’t the target of the attack on the village—Purvis was going after Allysen, partly because of her supernatural heritage, but primarily because Allysen has a hobby. Allysen likes to scry in convenient reflective surfaces, including mud puddles. She’s been spying on the imperial court because she likes the shiny outfits, and she’s watched Purvis’ murders and the Empress’ treachery.

Allysen is a witness, and Purvis wants her dead. Wisteria is collateral damage.

Wisteria meanwhile has been discovering, with the Nanoo’s help, that she’s much more powerful than she realized. In addition to the two women, she meets a young male Nanoo who lives outside the forest. They fall in love in awkward, reticent Norton fashion. In the end, after evil is vanquished, the two of them go off into the metaphorical sunset together, as Norton lovers do.

The plot outline is distinctly Norton, as is the cast of characters. The execution…

It’s hard to write someone else’s story from their outline. Writers do it often; film and television writers make a career of it. But it’s a challenge. It takes a particular set of skills, the ability to become a sort of creative chameleon, to take on the coloration of the source and create something that faithfully reflects the style and intention of the original.

When the project is a loved writer’s last, there’s a further layer of difficulty. How to honor the writer’s wishes with a partial manuscript and an unfinished outline, without the writer present to advise. And, I’m sure, missing her every day, and grieving that she wasn’t able to finish the book herself.

Norton collaborated with a number of writers, often with great success. When the collaborations really worked—as often they did—the result was a lovely combination of both. They played strength to strength.

A Taste of Magic, unfortunately, is not one of these. The bones of the plot are there, but the balance is off. The expedition to the Nanoo takes up the whole first half of the book; the evil-bird-thing plot doesn’t connect to anything else, though it does show how the girls’ different styles of magic work and don’t work. The political plot is entirely offstage, and it seems as if Allysen’s supernatural origins are meant to play more of a role than they do. Neither Wisteria nor Allysen likes each other much; Allysen is a creepy stalker child prone to episodes of weirdly sophisticated political exposition, and Wisteria spends much of her time making foolish or thoughtless choices and leaping to erroneous conclusions.

Once Wisteria finally drops Allysen off, the pacing picks up and the events of the plot fit together more coherently. The Nanoo, when we meet them at last, are lovely and vibrant characters; the story comes alive when they’re onstage. Wisteria however continues her reign of plot-stupidity. As with Allysen’s supernatural father, it seems her Moonson education—which is not given a girl or a commoner—ought to go somewhere, but it never does.

There are a lot of dropped stitches in the fabric (and there’s weaving magic in the opening, which doesn’t get anywhere, either), ideas and lines of plot that show up but aren’t developed. In the first half, Allysen and Wisteria exchange chunks of notes and background synopsis, which, if Norton had lived, would probably have been worked into the narrative. For me it was a frustrating read, because I could see the structure and the shape of the plot, but the text itself was just not getting there.

What summed it up for me was the portrayal of the horses. I have noticed throughout my reading and rereading of Norton’s works that she was not a horse person. For the most part she was wise and kept them to the fringes. If she did feature them prominently, she did her homework. She got them mostly right. She avoided major errors.

The horses here have clearly been researched. There are references to specific breeds and general types: fell pony, vanner, haflinger; cob, warmblood, draft. If they’ve been traveling a long time, we’re told how they can get tired and go lame, and Wisteria thinks to take remounts on a journey. They need to eat early and often, and Wisteria thinks about this. She has her special horse, her beloved companion, whom the evil bird thing kills; this hurts her terribly, as the evil bird thing intends.

But here’s the thing. Research knowledge and lived experience are two separate entities.

The horse breeds and types don’t make sense in the context. Haflingers are a particular breed of Austrian pony; “vanners” are a modern designer breed, as is the European Warmblood. There’s no reason for them to be present in this secondary world. A cob, a draft, a pony, yes—these are broad types that you would expect to see in a horse culture—but when you’re setting up for a trek through wilderness, you will not take the draft horse which is a large, slow, low-stamina animal that eats a great deal and is designed for heavy agricultural work. You take the cob (short, stocky, tough, able to carry quite a bit of weight and travel far on short commons) and the pony (even shorter, stockier, tougher, and lower-maintenance, plus good size for a child) and you pick a couple of guards’ mounts which are fit and trained for that kind of work. And sure enough, the draft never does get used; he’s turned loose and Wisteria hopes he’ll find grass to eat and won’t get eaten in his turn by predators. He seems to be there as an item on a list, rather than because he serves a purpose.

Beyond this relatively arcane range of knowledge, certain details point to the fact that the writer is not a rider. They’re iconic in that way. And they repeat consistently.

First, to make the horse go, Wisteria shakes the reins. Second, she “knees” the horse to make him go faster. Both of these things show up frequently in non-riders’ writing about horses, and they’re both incorrect. (I would love to know the ur-text from which these misconceptions derive. Because whatever it is, it’s pervasive.)

To make a horse go, rather simplistically, you touch or tap him with your lower legs—your calves. You do not shake the reins. You may pick them up. You may in certain riding styles move your hand forward to release the brake that the bit can be, so the horse can advance. You may use your voice, too, or click your tongue. The reins do not shake. If you shake the reins, the horse may give you a Look, but she’s not going anywhere.

To speed him up, you may kick him or nudge him with your lower legs. Or again use your voice. Or slap her with reins or a crop. You do not “knee” her.

There’s a reason why cartoon cowboys are bowlegged. The points of contact for a rider are the seat (butt, seatbones) and the calves and ankles. The knees have to be relaxed and drape around the horse’s barrel. Otherwise you can’t balance on this large moving object. If you clamp the knees, you lose control over your body; clamp too hard and you squirt up like a watermelon seed. The horse is not responding to knee pressure but to lower-leg pressure or refinements of the seat and balance.

So no. No shaky reins. No kneeing him forward. Best to revert to classic Norton and do horses peripherally, rather than trying to center them in the story.

I’m headed back out into space next, with the first of a pair of science-fantasy adventures, Dark Piper. It’s been a long time since I read that. We’ll see how it holds up.

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—and even a book about writing horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. 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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