One of the commentators on my reread of the Five Senses series suggested this title as a sort of companion volume to that series. Just as the other volumes revolve around one of the five bodily senses, Three Hands for Scorpio focuses on the sixth sense: the powers of the mind. Now that I’ve read it, I agree. This is part of the series, and not just in the nature of its magic.
Like the other five books, this one is a fantasy set in a complicated political landscape, with swords and horses but also what must be muskets, here called “snaplocks.” There’s a lost royal heir, an evil priesthood, and a couple of patented Norton tropes: ancient inhuman beings mind-controlling humans, and lengthy excursions through a monster-filled subterranean landscape. With, for special bonus points, powerful Wisewomen, magical talismans, and a very cool, highly intelligent, mentally bonded animal companion.
There are distinct echoes not only of the Five Senses books but of the Witch World series. Here as there, we have a set of telepathic triplets with a variety of individual gifts. One is a warrior, one an herbalist/healer, and one is an ace fashionista—she’s brilliant in the fiber arts. Unlike the majority of Norton protagonists, they have living, loving parents who work with them to save the world. Their mother is a powerful sorceress, their father a warrior with his own, lesser degree of psychic talents. They can work separately, but they’re at their best and strongest as a family.
Family is a major theme in this novel. The mysterious man of the underground Dismal, Zolan, is closely connected to one of the ancient powers of that realm, a female being whose cremated remains inhabit a ceramic jug. He’s her instrument but also her offspring, in a strange way that recalls the Moonsinger books. Body-swapping is a theme, too: souls moving from body to body in a quest for immortality.
All of these interlocking themes add up to a somewhat confused, complicated plot. The evil priest turns out to be another jug person who escaped the Dismal in search of power and a fresh supply of bodies. He corrupted the king and fomented a war in which the Scorpio family is all too quickly embroiled. All other political machinations aside, he is particularly repellent in his treatment of women: reducing them from more or less equal partners to powerless pawns.
The triplets are kidnapped and dumped in the Dismal, where they devote a great deal of story-space to meeting and trying to figure out the enigmatic Zolan and his animal companion, Climber, learning about the jug people, and trying to get back home. Once they finally escape, they find themselves in the middle of a war, magical as well as military, orchestrated by the evil jug sorcerer. The not-evil jug sorceress helps them, as do the not-evil factions of the Wild Magic.
There’s a fair amount of kitchen-sink worldbuilding here. This is the last novel Norton finished before her death, and at times it seems as if she’s trying to echo all of her favorite themes and worlds and characters. It’s a kind of farewell to her worlds and her readers.
Mostly, for me, it works. I am not a fan of interminable subterranean quests. I’m a claustrophobe: I like to do my adventuring out in the open. But as such things go, the journey through the Dismal isn’t bad. Zolan is an interesting character and Climber is lovely. The triplets are plucky, intrepid, and mostly immune to plot-stupidity; they’re different enough from each other that it’s not hard to keep track of who’s who. Their love for one another and their parents is evident, and so is their ability to balance individuality and their group identity.
There are some bobbles. Norton is Not a master of language. Names are often her weak point. Scorpio isn’t bad in itself, but the triplets consistently refer to their family as the House of Scorpy. Which, if you’ve ever been a Farscape fan, has unfortunate resonances. Besides sounding, well, dorky. And then there are the ever-shifting references to Jug People, Jar People, Jugged Ones, Jarfolk… The effect is more comical than I think it’s meant to be.
Still, it’s a lively read. Norton in general is painfully earnest, but there’s something almost lighthearted about the opening chapters, as we come to know the triplets before their lives are turned upside down. Even in the midst of dire danger, they manage to be engaging.
Zolan is a little bit clumsily drawn—sometimes he’s too close to evil, other times he almost seems like a love interest for someone, possibly Tamara, and then there’s that lip-lock which is supposed to transfer psychic power, which, well. But he has integrity, and at the end we understand literally where he’s coming from. Then his actions to that point make sense.
The ending avoids Norton’s usual too-sudden-romance trope. In fact it’s quite feminist, in keeping with the tone of the rest. The triplets know they’re being set up for dynastic marriages, but they make sure to have an exit strategy, just in case. They know and understand their duty, but they aren’t completely subservient to it.
I must say that at this point in the Norton reread, I have sworn a solemn oath as a writer to never, ever again write a character who does things without knowing why. Who is moved along explicitly by the plot. Who, in a word, lacks agency.
Norton characters are strongly plot-driven, and there are always external, sometimes not quite clearly defined Powers who manipulate them and use them and act through them. At least here we find out who’s doing the manipulating—either the good jug lady or the bad jug guy. That’s not always the case.
The basic concept is that manipulation is ethically questionable but if it’s done by the “Light” it’s all right in the end. If it’s the “Dark,” oh, that’s bad, really bad. It’s all very dualistic and binary. There are lots of grey areas and points of ambiguity, but it’s still a toggle. On-off. Good-Bad. Dark-Light.
It’s a lesson for me in writing craft, and something I’ll be pondering for a long while after I post this reflection on Norton’s last complete solo novel.
I think she’d appreciate that. She loved to share her worlds, and she loved to teach. She wanted her works to mean something to their readers.
She did well here. She played to her strengths. She wrote a strong story and relatable characters, and she did justice to the sixth sense, kept her focus on it and built her story solidly around it.
It’s interesting that she completed the sixth sense but struggled with the fifth, that of taste, so that the Five Senses series had to be completed posthumously by one of her most dedicated collaborators. That, I think, indicates where her heart was. She loved to write about psychic powers, about esper, about the arts of the mind. From Witch World to the Moon Singers to the many bonded animals both earthly and alien, she visited these themes again and again. Three Hands for Scorpio is a worthy addition to the canon.
Next time I’ll be traveling far back along the timeline of Norton’s works, all the way to the Fifties again, in the pair of novels collected as an ebook under the title Star Soldiers—also known as the Central Control books. The first is Star Rangers. Then after that I’ll wrap up the pair with Star Guard.
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 Café. 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.