Now that I’ve read and reread a wide range of Norton novels from the Fifties to the early years of the new millennium, I’ve concluded that, for me, her “golden age” ran from the early Sixties through the mid-Seventies. Her official “Golden Age of SF” books of the Fifties have a distinct retro charm, and her later works kept on trucking for decades, delivering the patented Norton themes and settings and the occasional new one—and then there are her many collaborations with younger writers, some of them truly fine. But from about 1962 until about 1976, she wrote the novels that spoke to me most clearly and influenced my own writing the most.
I managed to miss Ice Crown at the time (1970). It hasn’t displaced any of my favorites from the period. But it’s classic Sixties/Seventies Norton.
The strong female protagonist, the overt feminism (so different from her all-male Fifties universes), the attempts at deeper characterization—it’s all there. Along with some of her patented themes and settings: alienation, psychic powers and mind control, political intrigue, and the just about inevitable subterranean adventures. Norton did love her caves.
In Ice Crown, disaffected orphan Roane Hume follows her nasty-scientist uncle and his mean-jock son from posting to posting in space. The latest one is not the usual expedition: it’s just the three of them, and it’s to a restricted world. Clio is a long-abandoned experiment by the evil Psychocrats. They conditioned a whole population to live in a live-action role-playing game, medieval style.
The Psychocrats are long gone and good riddance, but the planet continues to play out their experiment. Uncle Offlas and his tiny team aren’t there to interfere with it—interference would cause universal chaos—but to hunt for Forerunner treasure. The plan is to drop in, locate the stash, and get out again, hopefully in a couple of days. They’ll conceal their camp, stay scrupulously away from the natives, and under no circumstances intervene in native lives or politics.
Of course that’s exactly what ends up happening. In the course of hunting for the Forerunner installation, Roane comes across a castle—and a kidnapped princess. Princess Ludorica is the heir to the Ice Crown, the magical/enchanted crown of the kingdom of Reveny.
All the kingdoms of Clio are ruled by the wearers of such crowns. These are the devices by which the Psychocrats controlled the population and influenced their lives, thoughts, and actions. We learn as the novel progresses that each crown is in turn controlled by a central installation—which Roane manages to find. Forerunner it’s not, but in some ways it’s worth even more to the interstellar archaeological trade.
The Ice Crown has vanished, and Ludorica has been hunting for it. Her predecessor is dying. If she doesn’t find and claim the Crown before he’s gone, terrible things will happen to the kingdom. Naturally there’s a villain in the mix: her kinsman Reddick, who comes from an illegitimate line, and who badly wants to be king. To the point that he has her abducted and tries to use her to find and wield the Crown.
Roane lands right in the middle of this very real if also very gamer-y plot. She’s an abused child to a large extent, and she’s on the verge of open rebellion against her uncle and his bully of a son. On top of this, she is somehow (one of Norton’s favorite words and concepts) mentally influenced by Ludorica; she can’t think clearly in the princess’ presence, and she is compelled to help her achieve her goals.
This is strictly banned, of course, and she’ll be severely punished for it when she gets back into space. But she can’t make herself stop using offworld tools and strategies to help Ludorica.
The plot progresses in the usual Norton fashion, rapidly, with frequent reversals. Ludorica is betrayed and kidnapped multiple times, with Roane usually in tow. Roane is instrumental in finding the Crown as well as the Psychocrat installation, despite strong opposition from her own relatives as well as Ludorica’s.
When Ludorica is captured by Reddick for the last time, she’s mind-controlled so completely that she no longer is capable of independent thought or action. She’s completely under the spell of Reddick and his evil minions—and of the Crown itself.
By that point Roane has stopped even trying to resist the compulsion to play a part in the game of thrones on Clio. She allies herself with Ludorica’s loyal commander, Nelis Imfry, saves him from a horrible death, and ends up destroying the installation.
The results are about what she had been warned to expect, but it’s not that bad really. All the natives suffer various degrees of mental fog and confusion once they’re released from control, but they come back quickly, and their culture doesn’t disintegrate into hopeless chaos. The higher up they are, the worse the confusion, and Ludorica ends up in a coma, but the lower ranks, having been less directly influenced, are able to recover in short order. Which is one way of asserting the power of democratic rather than authoritarian rule.
The novel has a great deal to say about mind control and personal agency. At the same time, it doesn’t seem quite at ease with the concept. Humans or aliens controlling humans is demonstrably bad. But unseen higher powers controlling them is—good? Desirable? Inevitable? Gods controlling yes, humans controlling no no bad very bad?
Roane speculates that her inability to resist Ludorica is some artifact of her heavy conditioning right before she came to Clio, to absorb the history and language of the planet. She’s therefore open to mental interference, and vulnerable to manipulation. But she also has visions that seem to indicate she has esper or psychic powers, which she’s been tested negative for. And she just can’t stop meddling in the natives’ affairs, which seems to point toward some higher or larger purpose in her presence here, above and beyond whatever the Psychocrats intended when they left their experiment running.
For Norton, it’s all very deep and complicated. Norton’s characters in general aren’t much for introspection, but Roane has frequent thoughts that go beyond the basics of survival from one adventure to the next. While she doesn’t really have much choice in what she does—like all Norton novels, this one is strongly plot-driven—she has thoughts about that lack of choice, and she makes intermittent efforts to change that.
As always with a Norton novel, the end is headlong and relentlessly rushed. The word count is mounting, the plot complications are proliferating, and it all has to be wrapped up superfast. The situation with Uncle Offlas and Cousin Sandar drops by the wayside—Sandar is apparently killed off and we never really do learn what happened with Offlas, let alone how he reacts to his son’s death; Roane is busy saving Ludorica, and doesn’t even realize the expedition has left the planet till some time after it’s gone. This despite a great deal of angsting about going back to her native environment and facing the consequences of her actions. In the end, she doesn’t have to choose whether to go or stay. The choice is made for her.
I suppose that’s considered enough of a punishment, for her to be marooned on a planet that won’t be revisited from space for years if at all. But she’s not terribly upset about it, and she’s rather abruptly hooked up with Nelis, though to be fair, we get hints of that from the moment she meets him. She’s got a mate now, she has a home, all’s breathlessly well. As for Ludorica, it looks as if she might recover after all, though we don’t get to see it happen. That kind of psychological and emotional complexity is beyond the purview of a Norton novel.
While I read, I kept being reminded of older adventures, notably Sea Siege because of the nasty scientist-relative, and The Defiant Agents because of the mind control. There were echoes to me of Darkover in its elements of medieval reenactment with bonus psychic crystals (the Ice Crown resembles a matrix)—and in fact Norton probably knew Marion Zimmer Bradley’s creation, the first novel of which was published in 1958. Ice Crown read to me, in my head-canon, like a response to Bradley’s world and ideas.
Next time I’m going to reread Shadow Hawk, which is a kind of companion piece to Wraiths of Time. If I’d been thinking properly I would have read them back to back, but at least the later (1976) fantasy is still clear in my head as I tackle her earlier (1960) historical novel.
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 Canelo Press. 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.