The full and glorious title of Andre Norton’s first published novel (1934) is The Prince Commands: Being Sundry Adventures of Michael Karl, Sometime Crown Prince and Pretender to the Throne of Morvania. Tor in its 1983 reprint truncated the title to the first three words, which is a real shame, because the original moniker has the retro exuberance of the book itself. It’s a Ruritanian Romance, a wildly popular genre that was rather tapering off by the Thirties, but it never went away. It’s resurrected itself frequently ever since, taking new forms in the process.
Probably the best-known example of the genre these days is Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), but Norton refers in the book to another imaginary kingdom which spawned a whole series, George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark. In short, The Prince Commands &c. is fanfic, and joyously and forthrightly so.
It checks all the boxes. Orphaned Michael Karl has just turned eighteen. He’s been raised in isolation by his strict and unloving uncle, with no knowledge of who he is. All he knows is that his parents were killed when he was a baby, and he is very rich and he lives on a fortified estate somewhere in America, and he’s forbidden to communicate with anyone outside. He has a thing for very spirited, high-bred mares, one of whom is his favorite riding horse, and he does everything he can to slip out from under the Colonel’s thumb.
Then suddenly everything changes. Michael Karl is introduced to a trio of skeevy characters as “His Highness.” He is, it turns out, the long-lost heir to the throne of Morvania, a tiny kingdom in the Balkans. Now he’s been summoned to claim his inheritance.
Michael Karl has no desire to do any such thing. He’s basically a prisoner, but the very first opportunity he gets, after he’s traveled all the way to the border of Morvania, he sneaks off the royal train and does his best to be captured by the local bandit, Black Stefan, also known as the Werewolf. Black Stefan has a gang of men in wolf masks and a pack of actual wolves, and he is, or so it’s said, a Communist. He’s all about fighting for the people against the wicked royals.
Michael Karl’s plan is to get captured, raise hell about being an American citizen, and get returned home. But it doesn’t turn out at all as he expects. The bandit is a lot badder, for one thing. He manages another escape and ends up in the capital city, the beautiful medieval town of Rein. There he’s taken in by a fellow American, a journalist, who is staying in a house belonging to the noble Duke Johann, and proceeds to hide in plain sight till he can be shipped back to the States.
There’s a lot going on. The bandits. The plot to put Michael Karl on the throne. Another plot to install his evil cousin, one of the trio he met in the Colonel’s house, the nasty Marquisa Cobentz. The previous king, Urlich Karl, is presumed dead, supposedly killed by the bandit. Various subplots and sub-subplots and intrigues and stratagems. There’s another lovely war mare, the Lady Spitfire, and sword fights and gun fights and knife fights and a long, fraught Battle of the Cathedral Steps.
While Michael Karl is hiding out, he serves as a secretary to the journalist, Frank Ericson. Ericson is into a great number of things, including passing secret messages both written and spoken, the latter in a very pretty set of codes and passwords. There are secret passages, hidden peepholes, plots and conspiracies both for and against the throne. And, of course, disguises. Many disguises.
And, oh indeed yes, a gay romance. I have no idea if young Alice, who one day would be Andre, had any idea what she was doing when she wrote the love affair of Michael Karl and the man he knows as Ericson. It’s not just the way Michael Karl dwells on Ericson’s physical beauty and his remarkable charm, or the way Ericson teasingly and tenderly calls Michael Karl “boy.” The one time Michael Karl interacts with a female human who is clearly interested in him, he’s repulsed. He saves his passion for his friend/brother in arms/SPOILER.
Those two are in love, and it’s a true romance. In the end Michael Karl has to make the ultimate romantic choice: to keep the promise he made to leave as soon as his job is done, or to stay with his beloved. With the classic tension-builder: Does he love me? Does he not? Why won’t he speak the words I yearn to hear?
In 1934 this had to run below the radar, and there were strong cultural barriers to letting it be any more obvious than it is. In 2020 of course, we’re riding the romantic rollercoaster right along with Michael Karl, and rooting for him to get it together with his love in the end.
This is such a bright and sprightly book. It doesn’t read like postwar Norton at all. Like Ralestone Luck, it’s full of wit and sparkle and humor. The characters have an actual inner life, with hints of complex emotions. It’s almost sad to compare it with the earnest, often plodding prose and two-dimensional characterization of her later works. As influential as they were and are, and as readable as most of them remain, she lost something somewhere between the Thirties and the Fifties, and never managed to get it back.
My copy of Knave of Dreams arrived finally, so I’ll move on to that next. It will be interesting to revisit 1975 Norton after reading the Norton of 1934.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, is a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as ebooks. 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.