Marvels and Piracies in Andre Norton’s Sword in Sheath

The second installment of Norton’s Lorens van Norreys trilogy was published in 1949. World War II is officially over, but there are still hot spots all over the world, pockets of conflict, soldiers missing in action, and renegade Nazis and Japanese carrying on the war in spite of, or in ignorance of the armistice.

The Allied armies have stood down and most of their soldiers have been mustered out. Among them are two American intelligence officers, Lawrence Kane and Sam Marusaki. But there’s still work for them to do, as they discover when they’re summoned by their former commanding officer, whom they call Ironman (his actual name is not Stark, and he has no fancy suit, but he is an epic hardass). A wealthy businessman wants to bankroll a search for his missing son, whose plane went down somewhere in the South Pacific. This is very convenient for certain elements in the government, who are trying to track down some of the above-mentioned renegade Nazis and Japanese.

Kane and Sam are all for it, and quickly ship out to the South Seas. There they hook up with a Dutch trading captain and a familiar face: the no longer quite so young Lorens van Norreys. Lorens has had a rough go of it since we last saw him. He spent five years in the Dutch Underground, and ended up in a Gestapo camp. He’s still recovering from that both physically and mentally.

He’s also on a mission to recover the fortunes of the House of Norreys. He plans to get in touch with an old ally of his grandfather, a pirate king who may be willing to trade for gems and pearls. Especially pearls.

Kane knows Lorens quite well, though they’ve never met. He’s Lorens’ American pen pal, to whom Lorens wrote the letters that frame the narrative of The Sword is Drawn. Kane at first doesn’t trust him with the full story of his mission, but that changes soon enough with the appearance of another agent, an American Samoan who moves in and out of the action and to an extent controls it.

They all set off on a trading venture that quickly turns into a hunt for hitherto unknown pearl beds, along with the search for the missing pilot and the renegade Nazis and Japanese. They end up on an uncharted island, which may be the supposedly mythical Forbidden Island. And there it all comes to a head.

It’s a classic postwar adventure thriller. There are pirates and Nazis and wisecracking Americans, a lost city and a hidden temple and a last remnant of an ancient people, a downed plane and a sunken submarine, and a cat who ties it all together. The disjointed plotting of the previous volume is literally a thing of the past. Norton’s hand here is deft and sure. She’s mastered the craft of action-adventure, and the art of fast pacing and deft plotting.

I can see the seeds of Norton’s science fiction here. All the elements are ready to leap into space. The universe completely without women–the only female in the book is the cat. The carefully drawn and distinctly alien setting. The remnants of ancient civilization. The subterranean quest—oh, she loved those. The ship venturing into uncharted waters, the traders whose lives and finances teeter on the edge, the agents of an external and often impersonal government.

There is no small amount of racial stereotyping, which is distinctly of its time. The two-dimensional, dehumanized “Japs.” The comparison between the native quarters and “civilized” Western enclaves. The inscrutable Asians speaking in aphorisms, though the percentage of othering-through-dialect is, for a change, fairly low.

The pirate king is a stock character in many ways, but he’s also a complex and nuanced personality. He points toward one of the real strengths of the book: Norton’s clear effort to present a diverse cast of characters. One of her main characters is Japanese-American, and in speech and actions, he’s a totally normal American guy. Another major character is Samoan, and again, he’s not othered or infantilized. If anybody is a bit outside the norm of the book, it’s the white American, Kane. This is not his world, though he functions capably in it. He’s the prototype of the Norton protagonist, the misfit-with-a-mission.

The novel reminds me quite a bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. It was published the year of the first Broadway production of the musical, and it shares a setting and a number of themes. I can’t help but think that all these things were in the air at the end of the Forties. South Pacific is about prejudice—racial, national—and about the price of war. Sword in Sheath is a conscious tribute to the old-fashioned adventure serial, but it touches on deeper themes as well. It has a message without being Message Fiction. I’ll be interested to see where Norton goes with the final volume, At Swords’ Points.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: 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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