To give her full credit (and she surely deserved it), Andre Norton seldom wrote a book that seemed as if she had phoned it in. She played on similar themes, settings, characters, plots, but she made them seem fresh. She managed her tropes with great skill, and kept the pages turning with tireless energy.
Once in a great while however, she missed her usual mark. Wheel of Stars, for me, was a slog to get through. It never quite committed to a particular genre, for one thing. At first blush it seems to be headed toward a classic cursed-village plot, but then it swerves off into a confused melange of time travel (or possibly parallel worlds), Atlantis or Mu or some other undefined sunken world, reincarnation, mind powers and clairvoyance, astrology, and ancient wars between good and evil. And finally, as if that’s not enough, it throws in a cave full of bodies in cold sleep. Topped off by the fastest romance that I’ve seen in the Norton canon.
Norton was prone to treating heterosexual romance as a chore to be gotten over as quickly and as late in the book as possible, frequently going from bare neutrality to clinch-for-life on or near the last page. But the alert reader always knows what the pairing will be, and there are indications prior to the clinch that the characters will get it together.
Here, the one possible pairing is just not going to happen. The male half is unremittingly evil, the kind of villain who mocks and sneers his way through the book. He’s not a candidate for redemption.
At the very last minute, from the very last cold-sleep coffin, comes—The Romantic Lead! He looks exactly like Evil Guy. He is, in a complicated way, Evil Guy, or rather, Evil Guy is a part of him. He’s the one. He’s the love interest. On the last page.
In a way it’s peak Norton. The whole novel is, also in its way. As confused and messy and not-quite-there as it is, it shows signs of themes and characters that would have been near and dear to her heart.
The protagonist, Gwennan, bears a strong resemblance to Norton herself. She’s tall and awkward and her whole life is the library in which she works. She’s a close relative of the classic Gothic heroine, a sister of Jane Eyre and many like her, an orphan raised in a loveless household, in an isolated village at the back of beyond, probably somewhere in coastal Maine. She lives most of her life inside her own head, with distant and socially awkward connections with employers and neighbors.
When the story begins, she’s taken on as a protegee by the lady of the mysterious manor that has stood since before the village was founded. There’s something off about this sudden friendship, but Gwennan is caught in a spell. She can’t stay away from Lady Lyle and her huge rambling house and its weird standing stones and, not incidentally, Lady Lyle’s sinister young relative, Tor.
When Lady Lyle disappears even more suddenly than she appears, Gwennan finds herself heir to the lady’s mysterious pendant and an even more mysterious cloak. She’s also hunted by a monster that arrives in a cloud of horrendous stench, which seems to be under Tor’s command. And then the weather gets into it, with the arrival of an epically awful winter: a nuclear winter of sorts, or a harbinger of such.
Meanwhile Gwennan suffers from weird dreams of the distant past, that might be memories of past lives, or they might be parallel worlds. It’s hard to be sure. There’s a tidal wave that ends the world, destroying its ancient wisdom and only leaving a scattered few to carry it forward. Another cataclysm is coming, a nuclear one most likely—one of Norton’s earliest and strongest tropes. Gwennan is all that stands between the rise of ancient evil, or something like that, and some hope that the good guys can win.
There’s never really a cataclysm, and not really much of a threat of one. Mostly it’s a fight between the late Lady Lyle and the wicked young Tor, with Gwennan stumbling around in the middle. Gwennan is bound and determined to cling to what she believes to be empirical reality, but thanks to Lady Lyle and the pendant and the cloak, she has no actual control over her life or her destiny. She is, as Gwennan puts it to herself, “a prisoner to another’s will.”
She’s an instrument, a plot device. She exists to stand in for Lady Lyle, who for Plot Reasons has to go into cold sleep prematurely, and to be hunted by Tor’s monsters, wielded by the pendant and the cloak, and propped up, at the very end, by the occupant of the last cold-sleep coffin.
The big denouement doesn’t really save the world. It sets up the Romantic Lead to do—something. Be the Chosen One. Whatever. Gwennan, having given in to the inevitable, helps. And that’s a wrap.
Norton’s protagonists often lack agency. They’re pushed around by forces stronger than themselves. They’re the tools of fate, and while they may try to resist, they always end up doing what the plot wants them to do. They do things without volition, without understanding why. They fulfill a destiny they only reluctantly agree to.
It’s kind of disturbing, when I think about it. So is the relentless dualism of her universe. It’s Dark versus Light, and Dark is ugly and scary and smells horrible, whereas Light is pretty and bright and smells good. We’re told the universe needs both, but we’re supposed to root for the Light, because the Dark is literally stinky.
This reminds me of another author who plays hard on dualism: Susan Cooper. Her Light will do things that are just as cruel or merciless as the Dark, but because it’s the Light, well, that’s good, then. In Norton, the Dark is definitely nastier, but the Light is more cruel in some ways because of how it uses and abuses people like Gwennan. People like Tor seem to get more choice in whether they decide to be evil. They certainly seem to have more fun.
Norton in her dedication indicates that the book is heavily based on astrology, and her afterword presents the astrological chart on which the “Wheel of Stars” is based. But the novel itself doesn’t do much with it. Mostly Gwennan is researching esoterica Eighties-style with interlibrary loan and references to the whole range of the weird at the time, notably ley lines and standing stones that maybe were simply left there by glaciers, but maaayyyyybe not. And then she pulls in the cave and the cold sleep and the Atlantis-Mu-whatever.
There is a reference to a wheel of time turning back around to the same pattern as a very ancient one, but I don’t get a sense that astrology has much to do with the movement of the plot. There’s a lot more preoccupation with Gwennan’s resistance to the role she’s been forced into, her being chased by monsters, the mystery of who and what the Lyles are, and the totally Norton pendant with secret powers and its own internal heat source. The end is all about good conquering evil, and Tor getting what he deserves. The astrological part barely comes into it.
One more thing did kind of amuse me as I read, and that was a sense that, whether intentionally or not, Norton was playing with themes from that great Sixties television epic, Dark Shadows. The show had ended over a decade before she wrote the book, but it’s got the Down East setting, the impossibly ancient and crumbling mansion, the rich and powerful family of mysterious provenance with possibly immortal members, and even the fashion. Gwennan’s good suit is straight out of the Collinwood wardrobe, plaid skirt and all.
My copy of Snow Shadow finally arrived, so I’ll tackle that next.
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.