Tweaking the Formula in Andre Norton’s Moon Called

I started reading Moon Called in a somewhat cranky frame of mind, after the disappointments of Yurth Burden. Oh no, I thought. Another paint-by-numbers plot. Still more rigid dualistic determinism. Much of it, of course, in ancient underground installations full of Evil Rat Things.

Most of that is in fact true. Protagonist Thora is a Chosen One of the Moon Goddess, referred to as HER (sic) and The Lady. She was born with a special birthmark and destined for divine service. She wears a special jewel that serves as a magical weapon, and of course her home and family and apparently her entire order of Moon Priestesses are destroyed by evil pirates right before the story begins. She then proceeds to wander more or less without deliberate purpose, but it’s quickly evident that she’s being moved, game piece fashion, by the Lady.

She has an opposite number, male of course, but he’s not remotely as prominent a character as the cover copy leads the reader to believe. For the majority of the narrative, he’s a distant dream figure with a magical sword, whom Thora is eventually led to find. They do, in the end, literally combine forces to defeat the Dark Lord, but Makil continues to be a shadowy and barely-there presence in her life.

Neither Thora nor Makil nor indeed any other character in this world has any actual agency. It’s all part of the tapestry of Fate as woven by HER. They do what they’re destined to do, on both sides of the Dark/Light duality.

And yet, in spite of the overwhelming dominance of author’s will (as manifested in Divine Fate) over characters’ freedom to act, the novel is full of surprises. Thora is not a meek or submissive instrument of HER will. She may be pushed and pulled and forced to do what she’s destined to do, but she kicks back. She has opinions. She has a strong and, for a Norton character, complex inner life, with wants and needs of her own. She’s fiercely independent and equally fiercely proud of her Chosen status. She’s prickly and stubborn and she makes a lot of mistakes. She is, in fact, about as rounded a character as Norton was capable of creating.

As nebulous as putative opposite number/fated apparent love interest Makil is, the rest of the characters make up for it. Makil’s strange not-quite-animal familiar, with whom Thora journeys far and endures much, is a strong secondary character and fascinating in her own right. So is Thora’s loyal guardian and constant companion, the hound Kort, along with a number of Makil’s fellow countrymen. Makil is a cipher, but the men of his people are anything but.

The women are overly simplistic, to be sure. Norton had no use for girly girls, and the contrast between athletic, adventurous Thora in her practical clothes and the soft, heavily sexualized harem women in their diaphanous draperies is a bit much. But she does make the point that a society with a male-female ratio of five to one may trend in the direction of overprotecting its women. She did it better in Breed to Come, with the mutated cats, but it is definitely a thing.

The little forest people who choose some of Makil’s people as life companions bear a strong resemblance to those cats. The ones who become familiars become dependent on blood, which goes back to actual historical arcane practice, but Thora, who finds that repellent, manages to bond with a baseline member of the species, a gentle vegetarian. Between them, with Makil’s help, they save the world.

These adventures play out on what appears to be a far-future Earth, with very old abandoned tech which Makil’s people are all excited to try to revive, but the forest people have other ideas. The world Thora knows is extremely narrow, no wider than her original town/fort, and one major theme is the widening of her horizons and her resistance to it. She has the focus of the fanatic. She learns a little more open-mindedness as she progresses through the story, but she remains a devotee of the Lady, and her world view consistently reflects that.

The final surprise (stop reading now if you don’t want a SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) is the dissipation of the very inchoate romantic hookup between Thora and Makil. In most of the Norton canon, if a male and a female help each other save the world, no matter how little the relationship actually develops, on the last page they hook up and it’s happy-ever-after.

That doesn’t happen here. There’s a brief mention that Makil might have this in mind, though he doesn’t do or say anything to help it along, but Thora says a quick and firm Nope. He has his familiar if he needs someone to spend his life with. She has no intention of tying herself to him or his people. She has a world to explore and a Lady to serve. That’s her happy ending, and she embraces it.

That was a surprise for me, after all the Norton novels I’ve read. It’s clear she was thinking about her standard formula, and exploring different ways to work through it. As deterministic as Thora’s life is, she still has a mind and thoughts of her own. She doesn’t end up in the standard binary pairing. She’s willingly and happily single. Which, in 1982, was a little bit radical.

My copy of Brother to Shadows has arrived, so I’ll be able to tackle that next. Let me know if there’s anything else I’ve missed so far, that you’d like me to read and comment on.

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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