I had remembered reading Garan the Eternal and really liking the title, but the book itself, when I came to it, felt more or less new. On the one hand it wasn’t what I remembered at all; what I did remember probably wasn’t even a Norton novel. On the other, it recalled other Norton works, notably Operation Time Search. It’s a collection of shorter works, including two short Witch World stories, but I’m choosing to focus on the two longer stories.
The setup is a favorite of old-style fantastic fiction. Turfed-out fighter pilot from near-then-future war (ca. 1988, for a book published in 1972, but the first part was published in 1947, and it shows) gets drafted for secret project involving flying aircraft into mysterious wall of mist in Antarctica—and ends up in a hidden realm ruled by the descendants of alien colonists. For added spice, there’s a Krypton-like apocalypse with one small spacecraft that manages to escape the exploding planet. There are also lizard people. And weird little animal companions. And Fated Love, with reincarnation.
I kept getting old-timey movie-serial vibes from it, of the Flash Gordon variety. The villain is totally villainous in the style of Ming the Merciless. The Love Interest is Princess Aura, seriously, convince me she’s not. Hero Garin is the reincarnation of the hero Garan, and after we’re told Garin’s story, which is good old Defeat Villain And Rescue Princess, we get the original Garan’s, which is Fail To Save Krypton From Blowing Apart But Manage To Help Tiny Minority Escape (But Go Down With The Planet). The latter is shown to Garin via highly realistic holodeck-like device, so it’s a story-within-a-story, tacked on after the Princess Rescue and serving to explain some of what happened in that half of the adventure.
One reason why I kept seeing this in my head as a movie serial was the truly remarkable flatness of the characters, especially in the first half. Garin has no inner life. All we see is what he does. He fusses minimally about being thrown out of his own world into this hidden one. He doesn’t miss his old life at all. He’s totally in the moment. He meets good men and bad men. He acquires an alien companion, a prototype of many later Norton examples. He sees The Girl and falls head over heels and instantly becomes her would-be life mate (OK, to be fair, that’s the reincarnation plot, and it’s made clearer in the second half; they’ve been together in multiple previous lives). He’s artificially kept apart from her for most of the story by the Misunderstanding Trope—the one where one would-be lover sees the other one with a third person for whom they appear to have feelings but it’s really the other one’s close relative. This allows for a couple of spats and some forced separations, also known as Plot Drivers.
The second half of the saga has a little more depth to it. At one point, as Garan and the Emperor watch the escapees, including The Girl, blast off in the one and only starship, it’s really quite poignant. The bond between the two men is strong, and the combination of courage and sorrow is rather moving. It’s a glimpse of what might have been if Norton had applied the same level of craft to the rest.
There’s a little more happening below the surface in the second half, and a good deal more of the kind of pacing and worldbuilding we’re used to seeing in Norton works. The first half reads like the outline for a much longer novel. Most of it is quick summary without expansion, or terse paragraphs of backstory and exposition. Garin meets the recruiter, Garin gets to Antarctica, Garin flies his plane into the mist, all in a handful of pages. The pacing is rapid, that much can be said for it, but it could be a lot less rushed and still pull the reader along. Norton grew into a master of breakneck adventure. In 1947 she wasn’t quite there. This is a fair bit too much whiplash.
I think, when I read this the first time, I filled in the blanks in my head and created a whole new story with a much more witty and engaging Garan. Rereading it was like going back to the author’s plot notes after reading the final and much expanded draft. Interesting experience, and likewise interesting to rediscover an old and no longer familiar book.
Next I’ll move on to one of the last solo Norton works I can find, Merlin’s Mirror. After that I’ll look at a few of her collaborations, before we wrap up this long series. If there are any I’ve missed that you’d like me to visit or revisit, do please let me know.
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.