I don’t know why I waited so long to reread this, but the way it turned out, I’m glad I did. It’s one of the greater delights of reading all of Andre Norton that for every work that really doesn’t cut it, there are many more that do. When they happen back to back, as happened here, it truly is a gift.
I remembered Flight in Yiktor as being quite a lot of fun, and so it was. It was so much fun that as I read it, I felt guilty for reading it when I should be, you know, working. Then I smacked myself upside the head. I was working. I was rereading it for this series.
Norton’s science-fiction-fantasy-epic-cycle Merlin mashup did not suit her at all, but mixing Moonsingers and long-lost faery folk was one of her more inspired cross-genre experiments. I love the elvish Thassa of Yiktor, with their musical magic tied to the phases of their ringed moon. Maelen the Moonsinger, along with her partner Krip Vorlund, is one of Norton’s most memorable characters.
She and Krip have their own two-book series, Moon of Three Rings and Exiles of the Stars. Here they play solid backup to a new character, Farree. They still get plenty of screen time, but Farree is now the protagonist.
We’ve seen this particular situation many times before. Strange-looking orphan of unknown provenance escapes from horribly abusive owner or captor, finds friends and allies of various species, and eventually discovers who and what they are. In this case it’s a small, green-skinned, claw-extremitied male person with a large and painful hunchback, who lives on the edges of the worst sector of the worst city on a hardscrabble world. He is telepathic and can communicate with animals, including a rescue that becomes his companion, a small and venomous predator named Toggor.
Farree in his turn is rescued by Krip and Maelen, who have bought a starship and are having it refitted as a starfaring form of the Thassa beast show. They’re paying for it with the proceeds from their adventure on Sekhmet in the previous book. The refit is not going smoothly, and for that, as they discover, the Thieves’ Guild is to blame. The Guild is after them for what they know about Sekhmet’s Forerunner treasures.
It is also after Farree because of what he is. He does not know or remember his origins; the memory has been erased. Krip and Maelen take him in, along with Toggor, and together they face down the Guild.
In the process they get the ship repaired, deal with a pair of very sketchy last-minute additions to the crew, and blast off for Yiktor. Maelen is on a deadline—she has to get back before the moon enters a new third-ring cycle. She wants to win back her status as a Moonsinger, from which she’s been exiled, confined to an animal’s body, and then transferred to a new human one of Forerunner provenance.
Farree wants to learn about himself, but he also has some inchoate thought of trying to find himself a new and less disabled body. He learns the hard way that that’s not either easy or ethical. He also learns quite a bit about the Thassa, including the fact that they were once a highly technological species, but they chose to abandon technology for a life of mind powers. They are, essentially, the Roma of Yiktor, with a similar status among the human inhabitants.
The Guild is after their ancient secrets. Farree and Toggor help Krip, Maelen, and the Thassa defeat the Guild, though at high cost to an ancient Thassa treasury. There is the obligatory subterranean expedition, during which Farree discovers that not only is he not disabled at all, he’s something unique and wonderful in this universe. With that wonderfulness he helps save the Thassa, and Maelen’s exile is lifted, though in the end she chooses a different path than that of a Moonsinger.
Farree is very engaging character, and his adventures are headlong and engrossing. The sense of wonder and awe when the truth of him is revealed made my heart stop when I first read it, back along about the late Eighties. So wonderful! So amazing! Such a beautiful outcome!
In 2021, I still love the book, but our discourse has changed so much. The book does address one of the problematical issues: the control of animals and “lower” organisms by “higher” ones. Farree uses Toggor as a combined weapon and spy device, but eventually he questions the ethics of that use. He even asks Toggor if the creature minds being used that way. Toggor says not, but it’s important that Farree asks.
The other problematical issue from the perspective of 2021 is the one that, in 1986, was the whole point of the exercise. Farree is disabled. His disability turns out to be a larval form of a wonderful creature that is not disabled at all. In short: He’s cured, and the cure is both miraculous and magical.
That, now (and always, but now it’s much more open and visible), is a Problem. It’s profoundly ableist. It presents the disabled as subhuman, and “cures” them by turning them into something more than human.
Disability-cure narratives are a staple of entertainment in our culture. Science fiction is full of them. Usually the cure is technological. Norton’s variation is biological: Farree is the larval form of his species. Whether his delayed development is natural or induced by the abuse he’s undergone, it manifests right when he needs it, and allows him to save the day. Which is thrilling and heartwarming and very uncomfortable to read right here and now.
Norton in 1986 was writing with as much empathy and understanding of disability as most people had at the time. She does her best to understand the frustrations of disability, the lack of accommodation in the world at large, the way people treat the disabled as less than human. Where she stops is where most such narratives do, in “saving” the disabled person by “curing” him.
I still like the book a whole lot, even while it sheds light on one of the many ways in which our culture is changing. It’s one of her best, for me. I’ll be reading the sequel, Dare to Go A-Hunting, next time, and we’ll see where she goes with Farree’s story.
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.