Andre Norton has a habit of running out of page count in her novels. Her adventures gallop headlong from peril to peril, swerving past monsters both human and otherwise, diving underground, careening through weird and wonderful landscapes, until they screech to a halt on the very last page, sometimes the very last paragraph. Then the characters of opposite sex, if any, suddenly swear eternal—something. Not love so much as end-of-movie lip-lock and rapid fade to black.
It’s not often that she loses control of her material. Her adventures for the most part are tightly plotted. She might run out of plot halfway through and repeat it all over again to fill out the page count, but in general, abrupt ending aside, she knows how to keep the story moving and how much information to provide in the process. Even the abrupt ending has a reason: She is not really interested in the mushy stuff, but if there’s a girl and a guy and they work together to solve the big plot-problem, the standard expectation seems to be that they’ll become a romantic unit. Or aromantic unit. Something more or less heteronormative.
(Which leads me to an observation about Krip and Maelen. Separate cabins on the ship. Ongoing and fairly complete lack of sexual tension, but they are total platonic partners. Krip has a thing for Maelen, that’s subtle but hard to miss. But it doesn’t appear to be sexual.
(I’m good with that. If they’re happy, I’m happy.)
Dare to Go A-Hunting starts off well enough. It’s been some time since the ending of Flight in Yiktor. Farree and his friends have been hunting down Farree’s birth planet with the assistance of a Zacathan elder, Zoror. The Guild is still after all of them, and now there’s a terrible and tragic wrinkle: Krip and Maelen buy a pretty scarf from a skeevy trader, which causes Farree extreme distress.
The scarf is a fragment of a wing. The energy that clings to it is female, and it calls to him. But the person whose wing it is is dead.
The scarf leads them to a Guild plot to strip a distant planet of its treasures both living and otherwise. Zoror has tracked the legends of Farree’s people to this general area. Krip and Maelen help decide which of several planets it is, and they manage to score a navigation tape that will take them there.
So far so good. It’s a standard Norton plot, with bonus Zacathan. Search for lost planet, track down ancient treasure, fight off evil greedy Guild. Krip and Maelen did it on Sekhmet. Now Farree hopes to find his people and recover his lost memories—or as much of them as possible considering the damage that’s been done to him.
The trouble comes when they find the planet and the people. The narrative turns into a Witch World/Forerunner mashup, with a mix of ancient races, all of whom have good reason to hate and fear “men,” that is, Terran humans. Farree and his friends are no such thing, except for Krip, but Krip is wearing a Thassa body. But they come in a spaceship, therefore they must be The Enemy.
That in itself is reasonable enough, but Norton falls down a deep rabbit hole of ancient history and convoluted backstory. The People of the Hills devote large chunks of narrative to complicated exposition, packed with names that seldom repeat, history that adds up to “we all hate each other and when we’re not killing spacemen we’re killing each other,” and endless political and cultural bickering and squabbling. They profoundly mistake the motives of Farree and his friends, until they’re finally set straight and manage to combine forces to take down the invaders from the Guild.
There’s a green-winged girl of Farree’s tribe/clan/sect, who is the Guild’s captive and who has been forced to serve as bait for winged people. There are tall pale people who claim kin with the Thassa—which for me seems gratuitous; do they have to? I like the Thassa without the extra freight—short ugly people who snarl and growl a lot, and various types of weird humanoid and animal-like creatures, all having councils and delivering speeches and getting into arguments of long standing and great bitterness. It’s a dump of all Norton’s notes on backstory, whether or not it’s relevant to what’s going on in the main plot.
I glazed out on it. Not helped by Norton’s shortcomings when it comes to language, especially names and continuity. Zacathan becomes Zacanthan, the creature Toggor is now Togger, and there is the truly unfortunate alteration of the Thassa divinity from Molaster to Molester, though that one happened in book two and has been retained throughout. There’s a Noper among the proliferation of random names and characters, which seems kind of apropos.
Some of Norton’s other tics and habits don’t serve her well here, either. Her obsession with characters who have no agency, who are compelled to do what they do, goes overboard here, as in the case of the winged woman who is forced to lure her own people to their deaths. Farree acts to find his homeworld, but most of what he does there is under compulsion, pushed and pulled and dragged from one predicament to the next. He does things, as Norton characters do, without knowing why he does them, or without being given a choice; he seldom takes action, but rather is acted upon. And it’s seldom consensual.
His role in the final confrontation is minor despite the revelation that he’s a great lord of the winged people. All the planning and the strategizing happens elsewhere. He doesn’t understand much of what goes on, nor is he in the center of most of the action. He isn’t the viewpoint we need for key parts of the action, and we aren’t given an alternative.
I found this authorial choice frustrating. There’s so much buildup, so much rising tension, we’re at the climax—and we’re sidelined while Norton feeds us chunks of exposition and synopsis. Farree stops being a protagonist and recedes to the periphery, until the very end, when it all wraps up with the girl and a clinch and a rapid fade to misty black.
There is a Lot of story here. Whole volumes of it, a long, terrible, dark history with a glimmer of hope here at the end. We could have had that in much less detail, with even more emotional satisfaction, if the focus had stayed on Farree and the backstory had been distilled into its most essential and indispensable elements.
There are saving graces. Krip and Maelen, always. The animals, especially Toggor. And of course the Zacathan. Zacathans are by far my favorite Norton aliens, though the Thassa are a close second.
Next time I’ll take my Witch World straight, in Spell of the Witch World.
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 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.