Essaying the Epic in Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey’s The Elvenbane

Andre Norton’s collaborative novels of elves and humans and elf-human hybrids (and dragons) with Mercedes Lackey seem to have been a commercial success. Of the four they planned to write together, three were published before Norton’s death. That’s a good run, and there’s certainly enough story there to support a series.

The depth and breadth of the story is the greatest strength of the first volume. There is a Lot of worldbuilding there, and a lot of backstory, and a lot of plot on a number of fronts. Each species—humans, elves, hybrids, and dragons—gets its share of attention, with excursions into history and politics, as well as analyses of the different cultures and the ways in which they affect the emotional lives of the characters.

At base, the series is a portal fantasy—one of Norton’s favorite subgenres. The world may or may not be Earth, but the first people to live there are humans. Elves and dragons came in later by portal. Dragons have kept their existence a secret; they frequently shapechange into “two-legs” in order to study them and influence them. Elves are the villains of the piece: cold, cruel, heartless magic users who keep humans as mind-controlled slaves.

Elves and humans can interbreed. The resulting hybrids combine the different magical powers of both species. The elves are too well aware of this; they’ve banned interbreeding and will kill any hybrid they find. Meanwhile they keep humans in a state of deliberate ignorance of their own history and binding them with slave collars that suppress both independent thought and any form of human magic.

The protagonist is the titular character, the daughter of a powerful elven lord and his favorite human concubine. Shana’s pregnant mother is cast out into the desert, where a dragon finds her. She dies giving birth to Shana; the dragon, Alara, takes the baby to the lair of her dragon clan and raises her as, basically, a dragon.

Shana may be the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretells the destruction of the elves at the hands of a halfblood. The prophecy however is a construct, invented by Alara to cause confusion among the elves. Alara is as surprised as anyone when Shana proceeds to do and be exactly what Alara foretold.

Shana is a perfect storm of elf-human crossbreeding, draconic meddling, and interspecies politics, capped off by her discovery of, or discovery by, a secret Citadel of halfblood wizards. She manages to be in the right place at an ongoing series of right times, surrounded by an ever-evolving cast of just the right characters. These include Alara’s goodhearted young son Keman, her evil daughter Myre, Shana’s evil elven father and his goodhearted heir, whose human slave is actually a halfblood, and a collection of humans, elves, dragons, and halfbloods, all of whom interact with her in their various and sundry ways.

The book is full of favorite Norton tropes. The world is dominated by invaders who come in through portals, and who manipulate others through mind control. There are caves and hidden tunnels and secret passages everywhere, from dragons’ lair to elven stronghold to wizard Citadel. Shana is the classic Norton protagonist: her mother dies at her birth, she’s raised by aliens, she’s a complete misfit until she makes her own way and finds her own chosen family.

And yet some things Norton probably wouldn’t do. Alara’s manufactured prophecy doesn’t strike me as a Norton thing. Norton’s universes tend to be controlled by incalculable forces, sometimes given names and faces and the powers of gods, but often just Out There. Characters act without knowing why, or acted upon in ways that they can’t resist.

That is what the elves do to humans, but it’s very much a deliberate action, with a clear origin—and if humans can resist, they will. Dragons play games with both species and the hybrids as well, but again, they’re games. There’s no sense of overriding Power. It’s all coming from an earthly source.

The pacing of the book is solid Epic Fantasy. It’s very slow to get going. We begin with a complicated interweaving of plot and backstory, establishing the whole history of Shana’s mother and a goodly chunk of human and elven history along with it. This works its gradual way toward Shana’s birth and her mother’s death, then jumps ahead through a series of episodes in Shana’s early life among the dragons. Eventually Shana is driven out by a gang of bullies, wanders around the desert, stumbles upon a human caravan, gets herself captured and sold as a slave, gets rescued by wizards, gets an education in the Citadel, and ultimately serves as catalyst for a war between wizards and elves, assisted by dragons.

This density of plot and slowness of development is well established in the epic-fantasy genre, but it’s rather distinctly not-Norton. Norton’s pacing, even when she grew characters from birth to adulthood, is almost unfailingly rapid and tightly plotted. She seldom indulges in digressions. If her characters wander off their intended path, they have a good and sufficient reason for it—either because they have a purpose there, or because they’re pushed along by outside forces.

Some things that are basically Norton seem to have the volume turned up to 11. Norton’s invading, mind-controlling villains are cold, hard, and horrible, but the elves take it up a few levels. There are some ruminations on why they’re the way they are: how their culture has evolved to kill any expression of emotion, and to stamp out caring or compassion. The dragons are the anti-elves: they’re kind, generous, and they care about each other, though they also, like the elves, regard members of other species as, essentially, animals. Even they have their bad eggs, their bullies and their nasty selfish brats; when those take over, bad things happen.

I found the opening sequence slow going. Once we got to the dragons, it started to be fun. The dragons are kind of adorable, even the nasty selfish ones. The elves are just nasty, until we meet Valyn, the elven heir with a heart, who happens to be Shana’s half-brother. Valyn has a little depth to him, and he wants to do good in the world.

The pacing by that point picks up, though it’s still prone to meander. There’s a tendency to set up a big scene, then jump from the setup to a completely different scene, with a couple of paragraphs’ worth of summary in place of the scene we’ve been set up for. For the most part however, the second half moves more quickly than the first. There’s a lot going on, and a lot to wrap up, and it’s clear there’s much more to come.

Lackey clearly knows and loves Norton’s worlds and writings, and she plays to her own strengths as a writer of adventures for young readers. There’s real love in the worldbuilding, conscientious attention to detail, and a sense that this world has a long, deep, and carefully thought out history. The whole reads to me however like a patchwork of the two talents rather than a seamless tapestry. I would read on to find out how it all comes out, but it’s not giving me the rush of Oh, YEAH that I had with the Edghill collaborations.

Still, I’m glad I read it, and I enjoyed large parts of it. Especially the dragons.

Next up is an actual real reread: Norton’s collaboration with Susan Shwartz, Imperial Lady.

Judith Tarr has written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as ebooks. 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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