Mixing It Up in Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie’s Beast Master’s Circus

I’ve always been fond of the Beast Master series. Hosteen Storm is one of Norton’s more memorable characters, and of course there’s that essential and classic Norton theme, the bond between human and animal. Storm’s universe is one of her darker ones, with a relentless and utterly inhuman alien enemy, a terrible and destructive war, and the final destruction of Terra itself.

But as with all Norton series, however bleak the world may be, there is still and always hope. Good people of all species undergo terrible trials, which they not only survive but triumph. And always, in the process, they find family.

Lyn McConchie collaborated with Norton on multiple series. I’ll be reading a couple of her Witch World collaborations before this reread ends, for completeness and because they’ve been recommended to me by commenters. Meanwhile, I’ll say up front that while I enjoyed this one, it’s not the most skillful or seamless of the collaborations. I found myself wishing I’d known to read its immediate prequel first, Beast Master’s Ark. McConchie collaborated on that one as well, and many of its characters and situations have carried through to Beast Master’s Circus.

A more accomplished collaborator would have woven the backstory in more smoothly, with smaller blocks of exposition in the opening chapters, and at the same time, greater clarity for readers who, like me, may not have read the prequel. I can usually fill in gaps, but I sometimes felt that there were pieces missing, that kept me from fully appreciating what was happening with a character or a scene. Even where I had read the earlier novel in which a character or a situation appeared, I would have appreciated a reminder.

The aliens of Arzor for example are never physically described. Norton loved to fill her worlds with detailed descriptions of alien life both sentient and otherwise. There’s almost none of that here, and I miss it.

The plot is a classic of the Norton style: war orphan of unknown provenance and measurable psychic powers struggles to survive, with help from an alien animal of equally unknown provenance. The Thieves’ Guild plays a prominent role. There are nasty thugs, nastier pirates, helpful administrators of all sorts, and Hosteen Storm with his whole family and their companion animals. And there’s the circus of the title, run by the evil Dedran and his more ambiguously evil right-hand man, Cregan.

The protagonist, Laris, and her mysterious alien cat, Prauo, are fairly well drawn, and Laris’ scenes are the most complete and fully realized. When Laris is onstage, for the most part there’s a fully rounded story happening.

Unfortunately, a good chunk of the narrative belongs to Storm and his wife Tani and his brother Logan, who falls in love with Laris. Their scenes, even where Laris appears, are quick sketches of events and character interactions, plot outlines fleshed out here and there with bits of dialogue. There’s definitely a story there, and it’s got plenty of action and adventure and a bit of mystery and intrigue, but it needs at least a couple of editorial passes and a fair bit of expansion and layering of emotion and character development.

It’s a little frustrating because where the outline is written out, it’s engaging and sometimes compelling reading. Laris has a real moral dilemma, between the not so good things she has to do in order to survive as a bondservant to a greedy and amoral master, and her own natural impulse toward empathy for other living creatures. She does what she can to help the animals in her care, but she also has to commit crimes and allow sometimes serious or fatal abuse of animals and people in order to protect herself and the cat who is her one friend and bonded companion.

Then there’s Cregan, who on the one hand is an interstellar criminal and a brutal murderer, but on the other, loves animals and tries to help Laris as much as he can within the constraints of her bondage and his deeply troubled past. He has a lot of potential as a character. It’s not fully realized on the page.

I don’t feel as if McConchie was as invested in Storm and Tani and their family as she was in Laris and Cregan. Their scenes have a perfunctory air. When their animals are forcibly separated from them and abducted offworld, they barely seem to notice.

There is one brief scene in which Tani is upset about losing her coyotes, but she shrugs it off. That’s definitely not Norton, who was not much for delving into characters’ emotions, but her human-animal bonds in book after book are deep, complex, and immensely important to both parties. When the two are separated, it’s profoundly traumatic. I don’t get any sense of that here.

Ultimately, what made this book as appealing to me as it was, were the bones of the plot. I can see what might have been, and catch glimpses of what Norton must have intended. I just wish the outline had been fleshed out more, and the Storm scenes given as much attention as the scenes with Laris and the circus. That would have been a very good story indeed.

Next time I’ll step aside for a bit from the McConchie collaborations and read one I had not heard of before I found it online: the first of three co-written with Sasha Miller, To the King a Daughter.

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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