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Judith Tarr

Killer Flora, Fascinating Fauna: Andre Norton’s Voorloper

The title of Voorloper keeps tripping me up. The word refers to an itinerant human trader on the planet Voor, but I keep reverting to the conviction that it’s an ungainly alien creature à la the bog lopers of the Witch World. It’s disconcerting, especially since the edition of the novel that I have is lavishly illustrated in the style of the late 1970s. Dad has a porn ’stache, kid and girl have Peter Max-style faces and hair, and everybody’s wearing elaborate embroidered Russian-style jackets.

There certainly are inimical aliens in the book, but they’re truly alien and physically insubstantial. The humans refer to them as Shadows. There are no known intelligent species on the planet, and nothing humanoid. It’s open for colonization under the rules of the Forerunner universe, which disallow colonies (but allow trading posts) on inhabited worlds.

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Fantasy with Refreshingly Real Animals: Constance Ash’s The Horsegirl

I talk about horsekids a lot. They’re the people who live for the horses, whose soulmates are equine and their human partners either accept it or find themselves out on the road. Horsekids are a distinct subspecies of human, and they take a very dim view of any misrepresentation of their beloved horses.

I’ve known Constance Ash for many years, and I know her as a true horsekid. She not only walks the walk, she’s written a fantasy novel, first of a trilogy, titled The Horsegirl—and it’s exactly what it says on the tin. It’s also, for a book published in 1988, remarkably fresh and timely for 2019.

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A Horse Between Worlds: The Mystical Side of Sleipnir

The dark of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is a strange in-between period, a kind of time out of time. Even in cultures that begin their year around one of the equinoxes, there’s something just a little different about the weeks around the winter solstice.

When we last met Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, we focused on the practical aspects: how his parents got together, how his body might have been organized (or is it her? Or is it genderfluid?), what his superpowers were. But that’s not all there is to Sleipnir. Commenters were quick to point out the more mystical aspects of the All-Father’s mount.

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Culture Wars in Andre Norton’s Eye of the Monster

Eye of the Monster is an interesting book in multiple senses of the phrase. It’s the story of a standard plucky Norton hero, this time named Rees Naper, struggling to survive on a hostile planet, in this case the colony planet Ishkur. Rees is the son of a Survey man, and his mother, as usual in these novels, is dead.

Rees’ father has disappeared and Rees has been forcibly adopted by his uncle, pulled out of Survey school and hauled off to Ishkur to be instructed, or rather indoctrinated, in his uncle’s “mission” beliefs. Uncle Milo is a true believer, and that belief is sharply at odds with the reality of the planet.

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Riding the White Horse Into the West

We began the year with a post about the White Horse Between the Worlds: the ancient belief that a white horse (or a grey, as most white horses technically are) possesses mystical powers; that he (or she) can walk from world to world, and stands watch on the border between the living and the dead. Now, as the year ends and the Solstice is upon us, we’re back in that liminal space. In that space is one of my favorite films of all time.

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Saving a World with The Sioux Spaceman

I opened this book with trepidation, fearing it would be another misfire in the mode of The Defiant Agents. The cover copy of the edition I have is not encouraging. “…He alone, because of his Indian blood, had the key…”

Ouch. No.

Fortunately, while there are definitely elements of its time—in this case, 1960—the novel itself is a lively and enjoyable adventure. The racial determinism is relatively low-key, and the take on colonialism is surprisingly self-aware. This is no Defiant Agents (thank god). It reminds me much more of the Beast Master books.

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Once Again, With More Feeling: The Black Stallion Returns

Although The Black Stallion is a great favorite among horse people, its sequel, The Black Stallion Returns, is much more of a horse person’s film. The first is all about the art, with its endless beach sequence and its soaring score and its beautiful cinematography. Commenters here and on Twitter have observed that it’s a love story between a boy and his horse, but a lot of that gets lost in the Vision of the Auteur.

The sequel is less consciously artistic and therefore, I suppose, less of a Great Film, but the love story sits squarely in center stage.

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The Accidental Catalyst: Andre Norton’s The X Factor

As concept fiction goes, The X Factor isn’t bad. We’re well along in the adventure when she tells us what the title means, and by extension what the book is about:

[T]he X factor: that which comes of itself to throw askew equations, speculations, lives, history, that unknown twist or turn of small events that changes a man’s personal future, the work he would do, or the future of a people and an empire from one possibility track to another…. [T]he X factor arises to make the simple complex, all calculations wrong.

There are a lot of other ways to describe this phenomenon, from the cosmic—Mercury retrograde, anyone?—to the individual: luck, coincidence, sudden twists and plot reversals. But for this novel, it’s a person: Diskan Fentress.

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Racing the Wind with The Black Stallion

Whenever the conversation turns toward horse movies, one of the first mentioned is always The Black Stallion. Everybody knows this one, and just about everybody loves it. It’s an icon.

Even horse people include it in their Best Of lists. Next to The Man From Snowy River, it’s an all time favorite. Many a horsekid imprinted on Arabians, and especially black Arabian stallions, because of this film.

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Back on Track with Andre Norton’s Key Out of Time

I was apprehensive about Key Out of Time after the big huge NOPE of The Defiant Agents, but I’m happy to report that not only did Norton get back on track with this 1963 sequel, I really enjoyed it.

Ross Murdock and his mentor, Gordon Ashe, are back, along with a familiar set of villains. The debacle that led to the stranding of a group of Apaches on an alien world—we know what happened, but no one on Terra does—has led to some changes in the way the Time Agents operate, but they’re still sending ships out to worlds once colonized by the alien Baldies, still trying to stay ahead of the evil Reds, and still trying to populate them with members of “primitive” cultures.

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TV Dramas with the Right Amount of Horse Fantasy: Free Rein and Heartland

Horse people have to find good horse-themed movies and TV where they can, and mostly they have to put up with errors that aren’t evident at all to the non-horse person, but to them as knows horses, are painful to watch. Some things can’t be helped, particularly when multiple horses play a single role—we can spot the drastically altered conformation, the weirdly messed-up markings, the distinctly different gaits. A film or a TV show that gets it right, or manages to do so most of the time, is pure horseaholic gold.

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When It All Goes Wrong: Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents

When I read the cover copy for The Defiant Agents, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a comfortable read. It wasn’t quite as bad as I expected, but I was glad to get through it, and I won’t be going there again. Of all the Norton books I’ve read and reread for this series so far, this for me was the most cringeworthy.

We’ve talked at various points about how some of Norton’s works have held up better than others. Some manage to entertain in a cheerful retro way, with their tin-can rockets and their recording tapes and their female-free universe. Others are a little too much of their time, as we’ve taken to saying around here.

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Power, Freedom, and Horse Movies: The Silver Brumby and The Man From Snowy River

After I finished reading Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, I had an irresistible urge to find out if there was a movie. Sure enough, there was, and it was a Prime Video option: The Silver Brumby, aka The Silver Stallion. 1993. I dived right into it.

What I wanted out of it was visuals. The landscape. The animals and plants. I wanted to know what a snowgum looked like, and what kind of mountains Thowra ranged through.

I got that. I also got insight into what makes a film likely to succeed, versus a book which can go much deeper into detail and—significantly here—can offer viewpoints that might not sell so well to the wider audience of film. Mitchell’s book belongs to Thowra’s—his viewpoint for the most part, and he is the protagonist. It’s all about him. If you use the term gaze, what you get here is the brumby gaze. The eyes and mind that tell the story are primarily those of the wild horse.

[The film shifts the whole thing to the human gaze.]

Adventures in Space and Time: Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict

Galactic Derelict is another Andre Norton novel I almost-remember reading. I remember the opening, with a Norton Hero(TM) riding into a camp in the desert. I very vaguely remember that this iteration was Native American—Apache, he turns out to be.

I had forgotten that Travis Fox is in Arizona, and I wouldn’t have known that I’d end up living not all that far away from where his ranch is supposed to be, along with the secret Canyon of the Hohokam where he meets a crew of time travelers masquerading as archaeologists. That turned out to be a nice bonus. I know the landscape, and I can imagine going for a horseback ride in the desert and running across a dig. Archaeological sites are rather thick on the ground out here. There are Hohokam villages everywhere.

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Epic Fantasy Starring Horses: The Wild Magic of The Silver Brumby

For years my horse friends have been telling me about the Australian classic, Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby. It’s a must-read, they said. It shaped our youth. You can’t miss it.

Finally one of my writer colleagues took matters into her own hands while clearing out her book collection and sent me her childhood copy—hardcover, with illustrations. It’s a precious gift. Thank you so much, Gillian Polack!

We’re out of summer now in the Northern Hemisphere—but the Southern is just turning into spring. Aptly enough, then, here’s a Down Under version of the Summer Reading Adventure. [Read more]

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