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Judith Tarr

Blowing Up Assumptions (and Other Things): Andre Norton’s Uncharted Stars

Fans love this entry in the Norton canon. It’s got breakneck adventure, weird inhospitable one-climate planets, unspeakably grotty slums on worlds where the income inequality is off the charts, not to mention Free Traders, the Thieves’ Guild, the Patrol, and Zacathans. And Forerunners, both live and long, long, long dead.

Murdoc Jern still can’t catch a break. He and his alien partner Eet managed to get the price of a ship out of the Patrol at the end of The Zero Stone, but in this heavily pragmatic economic universe, it’s not working out the way he’d hoped. He needs a pilot in order to get the ship off-planet but can’t afford a good one and refuses to take the one the Patrol keeps offering him. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the port fees are piling up.

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All the Fine Fantasy Horses: Mary Herbert’s Dark Horse

As summer finally fades—though here in Arizona, that is a very long process indeed, with heat that persists all the way through October until that final, blessed break into winter—I’ve continued the Summer Reading Adventure, but with a shift as the season changes, from longtime favorites to a couple of recommendations from commenters. This time, I’m reading Mary H. Herbert’s Dark Horse, first of a series published from 1990 until about 1996. I missed it when it first came out, so it’s completely new to me. Next time I’ll dive into Kristen Britain’s Green Rider, which has been in my TBR pile literally forever. Finally, I say. Finally! I shall read it!

So then. Dark Horse.

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Throwback Planetary Adventure: Andre Norton’s The Zero Stone

I actually remember reading this. I remember the title, the ring it refers to, and the inimitable Eet. I don’t remember anything else, so most of it seemed new, but with a sort of distant echo of, “Wait, I’ve seen this before.”

Some of that has to do with the fact that I’ve been working through the entire Norton canon, and she certainly had her favored tropes and plots. The Zero Stone, though published in 1968, is a throwback to her planetary adventures of the Fifties, with its overwhelmingly male-dominated universe. You’d never know that the Witch World was well under way, or that this same universe could also contain the likes of Maelen of the Thassa and the alien Wyverns (the latter are even mentioned in passing).

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This Is How You Write a Horse: Dun Lady’s Jess

Whenever writers ask me how to do horses right, I refer them to Doranna Durgin’s Dun Lady’s Jess. It’s not only that it’s written by a lifelong horse person, or that it’s a kickass fantasy in its own right, or that it’s a nice shiny award winner. There’s nothing else quite like it.

There’s plenty of nice chewy genre stuff going on in the book. It’s a portal fantasy with parallel worlds. There are wizard wars and breakneck chases and nasty politics. There’s interesting worldbuilding: a world in which magic takes the place of technology, with spells for everything from cooking food to healing broken bones to waging war. The good guys have complex lives and motivations, and the bad guys are not evil Just Because. They have reasons, mostly having to do with money and power.

But when it all comes down to it, I’m there for the horses. One horse in particular, the dun mare of the title.

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Bouncing Through Realities: Andre Norton’s Quest Crosstime

This is a really interesting entry in the Norton canon. It’s a sequel to a pretty standard boys’ adventure, The Crossroads of Time, and Blake Walker rides the crosstime shuttles again, this time as an established wardsman. The book was published in 1965, and in the almost-decade between the two, science fiction was starting to change. For one thing, it had discovered girls.

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A Celestial Summer Reread: The Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West

This is a beautiful book, beautifully written, infused with love of horses. It’s a lovely story in the mode of Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows, not to mention the Narnia books. Talking animals, strong moral code, more than a hint of the numinous.

When I first read it I enjoyed it, but it didn’t make the powerful impression on me that it’s made on so many others. It’s iconic, people are always begging me to write about it, and so there was no question that I’d include it in this series. But it never made it to my constant-reread rota.

Now I think I understand why.

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Worlds Beside Worlds: Andre Norton’s The Crossroads of Time

Somehow in my head I seem to have conflated this novel and its sequel with any number of Doctor Who episodes. It’s not what I would call time travel, it’s parallel worlds—kind of a stripped-down version of The Man in the High Castle, with portals. Our Norton Hero(tm), named Blake Walker in this iteration, slips sidewise through time, rather than back and forth from past to future. He’s always in the same present, but with different outcomes based on the results of key decisions in the past of each world.

Norton had a thing for portal stories. The Crossroads of Time, published in 1956, is one of her earliest, and it’s another solid adventure with a relatable protagonist.

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A Very Irish Story: R.A. MacAvoy’s The Grey Horse

R.A. MacAvoy is a very, very fine writer, and far less well known than she deserves to be. She’s also a horse person of the true and deep-dyed variety. When she writes horses, you can trust her.

My favorites of all her books are the three volumes of the Damiano trilogy (Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael), historical fantasy set in Italy (and Spain and Lappland) in the early Renaissance. With an archangel. And an adorable dog. And an elegant, not very bright, not very graceful, but very well bred black gelding named Festilligambe (Sticklegs), who is not a major character, but he features prominently in the story.

But this not a series about horses, and I’ve been following a sort of theme in this summer’s reading adventure. Therefore, because I wish more people knew about this author, and because it’s just plain a delight, I’ve dived back into The Grey Horse after a long time away.

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Where Space Adventure Meets Good Old Political SF: Andre Norton’s Catseye

Whatever else Andre Norton did during the Golden Age of science fiction, writing apolitical “pure” adventure was not in her wheelhouse. She had her favored protagonist: young, male, orphaned and alone, struggling to make a go of it in a hostile universe—and her favorite settings: backwater planets full of inimical alien life and mysterious ancient ruins with lots (and lots and lots) of subterranean chambers and passages. Oh, she loved her underground traps and desperate escapes. Her pacing was breakneck, her plots full of wild twists and turns.

And she had an agenda.

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Horses and Horsemen in C.J. Cherryh’s Gate of Ivrel

When writers ask me how to tell whether a writer (of any genre) knows horses, I’ve tended to fumble around for examples, any examples, help me, wonky memory, you are my only hope.

Not any more. I finally reread Gate of Ivrel after quite a few years, and now all I need to do is point. “Read this. See what it does. Do likewise.” [Read more]

Taking Back the World: Andre Norton’s Victory on Janus

The title of Victory on Janus is a pretty big spoiler, but the fun of reading a Norton adventure novel is in seeing how her characters navigate the plot to the inevitable (and usually abrupt) conclusion. Here as well, we’re joining characters we’ve met before, so we’re rooting for them from the first page.

The opening gives us a nice little bit of worldbuilding and a touch of surprise: Naill Renfro, now Ayyar of the Iftin, has been hibernating through the winter, along with the rest of his small band of changelings. They’re aroused early and suddenly by imminent disaster: the offworld colonists are destroying the forest, and the destruction is approaching the tree-city.

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Horse of Bronze, Pony of Earth: Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain

Of all the books that shaped my youth as a writer, Red Moon and Black Mountain has to be in the top five. The prose, the characters, the plotting—they sank into my bones. And they’re still there, many years later.

A lot of years. When I pulled the book off the shelf and checked the copyright page, I was startled to see “First Printing.” Omigod, dare I even crack this precious and much-read volume? But there was a deadline, and there is no ebook, and hard copies are not terribly difficult to find but they take a while to travel to my hinterland. So I read with care, and I read, this time, for the horses.

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Going Green: Andre Norton’s Judgment on Janus

I had an odd reaction to this entry in the Norton canon. It starts off with a fridging—killing off the protagonist’s mom to get the plot in gear—and then, to make things just plain weird, he turns into the Green Goblin. But then I started to kind of like Naill Renfro, and when Ashla showed up, I realized I was enjoying the ride. By the time I got to the end, I was eager to move on to the sequel (and next time I will).

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White Horse in the Moonlight: Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground

If you ask a Lipizzan enthusiast in the US how they first became enamored of the breed, there’s a very short list of books and films that comes up immediately. Prominent on that list is the Disney film, “The Miracle of the White Stallions,” and Mary Stewart’s 1965 suspense novel, Airs Above the Ground.

Stewart was not, as far as I know, a horse person, and the book is not a horse book. It’s about a young woman searching for her husband in the Austrian countryside, and international drug smuggling, and, incidentally, one of Austria’s greatest treasures, the Lipizzan horses of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. In the mid-Sixties, between the film and the Spanish Riding School’s 1964 tour of the US, the Dancing White Horses of Vienna were very much in the news, and Stewart seems to have caught the bug along with many others. Being Mary Stewart, superb writer of romantic suspense, she did her homework thoroughly, and built a thriller plot around the magical white horses.

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