Keeping the elder horse fed and healthy is as much an art as a science. Horses, like humans, change as they age, and every individual is different. Even the speed at which they age: breeding and genetics, time and miles, wear and tear, all have something to do with how well or how fast a horse grows old. One horse may be broken down in their mid-teens or even earlier; another may still be lively and vigorous well up in their twenties or even thirties—especially if they’re a pony. Ponies are famously long-lived.
Andre Norton was a master of the adventure plot, and she loved to mash up genres—science fantasy was one of her favorite things, as the Witch World cycle demonstrates. Every so often however, she either did not connect with her material, or the book she wanted to write simply did not fit into her wheelhouse. Merlin’s Mirror is one of these rather rare misfires.
The idea is not terrible. It’s the Witch World concept: a vanishing Old Race of impossible antiquity, an alien world of war and superstition, ongoing attempts to bring peace and higher civilization to the reluctant natives. The Arthurian canon is, in a lot of ways, about this. Adding basically Forerunners to the mix, and applying Clarke’s Third Law to the technology, could work.
The past week has been from hell, and I cannot brain. Therefore I am going to let some cool links brain for me. I am always looking for new things in the horse world. Not all of them are horse-centric, but they do have horses in them.
So, for your delectation, may I share:
I had remembered reading Garan the Eternal and really liking the title, but the book itself, when I came to it, felt more or less new. On the one hand it wasn’t what I remembered at all; what I did remember probably wasn’t even a Norton novel. On the other, it recalled other Norton works, notably Operation Time Search. It’s a collection of shorter works, including two short Witch World stories, but I’m choosing to focus on the two longer stories.
The setup is a favorite of old-style fantastic fiction. Turfed-out fighter pilot from near-then-future war (ca. 1988, for a book published in 1972, but the first part was published in 1947, and it shows) gets drafted for secret project involving flying aircraft into mysterious wall of mist in Antarctica—and ends up in a hidden realm ruled by the descendants of alien colonists. For added spice, there’s a Krypton-like apocalypse with one small spacecraft that manages to escape the exploding planet. There are also lizard people. And weird little animal companions. And Fated Love, with reincarnation.
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.
I’ve talked a few times before about one of the most beloved science fiction and fantasy tropes: the animal companion. From the big and flashy and hugely popular McCaffrey and Novik dragons to the witch’s familiar or the ship’s cat (both in space and on the high seas), humans and animals have bonded with each other in work after work in the genre.
According to the cover copy, Brother to Shadows (1993) was Andre Norton’s return to science fiction after a decade of writing in other genres. From the vantage of 2021 and an ongoing project of reading and rereading her entire catalogue, all I can say is, she certainly profited from the time away. This is a work of great confidence, skillful and assured, with frequent references to older works. It reads as if she had processed everything she knew, given herself a break from this particular set of tropes, and come back fresh and stronger than ever.
It was the perfect book to read during a more than usually difficult week, at the start of year two (ye gods) of the pandemic that will not end. It’s grand escapism, full of favorite themes and character types. It’s just plain fun.
As I write this, my one and only non-equine sports fandom is in the midst of the premier event of its season: the Iditarod, also known as The Last Great Race. This more or less thousand-mile wilderness trek across Alaska stars some of the most remarkable athletes on the planet: teams of sled dogs, fourteen each at the start, with one human musher per team.
What’s remarkable to me as a horse person, all the seriously cool science stuff aside, and all the lovable floofage and the happy happy leaping wow let’s run!, is that there’s nothing at all to force them to go, and no direct control of any kind.
I started reading Moon Called in a somewhat cranky frame of mind, after the disappointments of Yurth Burden. Oh no, I thought. Another paint-by-numbers plot. Still more rigid dualistic determinism. Much of it, of course, in ancient underground installations full of Evil Rat Things.
Most of that is in fact true. Protagonist Thora is a Chosen One of the Moon Goddess, referred to as HER (sic) and The Lady. She was born with a special birthmark and destined for divine service. She wears a special jewel that serves as a magical weapon, and of course her home and family and apparently her entire order of Moon Priestesses are destroyed by evil pirates right before the story begins. She then proceeds to wander more or less without deliberate purpose, but it’s quickly evident that she’s being moved, game piece fashion, by the Lady.
Last time I talked about how humans can tell when animals are communicating (whether with us or with each other), and how we can learn to understand at least some of what they’re trying to say. That’s hard for a verbally focused human, but can be essential for the human’s safety. Almost nothing an animal does comes out of the blue–they’re quite clear about their intentions. The problem is with the human’s ability to see and interpret those intentions.
I have said before that plotting was Andre Norton’s strength, and characterization one of her notable weaknesses. Yurth Burden reads like an object lesson in what happens when the plot completely dominates the characters.
By plot in this context I mean “things that happen in the course of the novel,” without reference to what or whom they happen to. These things are determined by the author. They may be constructed according to an outline, or they may be developed freehand—the writer writes, and the story evolves as it goes. Either way, it’s the writer who drives the plot, and the characters serve more or less as game pieces. They don’t actually determine what happens.
As I navigate the days here on the farm between the house critters and the horses in the barn, I often have occasion to recall a True Fact. Humans probably fail to understand the vast majority of the messages sent to them by their animals. What’s more, we’re probably not even aware that we’re missing anything.
It’s not just that I have perforce to struggle with my shortcomings both physical and psychological—not just my duller human senses, but also my tendency to stop paying attention to what’s going on around me. It’s that if I don’t catch the signals when I’m around the horses, I can get in serious and perhaps fatal trouble.
Plotting was Andre Norton’s main strength as a writer. Her novels are plot-driven, to the point that characters frequently do things “somehow” or “without thinking” or “something made them do it.” Their own volition is subordinate to the pressure of the plot.
Norton was a master of rapid pacing. Her novels are full of breakneck action and unstoppable adventure. Characters race from peril to peril with little or no pause in between–and then, almost without fail, come to an abrupt halt. Endings in Norton novels waste no time at all, either in wrapping up the action or in throwing characters into one another’s arms. More often than not, everything rolls itself up into a tight ball in a page, and sometimes not much more than a paragraph.
2021 has been an amazingly, mind-blowingly, devastatingly chaotic year so far—and it’s still only January. In the US we’ve swerved from deadly insurrection to presidential impeachment to presidential inauguration, with a brutal sidecar of pandemic. On top of all that, the city of Tucson commemorated the tenth anniversary of the shooting in front of a supermarket that killed six people and severely injured several more, including our congresswoman, Gabby Giffords.
I remember that day all too clearly. I came home from Saturday-morning errands to the news that had been clanging through the multiverse: that a member of the US Congress had been shot in front of a supermarket. She was dead. She wasn’t dead. Others were dead, wounded. This many, that many. Shooter in custody. Lone gunman, had an accomplice, not political, yes political, nobody knew, though speculation was rampant.
That was my congressperson. That was my city that had been reduced to sound bites. The shock to us all was profound and lasting—just as it has been everywhere else that has seen its peace shattered by violence.
For me on the farm, surrounded by animals, and especially horses, the effect was not at all muted. But it was transmuted.
Breed to Come is one of Norton’s better-loved books. It was published in the early Seventies, shortly before what is effectively a companion volume (and was packaged so in Baen Books’ ebook revival of Norton’s works), Iron Cage. Whereas Iron Cage frames itself as a human variation on a cat locked in a cage and dumped out of a car, with aliens as the villains who cage the humans, Breed to Come tells the story of an Earth abandoned by humans and inhabited by intelligent animals.
The primary protagonist is Furtig, a mutated cat who lives in a colony related to a famous explorer and leader, Gammage. The People, as they call themselves, have evolved somewhat functional hands—at the cost of their ancestral claws—and the ability to walk upright as well as on all fours. They coexist more or less peacefully with mutated pigs, have an adversarial relationship with local tribes of mutated dogs, and open enmity with the mutated rats who infest the ruined cities of the Demons.
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