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Judith Tarr

Wrapping Up the Series in Andre Norton’s Star Ka’ats and the Winged Warriors

This final published volume in the Star Ka’ats series reads more like a continuation than a conclusion. Young humans Jim and Elly Mae are well settled in with the telepathic alien Ka’ats. But not everyone on the world of Zimmorra is happy. A few of the cats who were rescued from Earth before it presumably exploded into nuclear war have not taken well to the Ka’ats’ laws and culture.

One cat in particular, Boots, whom Jim rather likes, sneaks off to hunt, which is a major crime among the Ka’ats. Jim catches him and frees his mouselike prey, and warns him against breaking the law. Boots is not a happy cat, and he has no desire to stop hunting. Hunting is what he is.

This is a general crisis, but there may be a solution. Thanks to the metal the humans helped the Ka’ats find and manufacture, the Ka’ats and their robots have built a spaceship. They plan to head back out among the stars and find lost Ka’at colonies.

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Writing Horses: The Nuances of Horse-Riding

If your experience of riding consists of pony rides as a kid or a rent-a-ride at an older age, you have a sense of what it feels like to sit on a large, moving object with a mind of its own. This can be scary. Controls aren’t reliable, the movement doesn’t resemble anything else you’ve dealt with in this reality, and it’s amazing how fast 15mph can feel when it’s a horse instead of motor vehicle. Even a bicycle doesn’t feel that fast at that speed—it’s not the exposed-body sensation, it’s the OMG the transportation is sentient! sensation. You feel the muscles flexing, the animal breathing, the hooves digging in and letting go, and there’s always the awareness that if the horse decides you’re not the boss of him, you can’t do anything to stop it. That way lies the legend of the Kelpie—and the treasured plot device of the runaway horse/wagon/stagecoach.

But what if the rider is experienced, and knows what to do? A runaway is still possible in certain circumstances—poorly trained horse, horse under excessive stress, horse with the brainpower of a gnat on speed—but for the most part the rider is the boss of him.

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Alien Collaboration: Andre Norton’s Star Ka’ats and the Plant People

As awesome sffnal titles go, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is just about the pinnacle. But you have to admit, Star Ka’ats and the Plant People is right up there. It has SFF written all over it. And randomly apostrophized alien cats. And plant people.

This is the third volume of Norton and Madlee’s middle-grade series about kitties in space. This time around, intrepid human kids Jim and Elly are helping the Ka’ats explore the city of the alien humanoids who, here, are called the People. There is a crisis brewing: the Ka’ats are running out of metal to manufacture their machines, especially the flying machines.

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Writing Horses: What To Do When the Experts Disagree

One of my frequent pieces of advice, here and in general, is that if you’re not an expert in a subject—say, horses—and you’re writing or reading or watching something that has to do with them, your best strategy is to check in with people who actually are experts. But here’s a question.

Is it possible for an expert to be wrong?

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Kids Save the World in Andre Norton’s Star Ka’at World

The sequel to Star Ka’at, as expected, answers my main worldbuilding question: How do beings without thumbs build starships? Human children Jim and Elly find the answer in a big way, and resolve an ancient conflict in the process.

Their arrival on the Ka’ats’ world quickly makes clear how different humans and Ka’ats are, and how hard it is for humans to fit in. The Ka’ats deliver the humans and the rescued Earth cats to a refugee camp and education center, with buildings constructed by robots, and food replicated by a machine. The problem for the new arrivals—and the humans most of all—is that Ka’at machines are controlled by telepathy. The cats learn fairly quickly to run the food machine, but the humans find it impossible. Even Elly, who has a strong mental connection with the Ka’at Mer, can’t do it, and the much less adept Jim is at a loss.

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Learning Empathy From Horse Training

One of the hardest things for a human being to do is to understand, and empathize with, the Other. By which I mean any sentient thing that is not the human’s specific self. The more different the Other is from that self, the less easy it is to relate.

I’m not just talking about animals here, or horses in particular, since this is, after all, SFF Equines. I’m talking about Other genders, Other cultures, Other ways of viewing the world. Most if not all of our wars and conflicts either originate in or devolve into some form of this—from invading a country that has resources we want or need, to declaring a particular tribe or nation or faith or skin color “evil” or “deluded” or “lesser” or “not us,” to allotting specific, value-weighted traits to each gender.

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Kitties in Space: Andre Norton’s Star Ka’at

As it turns out, I have actually read this volume in the series. I remember the big black cat with the white V marking, and the character named Elly Mae. The rest is lost in the mists of time.

This is what we now call a middle-grade book, with characters around ten years old. It’s a classic setup for the genre: offstage, disconnected adults, kids having their own adventures and doing their bit to save the world. These kids push standard Norton buttons, with the orphaned boy struggling to adapt to his new foster home, and the likewise orphaned girl raised in grinding poverty by her dying grandmother. The boy is white and the girl is Black, but they’re oblivious to racial politics. They have a prickly sort of friendship, as Jim tries to help Ellie cope in a world that has almost no place for her.

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The Springtime Magic of Baby Horses

These are difficult times, and anxiety levels are off the charts. But there is hope in the world, however obscured it may be by the human catastrophe. It’s spring in the Northern Hemisphere, after all, and the world is rejuvenating, with or without us. In the horse world, that means: Baaaaaby Horses!

Cute. Fuzzy. Relatively little compared to their adult form. And in fiction, as in real life, they offer lots of potential for drama and romance. There’s nothing like a good (or bad-turned-to-good-by-heroic-save) foaling scene for spicing up a story.

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The War Never Ends in Andre Norton’s At Swords’ Points

The third installment of Andre Norton’s World War II spy thriller series was published in 1954, and is set in more or less that year. The war had officially ended nearly a decade before, but the conflict between Allies and Nazis was far from over. Open warfare had given way to secret battles and undercover operations, with Allied agents going up against Nazi renegades.

Once again we encounter Lorens Van Norreys and his ancient house of jewelers, but this time he plays little direct role in the action. Norton rather summarily sidelines him with a skiing accident, and gives the story to a young American, Quinn Anders. Quinn is a budding medieval scholar, following in his late father’s footsteps, and he needs Lorens’ help to track down his missing brother, Stark. Stark is mysteriously dead in a quest for the treasure on which their father’s final book was based, and the House of Norreys has laid claim to the artifacts, a set of jeweled figurines called the Bishop’s Menie.

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Movie Horses Have a Lot to Answer For

Horse people talk to each other. They talk to each other a lot. Right now that means keeping proper social distancing, and communicating virtually as much as possible. But the conversation continues.

The other day some of us were talking about bad horse habits, and by extension, bad habits of humans writing about horses. Every horse buyer has a list of nonnegotiables, some of which end up being negotiated anyway. “There is no way I will ever buy a chestnut Thoroughbred mare,” declares the buyer who, in the way of fate and the world, finds herself signing a sale contract for a young mare straight off the track, whose coat is as bright as a copper penny. Often that works out wonderfully, and the buyer grudgingly admits that Chestnut Mare Beware is a mere and invidious stereotype.

There are some things however that really do make or break a sale, and less than honest sellers will take measures to conceal them from the buyer. Unlike the bias against equine redheads, the trope of the slippery horse dealer is a little too accurate, a little too often. They’re the used-car salesmen of the horse world.

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Marvels and Piracies in Andre Norton’s Sword in Sheath

The second installment of Norton’s Lorens van Norreys trilogy was published in 1949. World War II is officially over, but there are still hot spots all over the world, pockets of conflict, soldiers missing in action, and renegade Nazis and Japanese carrying on the war in spite of, or in ignorance of the armistice.

The Allied armies have stood down and most of their soldiers have been mustered out. Among them are two American intelligence officers, Lawrence Kane and Sam Marusaki. But there’s still work for them to do, as they discover when they’re summoned by their former commanding officer, whom they call Ironman (his actual name is not Stark, and he has no fancy suit, but he is an epic hardass). A wealthy businessman wants to bankroll a search for his missing son, whose plane went down somewhere in the South Pacific. This is very convenient for certain elements in the government, who are trying to track down some of the above-mentioned renegade Nazis and Japanese.

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The Power of Equine Names

As every fantasy reader and writer knows, names are important. They matter. What an author calls her characters influences how her readers react to them–either overtly or more subtly. Given a choice between a wizard named Schmendrick or a wizard named Ingold Inglorion, which would you choose to save your world? Sam Gamgee is the best servant ever, but he’s not going to challenge the King Elessar for his throne.

[“On, Bill!” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “On, Shadowfax!”]

The War Begins in Andre Norton’s The Sword Is Drawn

It was an interesting experience to read the first volume of Andre Norton’s World War II spy-thriller trilogy while on lockdown for a global pandemic. I’ve always heard the stories of what it was like to live during The War as my parents referred to it, the sacrifices that had to be made, the rationing, the safety measures: blackout curtains, curfews, and all the rest of it. And the lists of the dead and wounded, and the bodies coming home.

It’s not the same. And yet in its way it is. So reading a novel written during the war and published in 1944, when the author had no way to know how it would end, felt weirdly apposite.

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Cooperation, Social Distancing, and Other Lessons I’ve Learned From My Horse

If there’s one thing horses do for humans, it’s teach them things. Sometimes in the sense of Learning Experiences, i.e. School of Hard Knocks (and Falls and Crashes and Financial Disasters), but many times in the sense that if a human studies the horse, she can learn a great deal about how to live and let live. It’s always been true, but in this time of global pandemic and universal fear and all-around awfulness, it’s more relevant than ever.

[Lessons like, for example…]

Sliding From World to World in Andre Norton’s Knave of Dreams

Now I understand why the regulars from the Comments section urged me to read Knave of Dreams while I’ve been checking out Norton’s earliest published novels, notably The Prince Commands. Knave of Dreams is a relatively late entry, from 1975. There are forty years of novels and stories between the two, and whole worlds discovered and created. And yet the roots are the same: the Ruritanian Romance that was so much in vogue when Norton was a brand-new writer.

Young Andre played her fanfic straight: setting The Prince Commands in the classic imaginary European country. Mature Andre had been writing fantasy and science fiction for decades, and had a wide array of storytelling tools to choose from. Knave of Dreams is a Ruritanian adventure in the sense of the royal impostor from America swept away to the foreign kingdom and thrown headlong into complicated court intrigue. It’s also an alternate-worlds story and a kind of portal adventure.

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