Book Review: Witch World by Andre Norton

Witch World (Witch World Series 1: Estcarp Cycle, #1)Witch World by Andre Norton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge and the Second Best Reading Challenge (for sci-fi/fantasy books that were nominated for awards but did not win).

Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, and Andre Norton – the forgotten triumvirate of women who moulded the science fiction and fantasy we know today. Well, also Ursula LeGuin, but for some reason people remember her. I think perhaps the difference is that LeGuin is considered a “literary writer”; not that this is something she asked for or sought out.

Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, and Andre Norton (who took said pen name because when she was writing sword and sorcery, publishers believed it was necessary to market to adolescent boys because girls didn’t read that sort of thing) are legends in the field, if you ask other science fiction and fantasy writers. And if you take the time to read their work, and consider their publication dates, you will be astounded at how influential they were (or are, in the case of Cherryh, who alone among the three is still with us). But considering their amazing volume of influential work they have all collected so few awards that it kind of boggles the mind. And as a result, you have to be a true aficionado of the genre to have even heard of them.

Although she was later acknowledged as the first woman Gandolph Grand Master of Fantasy, the first woman SFWA Grand Master (1984; the next woman accomplish this was LeGuin in 2003; McCaffrey didn’t receive this honour until 2005; Connie Willis got it in 2012; and Cherryh had to wait until this year;) and the first woman to be inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, not once did she receive a major science fiction or fantasy award otherwise. Twice she was nominated for a Hugo; Witch World was one of those nominees. It makes you wonder what happened there. It makes you wonder if those who say the deck in the field is stacked against women were right. Nowadays she has given her name to one of the major sci-fi/fantasy awards, which is awarded for young adult fiction in the genre.

I see by reading other reviews at Goodreads that this novel is one you either love or hate. I get that. The style is one that sounds strange to the modern ear. In the alternate universe that Simon Tregarth, a WWII veteran on the lam, suddenly finds himself immersed in, what we would call “magic” has direct real-world effects; although it remains to be seen whether this is fantastical or scientific, and I’m sure we’ll get some clues as this long-running series progresses. He is forced to adapt to a culture which is exceptionally strange to him, where people use what seems to be mostly early medieval technology (with some notable exceptions that might be interlopers from yet another parallel dimension, one with higher technology than our own), where he doesn’t even speak the language. It’s the ultimate “stranger in a strange land” story. Once he does pick up the language, people speak in a formal sort of way that sounds stilted to our ear; one that has become a sword and sorcery trope. Of course, it wasn’t a trope when Norton was writing it, and her writing is one of the reasons that it has become a trope. And she’s just getting started.

I got the distinct impression that Norton was writing an homage to the classic pulp series of fantasy and science fiction that she would have read in her youth (remember, this book was published in 1963). I was distinctly reminded of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ classic John Carter of Mars series (also known as his Martian Chronicles, and, originally, the Barsoom Chronicles). Even that formal fantasy style of speech reminded me of Barsoom. Tregarth is clearly a foil for a John Carter in a later era; a man of action and adventure, and a war vet, who tends to get himself into trouble when he’s not fighting wars due to his restless spirit. Just like John Carter, when Simon Tregarth suddenly finds himself mystically whisked away to another world, he lands in a situation in which he acts as his heart dictates, and ends up rescuing a maiden in distress.

Except that Norton’s maiden was only temporarily in distress. While I feel that people grossly underestimate and misinterpret Burroughs’ Martian Princess, who is a great leader, stateswoman, diplomat, and even a skilled combatant (just not with Carter’s Earth-gravity induced superpowers) Norton’s maiden is one of the formidable Witches of Estcarp, who rule their land through a combination of diplomacy, skill-at-arms, statescraft, and magic. The witch (whose name is not given until the end of the book because names have power and witches do not share them, and yet somehow Norton manages to fill her out as a fully developed, unique and sympathetic character despite this) was spying on her nation’s enemies and fleeing across the border back to her homeland. Tregarth eventually takes service under the command of the witches, working closely with Guardian (General) Koris, who is probably the first ever major dwarf character who is not a mythical Tolkien dwarf with a significant role in fantasy literature, long before Willow Ufgood or Tyrion Lannister.

The essence of the plot is that the neighbouring nation has been taken over by a force of darkness that is accomplishing the impossible (even for the witches) and animating the coolest, creepiest zombies I’ve ever read about in fantasy. Estcarp is asked to help defend a neighbouring city-state that is a traditional ally, and fails. Now they must learn about their foes and unite as many friendly (and neutral) nations as they can to stop this overwhelming threat that they are ill-equipped to fight. Fortunately they have acquired Simon Tregarth who, while he does not understand all that the mysterious enemy is doing or how they are doing it, at least understands that this is being accomplished through some kind of technology, and not magic, and thus can help the people of Estcarp figure out how to deal with their foe. I will say that because Tregarth doesn’t understand it, this can seem very confusing in places, and not all of what transpires is explained. I think this essence of mystery is intended and I am sure more will be explained in later books.

On a side note, the magic of Witch World is more of a “low magic” than a “high magic” sort of deal (likely borrowed in part from Robert E. Howard‘s classic Conan books), being composed more of illusion and mind control than the blasting of lightning bolts and fire. I am sure that Mercedes Lackey had one particular scene of this book, which involves five witches seated at a table doing an act of magic with poppets as their focus, in the back of her mind somewhere when the last Herald-Mages of Valdemar were setting the Web with their focus-stones. It feels more “real” than typical fantasy magic, clearly being based in real-world magical traditions (such as the principle of sympathetic magic and the principle of contagion magic,) and I like it. Her system of magic established two more tropes in the genre; the trope of it being a mostly-women’s talent (though of course we know there will be at least one man who is the exception) and it being something women only keep if they remain virginal (which prevents our 1960s action hero from seducing every woman mentioned in the plotline, unlike the heroes created by Norton’s contemporaries). I even see echoes of her Witches in the Priestesses of Avalon and the Bene Gesserit of Dune.

Let’s get back to the fact that this was written in 1963, and only boys read science fiction and fantasy (or so it was commonly believed.) Star Trek wouldn’t come out for three years yet. But in in addition to introducing us to the powerful Witches of Estcarp, Norton takes an interlude in the middle of the action to tell us the story of Loyse of Verlaine. Loyse is a pale, angularly-built girl who is the daughter of the tyrant lord Fulk, not beautiful and not considered especially desirable for marriage. (view spoiler) This, of course, is yet another tired old trope; but not when it was written, it wasn’t.

Despite seeming a little awkward in places to a modern reader, this adventure picked me up right away and held me on the end of my seat right to the very end. An excellent book that I would call a must-read for anyone interested in sword and sorcery or science fantasy.

This was my first acquaintance with Andre Norton’s work, aside from the fact that I’m sure that I must have read her short stories somewhere, because she was so prolific, and she edited as well as wrote (and her Catfantastic! collections are probably the reason that cats are now a staple in sci-fi/fantasy.) I have been itching to read about the Witch World for many years, because many people talk about it (and have written filk music about it), but sadly, these books are hard to find because I don’t think they are in print any longer. This is a loss to the world in my opinion, and I hope that I can encourage others to rediscover them.

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