Wednesday, January 18, 2012


© 1980 by Andre Norton

(minor spoilers)

I learned two things reading this book. (1) I just can’t get into Andre Norton books, and (2) there’s a reason why this was one of the Great Unfinished Novels of my reading youth.

Regarding the first point, this analogy popped into my mind quite unexpectedly while showering this morning. Imagine me as a baseball pitcher. Ms. Norton comes up to the plate, swinging a bat, spitting out some chewing tobacco, playing with the sleeves of her jersey and the tags on her gloves in an intricate ritual that would drive any sane person bonkers. She swings the bat, and I notice words written on it:

Web of the Witch World

Hmm. I go into my windup and hurl a fastball straight down the center, bullseye-style, right at that spot where hitters blast ’em out into the parking lot. Norton swings and – whoosh! It’s a miss! She solidly hit nothing. Strike one.

She goes back to the dugout and picks up another bat. During her pre-pitch dress rehearsals, I see different words on this one, really just one word:


Out of respect and admitted admiration, I decide to take it easy on Ms. Norton. I slowly lean back, kick a leg up, and under-hand pitch a 40-mph gentle lob right over the plate for her –

Whoosh! Swing and another miss!

Oh, brother.

Translation for tone-deaf readers: I want to like her, like her writing, really I do, but I just … don’t. I’ve tried two in the past four years and I don’t know if I want to try any more. Which is a pity, because she has a large body of work and is fairly respected in the SF community. So maybe it’s me.

If so, it’s not a recent development. True, I was unable to finish Web in ’07 or ’08. But you have to go back three decades to find my first non-completed Norton book, Voorloper. It was a point of honor for me to get this and finally finish it.

Which brings me to point two. Why didn’t I like Voorloper?

Well, on paper (how ironic) I should have. An intriguing world populated by settlers far removed from earth. Settlements attacked by the mysterious “Shadows”, leaving no survivors save for the occasional infant. The “Tangle” – a writhing mass of thorny vegetation that chokingly grows outwards on the plains. Semi-psychic healers, one of whom I fell in love with all those years ago. Well, a drawing of her. The book’s evocatively illustrated by Alicia Austin.

So with all these pluses, how come I didn’t sync with it? Not sure. The plot is kinda been-there-done-that: monsters attack our villages, lets send in the boy-on-the-cusp-of-manhood whose father just died with the misfit clairvoyant girl to solve the mystery. Linear, overly expository, characters at best two dimensional. The only time the story picks up – well, attains speeds of 10 mph instead of the usual 5 – is toward the end when our two young people enter some sorta abandoned ancient alien outpost and somehow make everything turn out right.

I was a little confused, though, about what actually happened. And not in a good way, like a PKD or Thomas Pynchon kinda way. Were there one or two sets of aliens? A good race and a bad race? Or did the good race become bad when humans arrived on Voor? Or did only some of the good aliens turn evil? Why was some parts of the abandoned ancient alien outpost good and other parts evil? What was the role of the plants – and the “Tangle” in all this? What were the “Shadows”? What was the obsidian statue outside the outpost – a good alien or a bad alien?

The novel also contained one of the biggest deus ex machina props I’ve come across in a while. An alien necklace is conveniently found lying in the grass, an alien necklace which fits our hero perfectly, opens doors, operates machinery, and maybe even gives him superhuman strength for all I know.

However, I’m lashing out a little too harshly, I think. I did finish the thing in three days and read deep into the night. I did want to find out the answers to the mysteries the novel offered. I did enjoy Voor and the culture of the Voorlopers, and wished Norton revealed a bit more of its history and geography. And I loved the names of the settlements; brought an Old West feel to an SF story. Bottom line, I guess, is that there were a lot of ingredients that taste good on their own, but when combined make a pretty unremarkable goulash.

Up in the air whether I’ll try another Andre Norton book. Maybe if I read something luminous and fawning, something with a little detail that piques my interest. But whenever I go to them used book stores, there’s always a trove of her books on the shelves. Could it be because …

Grade: C+ (the plus only due to Austin’s illustrations)

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