Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Witch World by Andre Norton

Simon Tregare is a professional soldier who has somehow gotten into trouble with some criminals, and expects to be killed very soon, so he is enjoying a last meal at leisure. He is approached at his table by a man he knows only by reputation, who claims he can extricate him permanently from the mess he's landed in, never to be tracked down by the thugs pursuing him. The key to this, of course, turns out to be a method by which he is transported to an entirely different world than ours, without any way to return. Seeing no other course of action available to him which will save his life, he consents, and is sent off to...The Witch World!
A venerable tradition in 50s and 60s science fiction, the mysterious transport to another world, it was used by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his novels of John Carter of Mars and Carson of Venus, and by John Norman in his Gor series (gotta review some of those one day), and by several others that I can recall. Sure saves on long space voyages, anyway.

Upon arrival, Simon is immediately greeted by a troop of soldiers chasing a pitiful girl dressed only in rags, across a blasted heath. What else is a classical hero to do but to defend and rescue the "princess"? He kills a couple of the men with his pistol (which amazingly still works in this world of magic), then helps the girl take refuge on a cliffside, where she demonstrates that she's not just some poor little servant wench, but has mystical powers of her own - she calls down a thunderstorm upon her pursuers. Drenched by the storm that does not pass quickly, Simon keeps her warm throughout the night with the heat of his own body. Naw, get your minds out of the gutter, this was written in the sixties, and heroes back then didn't get to have sex...ever. Well, maybe offstage after the end of the book.

Turns out the witch, whose name we don't find out until the final pages of the novel, we just call her Lady or "the witch", is one of the leaders of a nation, Estcarp, beset by enemies on all sides, and Simon will join her loyal underlings in defending his new home. The witches that rule Estcarp have special powers, to one degree or another, such as calling down storms, casting illusions, creating love potions, and possibly a few other things I've forgotten.

They only maintain their powers if they abstain from sexual activity (I told you this was the early sixties, before the sexual revolution), and one of the innovative ways their enemies neutralize them is to subject any captured witches to gang rape (again, mostly offstage and euphemistically). I'm not sure how all this actually is supposed to work. First, if they lose their powers when they have sex, how has the race survived? Did they nominate one witch in each generation to be the breeder and have lots of children? Second, I can kind of understand the bargain of giving up your magic powers as a trade for romantic love, your focus would no longer be on your magic, and the buildup of energies would be dissipated...fine. But to lose your powers as an unwilling participant? Well, maybe due to trauma, but in that case the voluntary act wouldn't or shouldn't be a disqualifier. Anyway, like much in SF and Fantasy at times, it doesn't have to make sense, it's only there so that Lady can be rescued from a "fate worse than death", anyway.

There's lots of battles and intrigue, but after decades of reading both good and bad fantasy, I'm afraid I no longer have as high an opinion of Norton's writing as I once did. There's far better stories out there, and this one just seems tired, fifty years later. I was going to re-read the whole series, but I think I'll pass now.

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