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The Gates to Witch World by André Norton

Cover art by Mark Harrison

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Before the runaway success of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings made publishers desperately hungry for other works like it, fantasy was a tough sell. The money was in science fiction, stories of distant planets and super-science, not magic.

But a few writers were able to get fantastical elements into their writing by using the tropes of science fiction, particularly lost races and psionic powers. Marion Zimmer Bradley had Darkover, where laran gifts that often worked as much like magic as science were wielded by the aristocratic Comyn on the icy world of an ancient red sun. And Andre Norton had her Witch World, which might well be a parallel dimension, where a people led by powerful telepathic witch-women were hounded by tyrants who'd come to steal their world after ruining their own.

Because the market in those days was for much shorter books, the first three of her Witchworld books have been combined into a single volume of a length that is commercially viable in today's market. This combination also made it possible to add an introduction by C. J Cherryh, reflecting upon her own personal experiences with what she describes as "the good stuff."

The very first Witch World novel, titled simply The Witch World, begins as many stories of wonder do, with a man on the run needing desperately to escape from unspecified enemies who seek him for war crimes that may be naught more than having been on the losing side. And escape Simon Tregarth gets, from a mysterious man who gives him a push through a gate between worlds.

He's no sooner arrived in his promised refuge when he sees a woman being pursued by fierce-looking horsemen. He intervenes, rescuing the woman, and in doing so wins himself a place among the men of Estcarp. He is of course still a stranger in a strange land, ignorant of their ways, but because of the service he did them, they are willing to be patient with his blunders and give him the benefit of the doubt. For instance, he is quite caught by surprise when they take offense at his attempt to learn the name of the woman he rescued -- until they explain that a woman who becomes one of the Witches surrenders her name so that it might not be used against her, and he recalls traditions on Earth that one's true name was tied to one's soul, and a person who knew it could exercise power over it.

But there is little time for him to acclimate himself to this new land, for Estcarp is under pressing danger. The island of Gorm, just off its shores, has come into the possession of the mysterious and deadly Kolder, whose power derives from the terrible machines they brought with them from their ruined world. Worse, they did not come there by force, but were apparently invited in as part of a succession dispute, and then turned upon the very people who thought to hire their aid.

The actual heir, Koris, is among the leaders of the armed force that is seeking to reclaim Gorm before the Kolder make further advances against Estcarp. He's an unusual man, with a handsome face and a squat, almost dwarfish, body. This curious mismatch is said to be the result of his equally unusual parentage, his mother having been one of the swamp-folk who joined with his father long enough to bring him into the world before vanishing back into the land of her own people. It is this mixed parentage which drove his father's second wife to raise her own son as an alternate heir and to appeal to the Kolder.

As the force heads to their staging point, Simon begins to show strange abilities, ones no man is supposed to have. Abilities that may well prove key to fighting the Kolder, especially as the horrors of their methods of rule become increasingly clear upon the bodies of their soldiers captured in battle. There is something particularly shuddersome about the notion of a man turned into a machine without will or thought, unable to stay his hand even for the sake of his own self-preservation in a hopeless battle.

The second book, Web of the Witch World, takes up after the victory against the Kolder in Gorm, such as it was. Although its capital city of Sippar was cleansed of the horrors those masters of monstrous technology worked upon it, Simon and his new allies are far from convinced that the Kolder menace has been broken for good. Far from it, the city of Yle on the mainland remains locked within a mysterious shield through which no one can penetrate, and there is evidence that their agents may have worked their way into Karsten, the land to the south of Estcarp.

However, Simon has not allowed the continued danger to completely rob him of happiness. Having won the current respite from the Kolder, he has taken to wife the lovely woman whom he rescued at the beginning of the first book. Now that she is no longer a witch, she has resumed her name of Jaelithe, and has assumed that she will be surrendering her powers for good. But just as Simon previously proved himself impossibly capable of doing witcheries no man was supposed to be able to perform, she is discovering that she continues to be able to use her stone of power. Of course the witches try to tell her that it is nothing more than a ghost of her fading powers and she must not set herself up for a future crushing disappointment by thinking she has been spared the fate of all witches who give up their virginity.

When Jaelithe is taken from him, Simon has to go on a daring search which will take him into the marshes from which Koris' mother came, a place where strangers are not welcome and the wrong move, the wrong word may well mean a hideous death at the hands of these clannish and suspicious people. Meanwhile, the young woman Loyse who fled her father's arranged marriage is further complicating matters with her uncertain loyalties, and the continual possibility that she may be unwittingly serving as bait for a Kolder plot.

This novel is particularly interesting because in the climactic confrontation we actually get a glimpse of the ruined world the Kolder left behind, resource-depleted and worn out from their heedless use of technology. Written in 1964, it thus represents the first generation of ecological awareness, of the recognition that a world (and by extension our own) is indeed finite and can be left a ruined wasteland if its resources are devoured heedlessly rather than conserved and used wisely.

The final book of this omnibus, The Year of the Unicorn, leaves Simon Tregarth and the Witches of Estcarp behind to look at another part of the Witchworld, on the far side of the ocean that separated Gorm from mainland Estcarp. Here is the land of the Dales, where young Gillan lives in some frustration in Abbey Norstead, Her horizons are limited, for she is not of the blood of High Hallack, the aristocracy of the Dales, having come in a shipwrecked vessel from Alizon across the sea (the self-same Alizon against which Estcarp strives).

Everything changes when a group of well-born young women arrive to stay briefly as guests in the Abbey before continuing on the way to fulfill the Great Bargain the men of the Dales made with the Riders, a mysterious group living in the wastelands beyond the boundaries of the Dales. All manner of stories are told of them, naming them to be wizards and shapeshifters and ascribing other uncanny powers to them. They have aided the men of the Dales in their battles, under the condition that the Dalefolk offer them twenty-one brides on the first day of the Year of the Unicorn.

When one of the girls begins to have hysterics at the prospect of being handed over to these strange men, Gillan sees her chance. Using a spell she barely understands, she weaves an illusion that makes her appear to be the frightened girl and takes her place in the procession as it leaves. She knows that her spell is imperfect and will eventually fail, but she also knows that it doesn't have to last forever, only long enough that it will be impossible to take her back to the Abbey and retrieve the actual girl and still make it to the meeting-place at the appointed time.

It is a close-run thing, and the nobles in charge of the procession are most definitely not pleased at discovering her imposture. But by that point they have no choice but to allow her to take her place among the young women being presented. So she enters the lands of the Riders, and soon discovers that things are even stranger than she could possibly have imagined. Her abilities enable her to release herself from the spells of illusion that hold the other girls and to see the Riders and their cloaks of choosing for what they are, and thus she chooses the cloak of Herrel, who like herself is something of an outsider, and who was permitted to weave-spell a cloak only because it was simply assumed that he would not be able to draw a bride over older and more accepted Were Riders.

Thus his success has attracted jealousy from those who would gladly humiliate this despised youth without a second thought for what harm they may bring to Gillian. She must thread her way through a nightmarish web of deception in which her very life may be at risk.

In many of her early works Andre Norton created entirely masculine worlds of young heroes who fought alongside their animal or alien companions, almost as if protesting against the constrained roles available for female characters in the fiction of the time by refusing to portray any female characters at all. But in these novels she begins to come into her own as the writer of stories of strong women who use power and are not punished for it or destroyed by it. Jaelithe, Loyse and Gillian all use their wits and magical powers in order to move in a masculine world and hold their own. Part of it may well have been the shifting of societal attitudes which made thinkable active female characters who possessed agency independent of a male. But no doubt there was also a component of the author's having established herself sufficiently as a sales-drawing name that publishers were willing to extend her greater latitude in the portrayal of non-stock characters.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Andre Norton's Witch World by C. J. Cherryh
  • Witch World
  • Web of the Witch World
  • Year of the Unicorn

Review posted August 29, 2010.

Buy The Gates to Witch World (Witch World Chronicles) from Amazon.com

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