Lost Lands of the Witch World by Andre Norton
Cover art by Daniel Dos Santos
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This omnibus volume continues the story that began in Witch World and Web of the Witch World, which were gathered in the omnibus volume Gates to the Witch World. In them, Terran fugitive Simon Tregarth passed through a worldgate into a strange land to find a magical people at war with strange offworlders known as the Kolder, who used monstrous mind-conrol technology. In the process of his battle, he found the love of the witch-woman Jaelithe, who set aside her witch-powers to wed, and then discovered that they had not gone away.
At the time the Witch World books were published, straight fantasy was still a hard sell for publishers, since there wasn't really that much fantasy on the market. There were of course the sword and sorcery novels of Robert E. Howard and his various imitators, in which the heroic barbarian swordsman could outdo anything civilized people tried to accomplish, and more peripherally the weird and dark fiction traditions of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, but the huge fantasy boom that would begin with J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings had yet to begin.
However, there was a very strong market for science fiction, ranging from near-term hard sf with rivets to space operas in which Space is an Ocean and the wonders of distant worlds and the remnants of the technology of dying or extinct peoples often more closely approximated magic. As a result, a number of writers were able to clothe their fantasy stories in the trappings of science and technology and get them published by various science fiction lines. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover began in this way, taking a vaguely Medieval story of an exile retuning to his home and relocating it on a planet of a red-giant sun (this was a time when stellar evolution was less widely understood), so that the magic became psionic science.
In the first two novels of her Witch World series, André Norton had followed that pattern. Although the people of Estcarp were the sort of magic-using pre-Industrial people later readers would recognize from the endless parade of Tolkien pastiches and clones, the Kolder were pretty clearly invaders from a high-tech world, and while they might have come through a worldgate as Simon Tregarth had, it was equally possible that they'd brought all their nasty mind-control equipment on a starship.
However, as Mercedes Lackey notes in her introduction, "Andre Norton's Witch World: An Appreciation," by the third book in the series, Andre Norton had gained sufficient stature that she could soft-pedal away the science fictional elements and focus on the adventures of the next generation of the Tregarth family, Simon and Jaelith's three children in magical lands, using their magical powers rather than alien super-science. Their story produced the next three novels of the Witch World, which have been gathered in this omnibus volume.
Three Against the Witch World begins with triplets Kyllan, Kemoe and Kaththea realizing that they alone are aware of the East as a direction. Everyone else in Estcarp are clearly aware of North, West and South, but their minds flinch away from the notion of the East. History and legend present not a breath of information about the East -- it's as if the direction had been erased as a concept from the people's minds, with the sole exception of these three young children of an off-world father.
Thus begins their story, told in their own words. Unlike the first two Witch World books, which were written in the third person, each of these three novels are told in the first person by one of the triplets. It's an interesting choice, since on one hand it allows each novel to begin with a brief summing-up of the events that led up to their situation from their own perspective, which adds interest to what otherwise might be a lot of boring housekeeping to be slogged through while new readers are brought up to speed. On the other, it means that we the readers are limited to the knowledge that particular character has available, rather than being able to move freely from place to place as widely-separated characters deal with important events.
This novel is told by Kyllan, who like his brother Kemoc has been trained as a fighter, the traditional occupation of well-born young men. He tells us how the two of them were given small swords and dart guns while they were still young, since the modes of fighting in these lands are heavily dependent upon personal skill that must be developed while one is still very young. However, he is also the son of his mother, and he and his siblings share some of the Witch powers that she retained even after she set aside her virginity to marry their father. All three of the children share a mental closeness that goes beyond mere sympathy -- and that leads to trouble.
Simon and Jaelithe have had to travel to distant lands in pursuit of some remnant of the Kolder evil, some shadow that seeks to stretch itself across the lands they've sworn to protect. In the meantime, the Witches have determined to take Katththea away for training, a process that might well sever the link with her brothers, and very well would also turn her into a weapon for political gain. When the three siblings bond together to refuse such a move, they become marked for hostility by those who are determined to have their will done, and Kaththea is snatched from her brothers.
Kyllan and Kemoc know they have to rescue their sister, but in doing so they will attract wrath so powerful that remaining in Estcarp will be just a sort of suicide. And thus comes their notice of how East is a sort of memetic blank, a white space they've been raised to ignore. When the time comes that they rescue Kaththea from the hold of the Witches, they will ride together for the East and find out what lands lie beyond the mountains everybody has been trained to view as the end of the world. Mountains that were raised a thousand years earlier by an older and stronger generation of Witches to shut out something.
On the far side they find what at first appears to be an empty land, until Kaththea reports mental contact with entities who appear to be very much like the legendary Moss Ones, beings very similar to the Fair Folk of European lore. Mysterious beings that seek human women to nurse their children, and who pay in pale gold and good fortune. Beings long dismissed as mere legends to amuse and frighten children -- but might they be part of what the people of Estcarp left behind when they shut out the mysterious East?
And then they encounter something so foul their very flesh recoils away from it, and know that there are indeed perils to this place, although that one was thankfully tied to its own sinkhole, unable to pursue prey it cannot lure in. But even as they prepare wards against the Dark, they encounter one of the legendary birdlike Flannan, who can be friends to humanity, although ever wary and flightily in the manner of birds. But this Flannan serves another, someone who is not evil but whose interests do not match with those of our protagonists and who would obstruct them.
Kaththea then begins a risky undertaking, creating a servant from her mind and spirit. However, her bond with her brothers enables them to share some of their life-essence and reduce the risk she has to shoulder in the undertaking. But she's no more than done that but Kyllan surrenders to impulse upon seeing a beautiful black horse and becomes entrapped, for the horse is in fact a Keplian, a particularly nasty kind of monster that will deliver him to the Enemy.
Except it's not so simple, for the people of Escore, the Green People, seem primarily to want to be left alone and not troubled by Witches and their tendency to wake up stuff best left alone. They are descendants of a branch of the Old Race who, with the best of intentions, dabbled in investigations that awakened an ancient and corrupting power and ignited a civil war. This was the evil that the ancestors of Estcarp fled, raising mountains behind them and blotting out all memory of the East save bits and fragments of folklore of beings not found in their new home, the Moss Ones and the Flannan.
It's interesting to see how this novel transforms the Witch World from merely a setting to have Adventures, with bits and pieces of history as stage-dressing, to an actual Place with a history that has consequences. As a result, we're moving beyond the typical action-adventure plot of the era toward something more complicated.
The next Witch World novel, Warlock of the Witch World, is told by Kamoc, the other brother among the triplet children of Simon Tregarth and Jaelithe the Witch. While Kyllan was trained as a warrior, Kamoc seems to be more of a philosopher or scholar. However, in the land of Estcarp every man of noble heritage was expected to know how to fight, so he learned the skills of the short sword and the dart gun -- until his right hand was maimed in the process of freeing his sister Kaththea from the Witches, the events that precipitated their flight into the mysterious East and Escore.
Now Kamoc and Kyllan are leading the defenses of the good folk of Escore against the evils their sister Kaththea had unwittingly awakened in her use of her Power not long after they crossed the mountains in their flight from the vengeful Witches of Estcarp. These people represent a variety of races, ranging from the truly alien Flannan, who seem to be drawn from uplifted alien stock, to the aquatic Krogan who were once human. In these descriptions we still have a certain amount of science fictional language, of experiments that may have been as much scientific as magical, but certainly represent a scientific manner of thought and approach.
However, the menacing Gray Ones and their allies the Rasti have a feel far more like the various nasties we typically expect to find in fantasy literature, rather than the Bug-Eyed Monsters that were the typical Menaces in the science fiction of the time. They might go right alongside Tolkien's orcs and wolf-riders, or Stephen R. Donaldson's ur-viles and cavewights.
And then Kamoc is separated from his siblings and cast adrift in a strange and hostile land, a terrain laid waste as a result of ill-conceived use of the Power centuries earlier. And thus is he captured by yet another faction of the people of Escore, not allied to the Dark, but suspicious of outsiders and users of Power as a result of the terrible history of these lands, a history that led the ancestors of the people of Estcarp to flee westward and raise mountains to block the way.
And as he pauses among these strange peoples, striving to assure them of his friendship lest they view him as a threat and treat him accordingly, Kemoc has a terrible vision -- his sister Kaththea taken captive and turned against him and his brother, led to betray those the triplet siblings have allied themselves with. He knows at once that he must prevent these terrible futures he's foreseen, but in doing so he may well bring about even worse futures, including the death of his sister or the severing of the mental bond that links the three of them, that has become as precious to them as life itself.
As a result, his struggle to rescue his sister is complicated not only by the need to unweave the future he's foreseen and set events on a course that will allow him to rescue his sister whole and unharmed, but also by the simple fact that his allies in this quest do not fully trust him. Throughout his quest he is on probation, his every step and movement watched for signs of subtle treachery.
It is a quest that will include strange transformations and a confrontation with an evil wizard. But in the end there will be triumph, and healing for both of them.
However, like all the works of mere mortals, their triumph proves temporary, as the next novel, Sorceress of the Witch World, begins with Kaththea in new peril, forcibly separated from her brothers and thrust once again into a dangerous land alone. Worse, her ill-chosen alliance with the overweeningly ambitious Dinzil has left her open to the call of the Shadow, the manifestation of an ancient evil that was awakened by foolish experimenters many centuries earlier in the events that led to her mother's ancestors fleeing westward and shutting gates both physical and mental behind them.
However, all is not lost, for even in these desperate straits she finds allies among the Vupsall, wanderers on the open trails. And although Utta their wise woman may fall far short of the standards of the Witches of Estcarp who for a time took Kaththea in an effort to bind her to their number and their path, Kaththea will not despise her tutelage, but agrees to take her place as pupil and adopted daughter. Like many nomadic peoples, the Vupsall use ersatz familial relationships to create bonds between unrelated individuals where a more settled people might use one or another contractual bond.
But this respite is not for long, because Utta is already quite old and in failing health. Thus they must hurry on to one of the longstanding camping places of their people, that she might rest for a time and recover her strength. Thus we have a pause in which Kaththea learns the arts of her new mentor, a period that she sums up with a few telling words about how the disciplines she'd learned among the Witches sustained her in that rough life when she might otherwise have broken under the strain of it.
The most critical element of this period is her confrontation of her role in the previous novel, namely, her misuse of the Power while under Dinzil's influence, to the point that she nearly influenced her warrior brother Kyllan to betray the Valley of Silence and the very people who they originally befriended. As a result of the wrongs she committed, these powers may well be lost to her forever -- even as she needs them to help the people who've taken her in, a people whose nomadic lifestyle keeps them forever on a thin margin of survival in which every advantage they can bring to bear against a harsh world may well be the difference between life and death.
And then Utta's frail flesh fails her altogether and she perishes, leaving Kaththea to be the seeress of the Vupsall. It is often said that how a culture treats its dead says a great deal about them, and Kaththea observes the obsequies that surround Utta's passing with wonder, considering whether they represent some remnant of a former more settled existence the Vupsalls left behind untold ages ago, so long all other memory of it has faded away to nothing.
Utta's passing means the transfer of her various belongings into Kaththea's hands, among them two scroll-cases containing manuscripts apparently written in code by some scribe more interested in keeping secrets than disseminating information. Kaththea is able to extract from them a strangely familiar name, Hilarion, but has no idea where it may have come from. And just in time, for she is to be inducted as their new wise woman, a ceremony as complex in its own way as the funeral rites of her predecessor.
However, she cannot settle into that role, for her heart ever longs to return to her own people, to her brothers and to the people they befriended when they first crossed the mountains. So long as Utta's rune mat binds her, Kaththea is constrained to remain among the Vupsall, working their protections -- but all the time she remains watchful for every clue to a method by which she can break that bond and set herself free once again.
And in doing so, she works a betrayal she did not intend, and thus is left wondering if her time with Dinzil warped her more than she realized. Near the end of her subordination to him she drew quite nigh to the Shadow he served, and did things that may well have stained her soul in ways not so easily wiped away.
There's no time to ponder that, for she is fleeing through a ruined city when she sees a strange flying thing overhead. Not a bird or other flying creature, but an artifact, rather like some of her father's stories of Earth which he fled through the Gate when he was framed for a crime he did not commit. And thus she realizes that she too has passed through a Gate into another world, one that has fallen as the result of a terrible war in the distant past. However, not all of their devices have failed, and soon Kaththea and her Vupsall companion Ayllia encounter manlike devices we would recognize as robots of the sort that were common in the science fiction literature and movies of the time.
And then she encounters a machine that appears to wield the Power. To Kaththea it goes against everything she's been taught about the nature of the Power, to the point that she has difficulty accepting the evidence of her own senses. However, someone who has read a great deal of the fiction of the time might not be so surprised, since James H Schmitz was also exploring the possibility of machine-generated telepathy in his Hub stories of Telzey Amberdon.
And thus Kaththea learns at last the nature of the mysterious Hilarion whose name had appeared in Utta's scrolls. He was a man with the Power who stumbled through the Gate and into this ancient ruined city of super-science, to become user and captive of the telepathy machines, which he believes to be ruled in fact by the mysterious Zandur who once was human, until he turned to growing artificial bodies for himself in order to prolong his life. And in her battle with him all things come full circle at last, as Simon Tregarth and Jaelithe finally return to the tale, having also been trapped in this other world as a result of their mysterious quest that each of our three protagonists mentioned in the introductions to their respective books.
On the whole, the three novels are good, solid imaginative action-adventure stories in a world of wonders. The plotting may be episodic, and the characters are often stumbling into one after another surprise in the fashion of the old pulps, but the ideas are fascinating enough that we're willing to forgive weaknesses in plotting and story logic. And putting the three novels together in a single volume really does help emphasize their connected nature, by which they form a larger narrative that really is greater than the sum of the parts, namely, the story of the coming of age of three extraordinary young people.
Table of Contents
- Introduction by Mercedes Lackey
- Three Against the Witch World
- Warlock of the Witch World
- Sorceress of the Witch World
Review posted December 14, 2012.
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