Search for the Star Stones by Andre Norton
Cover art by Bob Eggleton
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Over the course of her long career as a science fiction writer, Andre Norton wrote a number of books set in a loosely-defined common universe in which humanity was not the first to explore and colonize space. Scattered across the planets were ruins and artifacts belonging to dozens of ancient races known only as the Forerunners. Desirable both for their rarity and for the glimpses they might afford a scholar of empires long dead, they were often the object of fierce quests and heroic deeds of derring-do.
Originally published as two books, The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars, Search for the Star Stones is the first-person story of Murdoc Jern, an apprentice gemologist who is thrust into danger as a result of a mysterious artifact owned by his father, who had once been an appraiser for an important member of the Thieves' Guild, the crime syndicate of Norton's far future. Although the plot is linear in a rather perils-of-Pauline fashion, with the protagonist bouncing from one disaster to another, this becomes less surprising when one considers that these stories were originally written for a young adult audience, who are generally less concerned with the finer points of tight plotting than with having a thrilling adventure full of excitement.
And those things are present in abundance, from the moment that Murdoc and his boss sit down in a tavern on an alien world only to have the priests of the local death god set up their roulette wheel and the indicator fall right between them. Only quick thinking and the reflexes of youth save Murdoc's life, but now he is on his own, for the older man fell to the death priests' knives. By appealing to another of the local deities, he is able to secure passage on a Free Trader ship, supposedly to a world of safety.
The Free Traders are another of those elements that have become a part of the "stock furniture" of space adventure stories of this sort, but after reading Robert A. Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy with its carefully thought-out society of Free Traders, I realized just how little thought was given to the Free Traders in this story. Supposedly they are a space-based people whose primary allegiance is to their ships and not to any planetary authority, and there is even mention of some of them being born in space, yet the crew of the ship on which Murdoc ends up is all male. It feels like a standard spaceship crew for a society in which the families remain behind on a world somewhere.
Now it's quite possible that the Vestris is a minor vessel, a tributary of a larger ship that carries whole families after the fashion of the Sisu in Citizen of the Galaxy, and we simply never hear about it because the closed-clan nature of Free Trader society means that they never talk about such private things with Murdoc. And it's also quite possible that the average teenager reading it would not pause to think through the implications of a society of space-based people and realize that it would have to mean the establishment of families aboard at least some of the ships for its perpetuation. Certainly it's not an instant crash and burn for my suspension of disbelief, largely because the real focus of this segment of the story is on the ship's cat and its discovery on one world of an ancient "seed."
From that gemlike seed, which the cat swallows, is born a strange telepathic mutant, Eet. His form is vaguely catlike, but with dexterous forepaws that almost make me think of the treecats in David Weber's Honor Harrington universe. Now and again he hints of knowledge of one or another Forerunner civilization -- perhaps even firsthand knowledge, if it can be believed that the seed somehow contained the essence of an ancient being that should otherwise be long dead.
However, the Free Traders regard Eet's appearances as alarming, quite possibly evidence of a malign alien entity that must be purged at once. Off go Murdoc and Eet in a space suit, the mysterious zero stone of his father's as their only guide. It apparently attracts others of its kind, and thus draws them to a lifeboat from a ship long wrecked. Murdoc is able to activate it and get to a world, only to fall straight into the hands of the Guild, who are in the middle of raiding a Forerunner ruin for valuable artifacts that can be sold on the black market. There is a Patrol officer on the planet, but he regards Murdoc as being as much a criminal as the Guild.
Only quick wits and Eet's telepathic power enable Murdoc to come out ahead, and he knows that the Patrol is not happy at being bested. Thus at the beginning of the second part, he's quite eager to get his newly purchased spaceship offworld before they find yet another loophole to bring him in. But he has one big problem -- he can't lift until he has a licensed pilot. So off he goes to a disreputable bar where he finds a down-at-the-heels pilot by the name of Ryzk in a state of inebriation and gets a sort-of agreement to space. It's enough to allow them to lift, although Murdoc has to get Rzyk sobered up enough to lay in a course to their first destination.
Murdoc's original intent was to visit several worlds and buy unusual stones as a way of raising money for the quest to find the origin of the zero stones. However, at his first stop he encounters an old rival in the business who makes a fool of him. Worried that this rival might also be planning to go to the rest of his destinations, Murdoc makes a major change of plans and goes to another world altogether. While he's there, he hears a rumor of a major Guild attack on an archeological dig.
So off he goes in hopes of giving a warning, only to discover he has arrived too late and there is only one survivor, badly wounded. But that survivor speaks of an ancient star map which may lead the way to treasures unimaginable. To retrieve it, Murdoc must go to Waystar, the Guild headquarters that is spoken of only in whispers. And Ryzk is turning against him in the hopes of being reinstated as a Free Trader by handing him over to the Patrol.
The concept of layers upon layers of ancient civilizations, often incorporating the artifacts of even earlier civilizations in their grave goods so that it is not always easy to identify the ultimate source of an artifact, is fascinating. The only major problem with the ending is the use of the star-map artifact to find the ancient planet, as though the location of stars in space were constant the way places on a planet's surface are. But the stars don't revolve around the Galactic center as if they were all embedded in a giant rotating disc -- instead, each has its own orbit. Stars that were near one another millions of years ago may end up in far distant parts of space. However, given that the proper motion of stars over their orbits around the Galactic core is not exactly something we deal with on a daily basis, the author can be forgiven the error simply because the thrill of being able to recover long-lost knowledge and gain their happy ending is so intense.
Review posted March 30, 2009.
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