The Things, They Change…

So Andre Norton’s back catalog seems to be mostly out in digital form these days—really out, and not in the shady iBook editions that had me going “I kinda wonder what’s up with that.” And while I re-read The Crystal Gryphon approximately eleventy million times as a pre-teen, I had not read most of the other Witch World books. (I think I remember “Gate of the Cat” vaguely.) So I picked up a couple in the High Hallack series (that being where Crystal Gryphon fits in) and started with Year of the Unicorn, which is supposed to be the first one and which I had to actually order in paperback.

I think I might have read this before. Did not remember the entire second half, but parts of it sound really really really familiar, and furthermore, there is a long ago piece of writing (now lost, owing to the great kindness of the gods of teenage writing) that I did that sure reads as if I had just read the first half of this book and gone OH MY GOD, YES! and went and wrote something with arranged marriages and magic and werewolves.

(Tangentially, arranged marriages are catnip to a significant subsection of pre-teen girls, a fact that I have been aware of for quite some time—possibly since I was one—and yet which I hardly ever see remarked upon. My stab in the dark would be that they are the socially acceptable intersection of rape fantasies and true luuuuv and since most of us haven’t got the sense god gave an avocado at that point, it hits a whole lot of buttons. We could also make a case for It Totally Looks Like Sex But Marriage Is Involved So It’s Okay, for those of us who had Good Christian Upbringing.* Other theories actively solicited.)

Ahem. Anyway! To continue, though, what I found myself thinking reading Year of the Unicorn was “Hoo, boy, you couldn’t publish this now if you stuck a twenty between every page.”

Well, it’s been just shy of fifty years since it came out. The language shift, though, is dramatic. I can’t think of anybody writing today who sounds like that—McKillip and Nancy Springer, maybe, and I haven’t read either of them recently, so I won’t swear that it’s still similar. Early Dennis McKiernan, before he got better at filing off serial numbers.

I’m not saying it’s bad, just that it’s much more stiff and formal writing than anything I’ve seen on a shelf in a very long time. I’m no editor, so maybe there’s somebody out there wishing that they’d get this style of prose in the slush pile—or possibly there’s a thriving vein of it, and I’m wandering past it going “La la la—ooh, bunnies!” But if it’s there, I am in ignorance.

Even Brust’s Phoenix Guards doesn’t bear a significant resemblance—it’s too sly. There is no slyness here, it’s all very sincere and straightforward and there are some really marvelous set pieces (and a couple other bits where I would have gone “Oh, for god’s sake, get thee to an editor, I’ll give you two out of body experiences but now you’re just wallowing,” but we could say that about anybody’s work, and the woman’s career spanned seventy goddamn years, so it would be unkind to nitpick at a novel closer to the beginning than the end.)

Obviously tones change, languages change, what publishing wants changes. But I find it surprising, re-reading, that things changed so much since then.

(There’s also a compelling argument to be made on re-reading that by the way, the Were-Riders have enchanted a dozen women who were, arguably sold into slavery unwillingly by their male relatives and are keeping them in a weird brainwashed illusion for the purposes of gettin’ lucky, and y’all just rode off and left after proving that the Were-Riders Really Kind Of Suck As People and never stopped and said “Does anybody think that’s creepy? I kinda think that’s creepy,” but maybe that’s covered in a sequel.)

I’m curious to see whether or not Crystal Gryphon holds up. It’s still got arranged marriages and my inner pre-teen totally had a thing for Kerovan, so, y’know, we’ll find out.


*Not that I can recall actually spending one iota of time being appalled at anyone in a book having sex outside of marriage, which is why I question this one’s utility. Mind you, my soul was a glass mountain and Christianity never made it more than a few feet up the side.

6 thoughts on “The Things, They Change…

  1. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    Perhaps some of the attraction of an arranged marriage stems from the unavoidable fact that most of the young men that any young lady knows will certainly be inarticulate oafs (I certainly was), and all of the men in any fictional world worth reading about have a trained author writing their dialogue.

    Just a thought.

  2. kat says:

    There’s also the thing where getting into a relationship sounded like a fantastic idea at that age, but I, at least, had no clue how such a thing got started, and did not figure it out until I was eighteen, and most of my attempts to start one were messy, awkward, embarrassing, and all those other things that are the end of the world when you’re a teenager. Having some one wave the “Congrats! Relationship!” wand at me probably sounded pretty good.

    Yeah, I read some new Andre Norton a year or two ago and… I was surprised. It hadn’t registered on me as a teen how *wild* this stuff was. She has that stiff, slightly formal thing going, and yet it’s infused with such intense passion that you end up reading feverishly even if you’re in your early thirties and your backbrain is going “oh my god this plot has more holes than a lace doily.” In that way it reminds me a little of the Conan stuff, although since Norton wasn’t obsessed with the primitive-savage mythos, did at least enough research to learn things like “snakes: not actually slimy” and “horses: don’t get ridden bareback at a full gallop for several hours by a naked woman”, wasn’t apparently suffering from extreme sexual frustration, and didn’t feel the need to grab the phrase “mighty thews” by the throat and beat it into the prose with a hammer approximately seventeen times per short story, it’s a lot better. But that sense of having grabbed a tiger of a story by the tail is similar.

  3. tanita says:

    YES! I saw this whole slew of Norton books for Kindle with the obligatory introductory freebies for the Witch World series, and I dove right in, and went, “Huh?” I thought I hadn’t read them, and that I’d started someplace wrong, or … something.

    I just did NOT remember them like that. At All.

    And hee! to the arranged marriages thing; I agree. It’s like with Teh Vampyres: O noes, teh bloodsucker has caught me, I must swoon and submit, having no control over this whole sex thing. Not my fault, or responsibility, at all.

  4. Viktor says:

    “…didn’t feel the need to grab the phrase “mighty thews” by the throat and beat it into the prose with a hammer approximately seventeen times per short story…”

    Yeah, seriously, what is UP with that?

    I’ve only just recently delved into reading the original Conan stories & boy howdy, does Howard ever love thews.

  5. Hawk says:

    I never got into Norton’s Witch World books. My mother loved them…maybe that was why I didn’t want to read them, heh.

    Re: Conan – a friend of mine once wondered whether the author was secretly homosexual, with all the obsession over thews. He and I ended up reading about four stories and discussing them – one of the weirder friendships I had in college – and I did my darnedest to disprove his theory.

    I don’t remember which of us won that debate. I think it might have dissolved in hoots of laughter.

  6. Owlor says:

    Ive mostly seen arranged marriages in the context of fanfics and as such I assumed that it was mostly a way to get two characters together without having to do any of the work of actually characterizing them to the point where a marriage makes sense.

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