1959’s The Beast Master is the first novel in Norton’s Beast Master series.
Hosteen Storm is one of a select group of people, that handful of Terrans who had the luck (good or bad, depending on your point of view) not to be on Earth when the alien Xik bombarded that world in one final desperate attempt to prevent defeat at the hands of the humans. Many of the other survivors have gone mad from grief, but Storm is protected by a promise made to Storm’s Dineh grandfather; Storm cannot rest until he wreaks the vengeance that the old man never could.
Storm’s misguided quest sends him to Arzor, a world short on human manpower where Storm’s unique gifts are welcome. Storm is a Beast Master, sharing an almost psychic link with his two meercats Ho and Hing, his eagle Baku, and his mutated dune cat Surra. The Confederacy used Storm and his animals to explore new worlds and later, when war with the Xik broke out, as a commando unit. Arzor has more peaceful uses for the Navajo and his animals.
Humans have lived on Arzor for about a century, sharing it with Arzor’s native Norbies. While human and Norbie often find each other’s ways peculiar, until recently the two have managed to coexist peacefully. Now, however, someone is rustling human animals, and the ranchers (or at least some of the ranchers) have jumped on this as a justification to push for more … resolute action against the natives.
As Storm soon realizes, there’s something very odd going on. There’s only one spaceport on the planet, so selling the stolen goods without their origin being immediately spotted seems impossible. In any case, humans and Norbies have lived on Arzor in peace for generations; why should peaceful relations collapse at this particular moment, just as the galaxy has returned to peace?
There must be a third, unknown faction on Arzor, a faction determined to drive a wedge between human and native, a faction whose agents are even now walking unnoticed among their victims, a faction who will do anything to avoid being exposed.
And that anything definitely includes killing a snooping Beast Master and his animals before he can alert the rest of the planet to what he has learned out in the wilderness of Arzor.
I was sent this short novel (as part of the omnibus Beast Master’s Planet) as a manuscript via the Science Fiction Book Club back in 2005. Since I never discard reviews, I can see that I wasn’t too keen on this back then. I thought, and still think, Norton’s model for Arzor, an idealized version of the Old West where settlers and natives live in peace, rather than the settlers simply exterminating the unlucky natives, was a bit too obvious. Also, having the Xik be a race of innately hostile black hats was a boring choice.
That’s not to say this book lacks points of interest. I was genuinely surprised when Norton abruptly Newberyed one of Storm’s companions. Similarly, the end of Storm’s quest, when he finally tracks down his quarry, the man against whom his grandfather had long held a grudge, does not play out as Storm (and probably most readers) imagined it would. The grandfather’s grudge turns out to have been based on a skewed view of long-past events. Storm’s understanding of his world, and his place in it, is utterly transformed.
For me, this is a minor Norton; not awful by any means, but not a favourite. I suspect that many readers would disagree with me, judging by the fact that not only has this older book remained in print (and not just at a nostalgia factory like Baen), it has spawned sequels and ill-fated adaptations. The Beast Master was followed by Lord of Thunder (1962), Beast Master’s Ark (2003), Beast Master’s Circus (2004) and Beast Master’s Quest (2006). Beast Master’s Ark, Beast Master’s Circus, and Beast Master’s Quest were all coauthored with Lyn McConchie; Beast Master’s Quest was published after Norton died. The Beast Master has also been adapted to both movie and television; neither adaptation was notable for its faithfulness to the source material. Other readers must be finding something in The Beast Master that resonates with them in a way that it doesn’t for me.
The Beast Master omnibus is available in various formats from Tor Books.