1960’s Storm Over Warlock begins as Shan Lantee, a low-ranking recruit from an abjectly deprived background, suddenly becomes the senior member of his exploration team on the planet Warlock. Unfortunately this does not come because his worth is suddenly recognized by his superiors. It comes because he’s the only human member of the team who is not in the Terran Survey camp when it and all of its inhabitants are burned to ashes by the hostile alien Throgs.
Shan isn’t alone, quite; he is accompanied by Tagi and Toggi, two mutated wolverines “bred for intelligence, for size, for adaptability to alien conditions.” The wolverines accept Shan as one of their own—or at least, as the guy who usually feeds them. Shan doesn’t see much that he and his companions can do about the Throg occupation of what was going to be a human colony world. All they can do is avoid the Throg and try to stay alive as long as possible.
Shan’s plans change when, foraging for supplies, he witnesses the destruction of a human scout ship; its pilot realized that he was heading into a trap and escaped before sending his craft off (under autopilot) on a suicide mission. Shan finds his way to the pilot, who is none other than intrepid Survey officer Ragnar Thorvald. He is now Shan’s commanding officer. Shan has hero-worshipped Ragnar ever since the expedition was launched. Ragnar, on the other hand, cannot remember Shan’s name.
Ragnar has some firm ideas about what he and Shan need to do. The first is to stay out of Throg hands. There’s a colony ship due on Warlock in the near future; if the Throg cannot capture and torture a human to broadcast the security codes, the colony ship will realize that something has gone wrong and call in the Patrol.
Ragnar’s second goal is the investigation of an odd artifact found on a Warlock beach. The artifact, a carved bone medallion, is neither human nor Throg. This suggests that Warlock may be inhabited by a previously overlooked native race, possible allies against the Throg. The land masses have been thoroughly surveyed, so the only place the natives could be is somewhere in Warlock’s vast seas. The beach where the artifact was found is perhaps a starting point for a search.
Warlock takes its ominous name from the fact that humans who visit it soon begin to have weird, eldritch dreams. As Shan and Ragnar discover, the name is a misnomer; there’s not a warlock to be found on the entire planet.
Witches, on the other hand….
Storm over Warlock is the first novel in the Forerunner series, at least according to ISFDB. It’s been long enough since I read the other Forerunner books that I don’t see any connection. The witchy Wyverns, Warlock’s native race, don’t seem much like Forerunners as I remember them. However, the Forerunner universe is, I believe, Norton’s main science-fictional universe, the same one used in the Solar Queen and the Central Control novels. It is definitely old enough that there might be a plentitude of hidden refugia for any number of once-starfaring civilizations.
This is a serviceable adventure novel. For me it’s mostly interesting because it experiments with tropes that appear and reappear in later Norton novels.
The Dumps of Tyr, where scrawny Shan grew up, seem like a trial run for the Dipple, the notorious refuge camp that Norton featured in Catseye, Night of Masks, and other books. (The Dipple series and the Forerunner series overlap, so there is a connection or at least there will be.) The Dumps features character-building poverty and predatory criminals, ensuring a solid education for those who survive growing up there. (Shan thought himself lucky to escape the Dumps, but he has found that it is only a marginal improvement to be the least significant, most bullied member of a Survey team .)
Storm Over Warlock features the second matriarchy I’ve encountered in this Norton review series. Unlike the first one, not only is this society explicitly a matriarchy but its leaders are very much on stage. The Wyverns aren’t a particularly lovable bunch but it must be said in their defence that they’re dealing with incursions by two alien races. Enough to make anyone twitchy.
Now, as for the wolverines … Norton’s use of mutated animals in this novel reminded me a bit of Leinster’s 1956 Hugo-winning short story “Exploration Team.” Norton loved animals and wrote a number of novels featuring protagonists with telepathic links to their companion animals (novels like The Beastmaster). Poor Shan doesn’t have any kind of psionic connection to the wolverines, at least at the start of the story. He is painfully aware that while he needs the wolverines, they don’t need him to survive. He has to work to keep them attached to him.
Voodoo Planet suggested that magic could be a real thing. In this novel, the witches either have genuine magic or technology so advanced compared to human technology that it might as well be magic. Later in Norton’s career she turned more and more to fantasy. I believe we can see the early stages of that process in books like this one.
[Note added much later: I have been persuaded that “Warlock” is a better name for this series so I changed it]
1: Mind you, if Shan had been of higher status, the team bully (who happened to be Thorvald’s younger brother, Garth) wouldn’t have spent the backstory picking on Shan. He would not have dared. If Garth hadn’t been tormenting Shan, he would not have freed the two wolverines. If Shan had not been out looking for the wolverines, he would have died with everyone else. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. At least in adventure novels.