1964’s Web of the Witch World is a direct sequel to Witch World, in which Simon Tregarth transformed himself from fugitive to hero when he fled from the world of post-war Europe to the strange realm of the Witch World. Simon, Jaelithe (now Simon’s wife), and their allies stymie an invasion by the otherworldly, malevolent Kolder and save Estcarp, the witch stronghold … for the moment.
Simon and his allies are painfully aware that even though the initial Kolder invasion failed, the Kolder still lurk in their island stronghold. There is no reason to believe that the bad guys have abandoned their designs on Estcarp and the other polities of the mainland. It is likely that they are even now plotting to strike again.
Our protagonists will find that the Kolder have already begun their next campaign, this time with the aid of willing quislings.
Although she rejected her father Fulk’s plans for her, Loyse is still legally married to ambitious Lord Yvian. Yvian schemes to trick Loyse into venturing out of her safe haven so that she can be spirited off to the city of Kars, Yvian’s stronghold. Loyse’s friends respond to Yvian’s bold strike with a cunning gambit of their own. They soon find that Yvian is himself merely a pawn, one who is discarded as soon as he loses his usefulness. The real Kolder agent within Yvian’s household is none other than Yvian’s mistress, Aldis.
The allies had believed that they could easily detect Kolder agents: they would be magically tainted or marginally undead. The discovery that that the Kolder are able to bind their agents in ways that do not leave a mark comes as a very unpleasant surprise. So does Simon’s discovery that the disguise he adopts includes an item that allows the Kolder to temporarily mind control him. So, yay, at least Loyse has a friend with her as she gets carted off to the Kolder stronghold.
Thanks to a moment of mental contact in the previous novel, Simon knows that only a small number of Kolder made it through the gate that took them from their war-torn world to the Witch World. Some of those died in the events in Witch World , leaving the Kolder perilously few. The Kolder have a solution: reopen the gate to the world from which they fled! They might succeed. Loyse and Simon are Kolder captives and Jaelithe is fighting against many obstacles to reach them in time. The odds that the allies will be able to prevent the Kolder from reopening the gate seem quite slim.
Plot nitpick: I have no idea what drove Aldis to do what she did. She doesn’t seem to be under Kolder mental control (in contrast to meatpuppet Fulk), but her machinations don’t seem to be aimed at any goals that might benefit her. (It is unlikely that “make the plot move forward” was on her to-do list).
Simon’s affinity for magic, discovered in the first Witch World novel, came as a great surprise to the witches. In this book, we get more hints that a lot of what the witches believe to be true about magic is in fact custom, not fact. The witches have been slowly dwindling away because they believe that to give up their virginity is to give up magic; Jaelithe discovers that this isn’t true at all. Being married to Simon has not cost her power (although giving up her witch’s talisman did cost her a valuable tool). Estcarp’s unfortunate strategic position seems to be due to a fatal misunderstanding of magic.
We get more insight into the Kolder in this novel. Kolder turn out to be pretty comprehensively misogynistic. Their distaste for the Witches is no doubt further fueled by the fact that the magic-users are uniquely able to oppose the Kolder.
There’s lots of action in Web of the Witch World , but it didn’t seem as coherent as the struggles in the first Witch World . I found myself wondering if Norton had recycled the plot of Key Out of Time : the telepathic, technological Kolder are analogous to the telepathic, technological Baldies; the witches are analogous to the Faonna. However, as bad guys go, the Baldies seem to be a bit more on the ball than the Kolder. I am pretty sure the Baldies would not pop open a new gate to a world that they had fled (a world being ripped apart by an apocalyptic war) without asking themselves “who or what will be waiting for us on the other side?” The Kolder don’t seem to have asked that, but they get the answer anyway.
Witch World was remarkable in a number of ways but this sequel is a bit disappointing. It does not work as a standalone; it is more of a methodical tie-up of loose ends from the previous book. I can, however, hope that the revelations about the witches’ misunderstanding of the basis of their own power will be picked up in her next Witch World novel. Which I have not read. So don’t tell me, mmmkay?