1963’s Witch World marks Norton’s shift towards fantasy. After this novel, fantasy was an increasingly large fraction of her output. It is also the first novel in her long-running (later collaborative)Witch World series. Oddly enough, while I have read the other books in the series (Ellen Asher or Andrew Wheeler, then my shadowy masters at SFBC, must have liked them — or perhaps the books just sold well), I’ve never read this particular book. Having read it now, I can see how this could have been a formative experience for a young reader, especially in the context of the early 1960s.
And readers did like it: not only did this novel become the seed of a long-running popular series, it was nominated for a Hugo, sharing the ballot with such classics as Way Station, Glory Road, Dune World and Cat’s Cradle.
A momentary lapse of judgment on Simon Tregarth’s part ended his military career in post-war Europe. He segued into what appears to have been a noteworthy criminal interlude. Now, having crossed one mob boss too many, Simon is facing the end of his second career. Also, the end of his life … as soon as hit-man Sammy catches up to Simon. Luckily for Simon, his predicament makes him the perfect test subject for Dr. Jorge Petronius’s research into world-hopping.
Petronius has rediscovered a method by which people can be transferred from one world to another; because the journey seems to be one-way, Petronius has never tried it himself. Thanks to the plethora of people desperate to flee post-war Europe (or indictment at the Nuremburg Trials), he has made a fair living proving that he can at least make people vanish. Having little to lose, Simon agrees to be Petronius’ next subject. He will be cast from our world into one that Petronious promises will be more appropriate for an oddity such as Simon.
This new world, the Witch World of the title, at least offers adventure if not security. No sooner does Simon arrive but he comes across a woman who is being stalked by riders and hounds. Simon’s pistol makes short work of some of the pursuers. The rest of the ruffians are taken out by the woman herself, who calls down lightning on her enemies. There are lots of worlds where women exist purely to be rescued; this is not one of them.
It takes some time to get past the language barrier, but eventually Simon finds that he has been transported to a world much like Earth, although its geography and history differ. The woman he rescued hails from a realm called Estcarp, which is ruled by magic-wielding women. Estcarp is bordered on all sides by more patriarchal lands and its foreign relations are often … tense .
Estcarp’s fraught relationships with its neighbors have recently taken back seat to a crisis that should (but doesn’t) inspire everyone in the region to set aside their traditional enmities and unite in a common defense. During a dynastic squabble, a faction on the island kingdom of Gorm made the fatal mistake of appealing to the Kolder to help settle the dispute. The origin, nature, and abilities of the Kolder are mysterious, but they are clearly powerful and clearly ambitious. Inviting in the Kolder was the last mistake the aristocrats of Gorm will ever make.
Simon and the nameless witches discover that the Kolder wield a strangely advanced technology (akin, in some ways, to that of post-war Earth), whereas Estcarp must rely on quasi-medieval technology. Indeed, the Kolder have abilities neither world, Earth nor Witch World, can match. Chief among them is the ability to transform the living into Kolder puppets, soulless warriors who fear neither wound nor death once their masters have ordered them onto the field.
And there are few indeed in the Witch World who can resist the Kolder mind-magic.…
I don’t think this book is longer than other Nortons of this era (The Defiant Agents is, if anything, a few pages longer), but it feels more complex and a lot more ambitious. Norton’s prose becomes more mannered, in a way seemingly designed to invoke old tales and reminiscent of her early book, Huon of the Horn. The plot is also more complicated than those found in her science fiction adventures.
Women are also a far more prominent in the novel than they had been in Norton’s previous works. In addition to the willfully nameless (because names grant power to those who know them) witches with whom Simon allies, there’s also Loyse. She is the sole legitimate offspring of unlovable Lord Fulk, a rough-edged voluptuary, He despises his daughter because she isn’t womanly, as least as Fulk measures it; he resents her because she reminds him that his claim to the throne of Verlaine is based on his marriage to Loyse’s late mother. When Loyse discovers that she is going to be subjected to a politically convenient marriage, she decides to flee. She dons armor and sword and reinvents herself as the gloomy mercenary Briant . She shows her mettle immediately; on her way out of her father’s castle, she rescues a witch who has fallen into Fulk’s hands.
Generally I complain about (or, as in the case of Simon and Jaelithe, ignore entirely) the romances in the Witch World books, but I have to say that I was amused by the awkward flailing between Loyse and Koris (her meet-cute and later partner) as they argue over which of them is the least lovable. To quote a witness:
This talk of mutual unworthiness will speedily be a step to no talking at all and so to a firm settlement of two futures.
Which is pretty steamy stuff for the Witch World.
Much to my surprise, this was a fairly difficult Norton to track down. I expected that there would be a lot of used copies of the first volume in a popular series, or even that it would still be in print. Much to my surprise, that was not the case. I did eventually find a copy of Tor’s 2001 omnibus, The Gates to Witch World. I cannot point you at any sources for this one particular book other than ABE Books, Bookfinder, or your local library.
1: Estcarp’s political situation is further imperiled by a seeming inexorable decline in population and magic ability. The witches believe that only virgin women can work magic. If they are to remain witches, they cannot bear magic-capable children. The ability to perform magic is slowly dying out in Estcarp.
That Estcarpian belief is the basis of a standard witch-disarming tactic used by Estcarp’s nasty patriarchal neighbors: rape. Fulk and his ilk are very pro-rape (something they would applaud in any case, witch or no).
2: I do wonder if George R. R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth owes anything to Loyse’s male persona, Briant.
For that matter, there are some similarities between this fantasy and H. Beam Piper’s later alternate history novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (an expanded version of Gunpowder God). It’s not the first time I have wondered if Norton and Piper were influenced by each other’s work, and it won’t be the last.