Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton

Book Review: The Book of Andre Norton edited by Roger Elwood

Andre Alice Norton (1912-2005) was a prolific author,  best known for her science fiction and fantasy novels marketed to the young adult sector.  (I’ve previously reviewed her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock.)  Her output of short fiction was much less, but enough good stories were available for this volume.  The hardback edition was titled The Many Worlds of Andre Norton.

The Book of Andre Norton

The introduction is by Donald A. Wollheim, the publisher of DAW Books.  He notes that he republished one of her “juveniles” with a new title and without mentioning its original marketing category, and it sold just fine, thank you.  At the time of his writing, “young adult” was still a new name for the category and felt awkward to him.

“The Toads of Grimmerdale” is about a rape survivor named Hertha.   Her homeland of the Dales has recently managed to repel an invasion, but at a high cost, with the land impoverished and the various fiefs thrown into confusion.  The man who assaulted Hertha was not one of the invaders, but of a Dalish army.  She didn’t get a look at his face, but there is a clue by which she will surely know him.  When it became clear that Hertha was pregnant, her brother Kuno offered her a choice of a dangerous abortion…or exile.

Hertha undertakes the harsh midwinter journey to the shrine of Gunnora, goddess of women, and is assured that the evil of its father will not taint her child.  But Hertha also wants revenge, something Gunnora (who only has domain over life) will not offer.  So it is that Hertha also seeks out the title creatures, which are not toads in any human sense, who do offer vengeance.  But it is said that the gifts they offer are often not to the pleasure of their supplicants.

Then  we meet Trystan, a mercenary who is no longer needed by his army, and looking for a place to settle down.  He may or may not be the man Hertha is looking for, but soon he must deal with the Toads.  But can either man or woman stand against the gods of the Old Ones?

This is the cover story, and that illustration is at least in the right neighborhood.  Of note is that the Toads do something to Hertha’s face that makes her hideous to men, though we never get a description beyond patches of brown skin.

“London Bridge” is set in a post-apocalyptic city.  It was sealed against the pollution of the outside world, only to fall victim to a plague that killed all/most of the adults.  (It’s not clear if “Ups” are the few adults that remain, driven to madness by drug addiction, or people the same age range as the protagonist who are drug addicts.)  Lew is the leader of his gang of youths and children, and is on the trail of “the Rhyming Man”, a mysterious figure who speaks only in nursery rhymes and seems to be responsible for the disappearance of the younger members of this and other gangs.   This story seems to be more fantasy than science fiction, as the power of belief is an important plot point.

“On Writing Fantasy” is an essay by Ms. Norton about where she gets her ideas and the process of writing fantastic stories.  She was a big believer in reading history and historical fiction to get inspiration and technical details, and shares a list of her favorites.  (The history books may be a trifle dated due to new discoveries and scholarship.)   She also talks about writing Year of the Unicorn, her first book with a female protagonist.  Reader response was apparently very divided–girls really appreciated Gillan, while boys did not like her at all.  (“The Toads of Grimmerdale” turns out to take place at roughly the same time as this book, but does not share any characters.)

“Mousetrap” is a short tale set on Mars.  A man destroys a priceless alien artwork and suffers the consequences.  Hard to discuss further without spoiling.

“All Cats are Gray” also starts on Mars.  A computer operator approaches a man down on his luck with the news that a derelict spaceship loaded with loot is returning to the general orbit area.  She invites herself and her cat along on the salvage mission, which turns out to be a very good idea.  Ms. Norton’s themes of bonding with animals and distrust of computers are both seen here.

“The Long Night of Waiting” is set in a new suburban housing development.  The children of the first family to move in meet two children who are very out of place.  This is despite the pair having lived there to begin with; they’ve been trapped in the land of the Fair Folk for what seems like a short time to them, but more than a century to those outside.  The ending might be happy, or chilling, depending on your attitude.

“The Gifts of Asti” is another story that blends the fantasy and SF genres; the last priestess of the title god flees her temple in advance of the barbarian hordes that have sacked the nearby city.  Passing through underground passages with her telepathic lizard companion, Varta emerges in a valley that has not seen human life in a long time, possibly because of the glass plain where a city once stood.  Varta finds a gift preserved from a time when the ancient towers were not yet built, and this provides hope for the future.

“Long Live Lord Kor!” is a novella-length work.  Mental time travel has been invented, but restricted to meddling with planets whose populations are dead in “the present” to try to bring them back to life.  Special agent Creed Trapnell is assigned to follow up a failed mission.  For reasons not fully discussed, it is only possible to be projected back into a brain that has near-zero intelligence of its own.  Trapnell finds himself not in the body of the oracle he was intended to inhabit (and why would an  oracle be devoid of thought?) and instead inhabiting Lord Kor Kenric, the son of the king.

It seems Kor recently took a bad wound to the head, and was not expected to live, let alone recover with only a case of amnesia.  Now the new merged Lord Kor must seek out the “sorceress” who is the primary agent in this time period and attempt to complete the mission before the oracle sets the planet on the road to nuclear war.  Turns out there were some important things left out of Trapnell’s briefing…but did the supercomputer ZAT deliberately conceal these topics, or just not know?

There’s some use of what used to be acceptable medical terms for people with mental handicaps, but are now considered slurs.

“Andre Norton: Loss of Faith” by Rick Brooks is a survey of the themes in her work, and what seemed to be an increasing pessimism in her books.  Many of the darker sides of her settings had been there all along, but Mr. Brooks felt they were becoming more central in the late 1960s material.

The volume ends with a complete as of 1974 bibliography for Ms. Norton.

I enjoyed “Mousetrap” and “Long Live Lord Kor!” the best; “The Long Night of Waiting” felt too “old person complainy” for my tastes.  Overall, a strong collection of stories, and it’s been reprinted several times so should be available in better used bookstores as well as libraries.

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1 by Hiroaki Samura

Manji used to be the samurai retainer of Lord Horii, and served faithfully until the day he discovered that the people he’d just killed on orders from Horii were in fact not criminals, but innocent peasants who were going to the government with evidence of the lord’s tax embezzlement.  In a fit of rage, Manji executed his master.  Now a fugitive, Manji wound up killing one hundred police officers in his efforts to remain free.

Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

The last one turned out to be his sister Machi’s husband, and witnessing this event drove her mad.  This sobered Manji somewhat, and he reconsidered his habit of resorting to lethal violence while trying to take care of his sister.  It was at this point that Manji met the Buddhist nun Yaobikuni, who infested him with the kessen-chu (holy bloodworms) that regenerate any wound, making Manji functionally immortal.

After a ronin (masterless samurai) gang murders Machi to force Manji into a duel, he no longer has a reason to be immortal.  It turns out that he can be released from the bloodworms if he can complete a worthy goal.  Manji decides to make up for murdering one hundred cops by killing one thousand criminals.  But he believes he must have proof of evil before he kills someone, otherwise he’ll just be adding more stains to his soul….

This 1990s seinen manga series (originally titled Mugen no Juunin “Inhabitant of Infinity”) is set in the Edo period of Japanese history, but uses deliberate anachronisms to indicate that historical accuracy is not to be found here.  The creator states in an interview contained in this volume that he was trying for a “punk” sensibility.

After the introductory chapter, the story begins to focus on the other protagonist, a young woman named Rin.  She is seeking revenge on a man named Anotsu who murdered her father (in revenge for his grandfather’s offense against Anotsu’s grandfather) and had her mother raped before carrying the woman off.  The problem is that Anotsu is the leader of the powerful Itto-Ryu gang, renegade warriors who are out to destroy all other schools of weapon use.  Rin may be plucky, and can handle weapons, but she hasn’t had nearly enough training to handle expert fighters.

Yaobikuni suggests that Rin hire Manji to help her.  He’s dubious at first–he’s been lied to before, after all, and how does he know which if any side of a revenge cycle are the evil ones?  But because she reminds him of his sister, he’ll at least come along and see for himself.

As it happens, one of the Itto-Ryu members is locatable as Kuroi Sabato has been sending Rin love poems since participating in the murder of her father.  As you might guess from this inappropriate behavior, Kuroi is very wrong in the head(s), and Manji agrees to help Rin out with her revenge.

The remainder of the series is trying to track down Anotsu and getting him to stay in one place long enough for Rin to get revenge, while battling members of the Itto-Ryu and other enemies made along the way.

This omnibus edition covers the first three Japanese volumes.  The art is nifty with distinctive character designs (though the young women do tend towards same face.)  There’s plenty of exciting blood-drenched fight scenes, and musing on the cycle of vengeance and where it gets you.  The dialogue is generally good, but heavy on the snark from most of the characters, which can get tiresome.

Manji wears his namesake symbol, the counter-clockwise swastika, on his back.  This is in context a Buddhist reference and has nothing to do with Nazis.

More problematic is that there’s a lot of rape in this series.  While none takes place onstage in this volume, there’s discussion of it in the backstory , and male characters often threaten or express a desire to rape women.  (Later on in the series, one of the recurring villains is a serial rapist.)  Also, when we see Anotsu’s backstory, we learn that his grandfather was physically and emotionally abusive to both him and his cousin.

That cousin, Makie, has a story that’s centered around the ill effects of sexism.  Because she has a natural talent for weapons use that is far greater than any other person in the series, Makie can’t fit into the standard social roles for women.  (She tries being a prostitute for a while, and then a geisha; neither work out.)  But she can also never get the respect or rank that her skills would earn if she were a man.  To be Makie is suffering.

I’d recommend this series to fans of samurai revenge drama who enjoy some anachronism and can overlook the problematic elements.

There’s an upcoming live action movie, but in the meantime, here’s a trailer for the anime version.

Book Review: Creatures from Beyond

Book Review: Creatures from Beyond edited by Terry Carr

This 1975 speculative fiction anthology has the theme of monsters from outside human experience.  The question of what lies in the outer darkness has haunted humanity since we developed imaginations.  These nine stories look at the possibilities, from implacable enemies, to beings a lot like us in the end.

Creatures from Beyond

“The Worm” by David H. Keller is set in a remote Vermont valley that has become depopulated, leaving only an old miller.  He no longer runs the millstone, but one night he notices a grinding vibration…A canny and stubborn man against a seemingly inevitable devourer, with a mounting feeling of dread.

“Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim involves insects that have evolved protective camouflage to live among humans.  This story doesn’t have much actually happen in it (unlike the 1997 movie very loosely based on it) with the really chilling moment being when the narrator realizes that the insects aren’t the only creatures that have learned new mimicry tricks.

“It” by Theodore Sturgeon has the distinction of being the inspiration for no less than four independently created comic book characters (Solomon Grundy, the Heap, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing.)  It’s a horrific tale of a human corpse that somehow has been animated by hot molds and unknown factors; it stumbles around the woods trying to satisfy its curiosity in destructive ways.  And now it wants to learn about humans….very strong last sentence.

“Beauty and the Beast” by Henry Kuttner has a greedy, small-minded man discover the wreck of a spaceship that’s been to Mars.  Inside, he finds some seeds and a jeweled egg, and decides to try them out to make a profit.  This is of course not the best idea he’s ever had.  Genre-savvy readers will spot the twist coming a mile away.

“Some are Born Cats” by Terry and Carol Carr was chosen, as the editor admits, because it’s a sentimental favorite, the first he co-wrote with his wife.  Two teens realize that the girl’s cat is not actually a cat, but an alien.  Happy ending all around.

“Full Sun” by Brian W. Aldiss takes place in the far future, when humanity, served by its faithful robots, has retreated to shining cities, and the wilderness areas are infested with werewolves.  A hunter from the city is tracking down a particularly dangerous werewolf, but he may have more than one enemy in the forest.  Interesting last minute perspective twist.

“The Silent Colony” by Robert Silverberg is told entirely from the viewpoint of the creatures, aliens who’ve occupied the outer planets, and now notice that some of their kind are on Earth already.  But why won’t the colonists communicate?  Short.

“The Street That Wasn’t There” by Clifford D. Simak and Carl Jacobi is their only collaboration.  A retired professor suddenly notices that his daily walk took a few minutes less than usual, and discovers that an entire street has vanished from the town.  The “creature” in this case is an entire alternate universe that’s trying to superimpose itself over ours.

“Dear Devil” by Eric Frank Russell closes out the volume with a friendly Martian exiling himself to Earth.  Humanity has nearly wiped itself out with nuclear and germ warfare, and the few survivors have reverted to tiny tribes at best.   Fander, despite his fearsome appearance, is a poet, and moved by a thing of beauty, helps the humans bring themselves back from the brink of extinction.  The Fifties sexism is strong in this story.  Boys are naturally interested in mechanics, engineering and exploring; girls are delicate, and naturally interested in dolls.  This holds true across species lines here!  It weakens an otherwise decent story.

The Silverberg story is the weakest, and I suspect it was included to fill an exact number of pages.  The Wollheim and Sturgeon stories are the best here.  Check your library or used bookstore.

Book Review: Whetted Bronze

Book Review: Whetted Bronze by Manning Norvil

Note:  This is the second book in the “Odan the Half-God” series, so this review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dream Chariots.

It is a time before recorded history, when what we call the Mediterranean Sea was fertile land, a basin between the continents.  The cities of the River war against each other, both for reasons of trade and power, and also to appease their gods.  One such city is Eresh, which worships the sword god Zadan.  Their greatest hero is Odan, son of a god and the mortal queen of Eresh.

Whetted Bronze

Odan seeks to become a full god, and this has led him to betray Eresh to its enemies, only to save it again when he realized he had been tricked.  But politics is complicated.  Odan’s feckless half brother Numutef is the heir to the throne of Eresh, but the king’s uncle wants his own son, the cruel Prince Galad, to become king.  Both Odan and Galad are interested in marrying the beautiful Princess Zenara, but this is forbidden to Odan as she is his half-sister.

Various sorcerers have their own plans, and the love goddess Tia desires to become queen of all the gods.   Can Odan’s great strength, battle prowess and mystic abilities prevail against all odds and bring him what he desires?  Or will he be led astray by his hidden desires, to the woe of all around him?

One of the fads of the 1970s was “Ancient Astronauts”, the notion that aliens came to Earth in prehistoric/early historic times and were worshiped as gods, as well as teaching the early humans all the knowledge they needed to start civilization.  The most famous book of this ilk is Chariots of the Gods  by Erich von Daniken.  Enterprising fantasy author Kenneth Bulmer (who wrote under many aliases)  mixed the ancient astronauts with the pre-existing “barbarian hero” sub-genre and wrote the Odan trilogy under the name Manning Norvil.

It’s all great fun if you don’t take it seriously.  The first chapter of this volume features a character named Kufu the Ox, a lowly shield-bearer who finds himself rallying his archery unit when it’s overrun.  Prince Odan shows up at the end of the chapter to help out, and we follow him from there on.  Odan is unsurprisingly in the Conan mold, a big brooding fellow who’s known as “Crookback” because he constantly has to slouch to talk to normal humans.  (In a hilarious bit, his mother keeps telling him to stand up straight.)

Odan was kidnapped by barbarians as a small child, and grew up learning their ways; but he also has limited magic powers from his god side.  The Zenara situation is kind of skeevy, but in fairness to Odan, he met and got the hots for Zenara (and vice versa) before he found out she was his sister.  And he also has to deal with his best friend Ankidu likewise pining for Zenara, but unable to pursue her due to his lower social rank.  Zenara is barely in this volume, being kidnapped as leverage against Odan by one of the multiple conspiracies working at cross-purposes.

One nice touch is that as the setting is a premature Bronze Age, the language used doesn’t have the words “iron” or “steel” in it, even as metaphors.  Also, there’s an appendix with a legend referenced in the  main text.

Overall, trashy fun for sword and sorcery fans.

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