Dread Companion is a 1970s SF/Fantasy fusion novel by Andre Norton that suffers mostly from a lurid cover blurb and having a title like “Dread Companion,” which is a phrase that occurs near the end of the novel. Something like, “A Stargate to Elfland” or “Star-Changeling,” or even “Turn of the Space-Screw.” would have been better. Sure, I’m second-guessing the Grande Dame of Science Fiction, but that’s my perogative.
Anyhow, the setup is similar to Turn of the Screw. Kilda c’Rhyn, a young woman with few other palatable options for her future (born from a contracted marriage later dissolved, raised in a creche and about to hit the age of mandatory discharge), takes a job as governess to two children on an outpost colony planet.
And that’s where the dread (and/or screwing turn) part starts to come into play.
Oomark, the younger boy, is normal and docile and completely cowed by his sister Bartare. Bartare is creepy as all get-out. She exhibits powers not within the realm even of known parapsychology, and is able to partially dominate even Kilda.
Bartare’s powers and knowledge come from The Green Lady, who–long story short–is one of the Folk, of another World. In the year 2400 After Flight, Earth has all but been lost, and no one remembers the even more ancient stories of the places and the People like this. Places where time is distorted, weird nightmare creatures walk and talk like humans, strange bodily changes (no not those!) distort the shape, and if you eat the the there food you cannot go home.
Guess where Bartare, Oomark, and Kilda end up?
Guess who eats the food?
It’s up to Kilda–and an unknown creature that once was a man, who has been trapped in Faerie for a very, very long time–to rescue the children, break Bartare free of the Folk’s programming, and somehow find the Way back home. And Kilda won’t ever give up on the children she was given to guard.
When I initially wrote this review, it was as much to explain and justify things to a non-SFfian roommate who saw the back cover and got very, very worried for her friend Riders. Still–I have to say that everything I said then is totally still true now.
I really liked this book–because it’s really and truly wholesome. I don’t have much time to read, and so try to limit my time to purely informative (non-fiction), or purely worthwhile. I don’t want things that depressing, scary, or grimy. I don’t want to be left with a tarnished and ugly feeling when I read a book.
I found this book uplifting and I enjoyed it because of that.
It has decent characters doing the decent, right thing at all costs. Kilda won’t give up on the children, even when Bartare seems beyond all hope and Oomark has turned into a faun. Kosgrove stays with and helps Kilda even though his odds would be better just stealing her food and haring off on his own.
It has characters I like and respect struggling against almost overwhelming dangers, giving up, persevering, fighting, and succeeding through courage and resourcefulness. It’s the risk that makes the reward worthwhile.
Oh yeah, and it’s well-written, well-paced, well-narrated, evocative and descriptive without falling into the Lovecraft/Dunsany purple prose quagmire. Another reviewer mentioned that this book had notes of C.S.Lewis. This is a perfect comparision. Faerie feels a less oceanic (and far less Edenic) version of Perelandra–completely strange, teeming with alien life, bound by inexplicable rules that have incredibly harsh penalties for breaking…and incredible help and kindness from unlikely sources when least expected. (…well…it’s from a tree. But you get my point.) And also slightly psychedelic.
Not letting it be a straight-up fantasy works in the book’s favor. Kilda’s hard-SF background allows her to be detached and clinical about the weirdness she is presented with. A lesser heroine (in the hands of a lesser author!) would have had far less fortitude and vastly lesser problem-solving skills.
As usual, I’m running out of time. Last comment:
The only real problem I have with the story is that it’s left ambiguous how the magic of Faerie works. Although it’s implied that both the Folk and their long-departed enemies were Sufficiently Advanced aliens, it’s left ambiguous. For the purposes of the story, it might as well truly be magic. The fact that this story is SF indicates that it probably isn’t…but not getting a solid hint either way is a bit disappointing.
Last last comment: Kilda winding a bandage around a shambling, hoary, barely-bipedal monster—and pinning it in place with his Survey flight insignia badge–gave me chills.
Rated: these stars are ours.