The Prince Commands – Andre Norton (Repost)

“Did you know Andre Norton wrote historical and alternate history, too?”
“Oh?”
“Yeah, she wrote a couple of Civil War novels, and this one I got at the giant booksale last year. It’s really nice. It’s like a boy’s adventure story. It’s awesome!”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a secret heir to the throne, and bandits, and cavalry charges, and secret passwords–and horses–y’know, more books ought to have horses. That’s the reason fantasy literature has declined, it’s ’cause they don’t have enough cool horses in them. Or dogs. There should be more dog books. And, oh, there’s winning your spurs, and, oh, oh, oh, fighting Communists! And it’s really nice. It’s a good book.”
“It has Communists?”
“Yeah, they came in from Russia and set up shop and tried to overthrow the old King, but everybody is actually really lotal to the monarchy and just laughed at them until they assassinated him, but that actually backfired on them and they had to go underground then.”
“They came from Russia? This isn’t science fiction?”
“No, it’s set in Prisoner of Zenda-land. You know, somewhere in eastern Europe, still got a King and an Archbishop and a cathedral, people still ride horses, there’s only one airplane in the whole country–”
“Andre Norton wrote this?”
“Yep! And it’s a really good book! The hero is like, just a boy and then he shows his worth and wins his spurs and becomes Prince–”
“That’s a ripoff. He should become King. That’s the Zelazny way. Cheating your hero out of their comeuppance so you can use them in more books. Andre Norton was trying to set up a sequel.”
“No! He wasn’t the first heir! They had him concealed in America and he was kept ignorant of his heritage, but then the Council tried to assassinate the real heir, and then they needed a puppet in a hurry so they called him in and bandits attack the train and he escapes. And then he has adventures. And they’re fun and exciting and…see, the foreward to the book is her talking about how she wrote it for a kid she knew. And it shows, because she wrote this book to be a good book for that kid to read. So it’s completely exciting and completely interesting and completely wholesome and worthwhile. It’s a really good book! I like it a lot.
“A sequel would have been nice, though.”

Hurry Up and Wait Readlist

5e197d9c67a719559307a2f5341444341587343Night of Masks, Andre Norton.
This is a very simple story, despite its genre-blending: it’s a survival story set on an alien planet. Of the events that send our two young heroes there, little is fully explained. Even the narrative touches which elevate this above standard Hatchet-type pulps are just that, touches.
That said, it’s one of the most vividly-written Dangerous Alien Planets I’ve personally encountered, a particularly good trick given that the planet is pitch-black to human eyes and must be seen through infra-red goggles. And yet the persistent atmosphere of heat and oppression, dread and anxiety, fear of the dark and loathing of the unknown is communicated quite well, thank you.
Rated: Don’t read this at night.

Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock.
The guy has a couple of very clear points to make: modern science is tribal, clique-ridden and consensus-based. Anyone who goes outside the consensus risks being viciously ostracized. It also is highly politically correct inasmuch as it doesn’t particularly welcome theories that might go against the party lines (Clovis-first, for instance). That’s all totally true.
He also has some interesting theories: that human civilization is older than believed, that climate events such as the Younger Dryas held great influence over humankind/civilization; that dispersal patterns from/throughout Old World are different than the standard model. The overall theory is: that there was a pre-pre-prehistoric, very advanced culture from which all the really ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sumer, Akkad) were descended, but of which only the most tantalizing of circumstantial evidence remains.
Problem is….his arguments tend to a) be way far out, b) undercut his own theory. When the strongest evidence you do have is: “there is an interesting line-up between Plato, the dates for the legend of Atlantis, and the Younger Dryas,” “Gobekli Tepe exists,” and, “That’s a really, really, big stone,” it might be time to accept that your theory has insufficient supporting evidence and go back to your wall with all the bits of paper with strings connecting them.

634471– The Dirdir, and The Pnume, Jack Vance.
These are the third and fourth volumes, respectively, of Vances’ Planet of Adventure cycle. Naturally, I first got hold of them in backwards order and didn’t read the first or second until I got the anthology bundle. Same thing happened with the Demon Princes, for me, with the same result: the last book is my favorite for sentimental reasons, but I think the next-to-last is technically superior.
So, the Planet of Adventure kicks off with space scout Adam Reith shot down and stranded on the alien world Tschai. He is desperate to return to Earth, both because while Tschai is a world of magnificence, grandeur, and adventure, it is also a world of barbaric horrors, and to bring word back of the threat posed by the alien races who dwell there and have already once raided Earth (hence, the Earth-type humans who also live there.)
Books 1 and 2 cover Reith’s attempts to find his own ship (it’s been wrecked and gutted), or steal a working ship. Both fail, so The Dirdir picks up where Servants of the Wankh left off. The next option is to buy a ship…if one has the sequins for it. Sequins, the currency of Tschai, happen to be naturally-occuring products which can be mined only in one region: the Carabas. Which happen to be the Dirdir hunting preserve. There is something like a seventy-five percent death rate for miners, not to mention that most profit margins are very slim. Reith, nevertheless, comes up with a novel plan that results in massive profit, and also the Dirdir howling for his hide.
The only thing I can really say about this book is that it does everything rightEverything in it is done perfectly, from the setting to the prose to the characters, to the dialogue, to the action, the climactic battle, and the confronting-the-villain with delicious irony at the denoument.
vance-pnume

The Pnume takes a slightly different turn, with Reith being separated from his usual companions and plunged into a novel setting: the underground haunts of the Pnume–the only race indigenous to Tschai, who observe the actions of others upon their world as though watching a play. The Pnume have decided that Adam Reith, man of Earth, is a curiousity worth collecting and placing in their museum, Foreverness.
Adam Reith, who has almost gotten his starship ready to fly, has entirely different opinions. Together with his new sidekick, a pnumekin (human servant of the pnume) girl Zap 210, they must journey beneath the surface and across it to return to the Sivishe Spaceports. Hilarity ensues.
What I like about this one? Well, although it has a little less action than the previous book, for some reason, I really like the image of the Pnume–the Silent Critics, the zuzhma kastchai, ancient and all-knowing motherfolk from the dark stuff of Tschai,–walking silently in the dusty darkness.
That said, the book does suffer from only having two characters–Reith and the mousy Zap 210–for most of it’s length; it becomes noticeably better once they emerge into the surface of Tschai and begin to interact with some of Vance’s finest trustworthily philosophical rogues. (Rigging the eel-races is one of my favorite gambling scenes in all fiction.) My other problem is that the eventual Zap 210/Adam Reith romance just doesn’t seem necessary. But, ah well, such is life in pulp scifi.
Rated: Onmale decreed life for Adam Reith.

Book Review – Dread Companion – Andre Norton (repost)

42439752-dread_companion_1980_24321-4Dread 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 monsterand pinning it in place with his Survey flight insignia badge–gave me chills.

Rated: these stars are ours.

Read/to-read List

The Shadow Hawk, Andre Norton: a historical adventure set in ancient Egypt. To be precise, it’s set at the reconquest era at the end of the seventeenth dynasty, when the pharaohs of that house go to war against the Hyksos. (Two of them, Seqenenre Tao and his older son Kamose, died in the process, while the third, younger son Ahmose, succeeded and had the distinction of founding his own dynasty.)
It’s told from the POV of Rahotep, a minor nobleman who has left Kush at the Pharaoh’s summons to war. (The alternative is being caught up in politics aka eventually murdered by his half-brother, who schemes for the Kushite throne-in-exile.)Rahotep and his band of Kushite archers report for duty and immediately get sucked into things at a high level–impressing the solemn but fierce prince Kamose, hunting for “lions” with the fiery young Ahmose, getting framed for the Pharaoh’s attempted murder, sneaking into an enemy citadel disguised as a slave…
There’s also a leopard cub the hero takes from the side of its dead mother and starved twin, but it’s still a good kitty and it survives to the end (which I was kind of worried about.)
All in all: not the best book to be reading for four hours while stuck in an auto shop–it’s too exciting and it goes far, far too fast.
Princess of the Nile: this is a 1950s cheesefest starring Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter as sheer eye candy. The plot is thin, but the costumes are brilliant, the sets are ostentatious, the cast is sublimely pretty, their performances are assured and effortless.
And, come on. Where else are you going to see a Princess in disguise as a dancing girl, sword fighting mooks in a dance outfit even skimpier than Slave Leia’s? (And winning.)
They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

To read:
The Faithful Executioner, Joel Harrington
The Old Gods Waken, Manly Wade Wellman
Mirror, a History, Sabine Melchior-Bonnet (It’s going to be difficult for Character to commit suicide with a shard of mirror, given that glass mirrors did not appear until the early Renaissance…)
The Sabers of Paradise, Lesley Blanch (A real-life Lady of Adventure, similar to Gertrude Bell. Apparently, this book was one of the inspirations for Dune.)
Pyramids, Terry Pratchett

If and when I get the chance to actually watch the movies I’ve been acquiring, I’m going to start with
Count Three and Pray
Man in the Shadow
The Buccaneer (1938 version…I’m really curious as to how this one will be. The Yul Brynner/Charlton Heston version holds a special place in my heart.)

You’d think that being locked in a cabin devoid of human contact would make this easier, wouldn’t you…

The Last Planet – Andre Norton

lastplanetIn a few words: swift, deft, lean, and adroit. My copy of this is 192 pages long and there’s not an extraneous scene in it. And in under two hundred pages we get collapsing empires, Galactic Patrols, inter-service rivalries, xenophobia, mysterious planets, castaways, insanity, ancient cities, psychic dictators, street fighting, mind control, lost memories, alien aristocrats, barbarian tribesmen, impersonating deities, space dogfights, battle, and survival. And democratic government.

(And that’s basically the plot.)

Most books these days would pick one or two of these and then just stick with it….and they’d still be about three times as long and nowhere as well-done. For ex: they’d go with the xenophobia angle, double and triple and quadruple-down on it–where here, it’s treated seriously but always within the context of the driving plot. Regular Patrolmen have a disdain for Rangers–that is exacerbated into distrust and fear of the Bemmy Rangers (who happen to be three out of the surviving four.) This means that after the ship crashes, the survivors are that much less likely to listen to their SERE experts. It means that physical attacks get launched and racial slurs get spat while tensions are high and professionalism becomes a thin veneer over pure fear and uncertainty. It means that after the Patrol group encounters another party of civilian refugees, they’re that much easier to split apart–and control.

(It also means that our hero, Kartr–a human–must be in the thick of all of this, because almost no one else will talk to the Bemmys, which is actually a very clever way of involving your POV character and showing your audience what’s going on.) It doesn’t mean: there are racial slurs in every conversation; there are constant denigrations or complaints; there is constant angst and dislike. Because everyone is trying to survive here; emotional validation is unnecessary, and every one of the Patrolmen does know, in his heart, what professionalism is, and who is on his side, and who isn’t. It also means that when push comes to shove, the Patrol sticks to its own.

It doesn’t mean: we get deluged with the nitty details of survival on an alien planet, complete with latrines. It does mean: that the author has thought about what happens to primitive peoples when they get exposed to exotic diseases they have no immunity to….and what they do to people who claim to be gods and yet bring evil spirits into the camp.

It doesn’t mean we get radio chatter (which is a shame, because I love me some good radio chatter. IRL it’s usually “Who was that for?” and the ex-Marine lecturing you for not using “Copy” correctly. Oh, and finding out that you were actually open-miked all along, that one’s always fun.)–but we do get to watch a thrilling space battle–from a distance–and the stakes are great and the suspense is high.

Rated: Terra–Terra of Sol.

Star Born – Andre Norton

Star Born is actually the second book (thank you, gigantic library rummage sale) in what Wiki assures me is called the Pax-Astra duology, beginning with the wonderfully-named The Stars Are Ours. (Classic SF titles are just so damn awesome, aren’t they? Orion Shall Rise. The Stars Are Ours. No Night Without Stars. The Long Tomorrow. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Dune. Lord of Light. This Moment of the Storm. Soldier, Ask Not. The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph. Servants of the Wankh*. The Demon Princes. The Four Lords of the Diamond. They just do not write books like that any more. And even when they try–and the stalwart little PulpRevvers are trying, bless their little paws and tails–it’s a case of Soda Pop Soldier versus Starship Troopers. There’s no gravitas, there’s no grandeur. Anyhow. Take note: an imagination-catching title is worth a bird or two in the hand.) * Uh….well, okay, your mileage may vary a little.

So: Star Born starts off on the right foot. And it keeps going from there. Disclaimer: I quite liked this book and may express personal opinions in the course of this review. I never used to be an Andre Norton fan–partly because the elder members of the family used to monopolize her books, but also partly because aspects of her writing style turned me off–hard. Norton is capable, at times, of writing vaguely nightmarish, fever-dreamy prose which a younger Riders found intensely disturbing to read. Nowadays, of course, I merely skip those chapters; but before that was a possibility, I gave the Grande Dame of Science Fiction a wide berth. The more fool me. Andre Norton writes really good books, whether you want to settle down with a relaxing boy’s own adventure, with heroics, princes, Werewolves, propaganda, aeroplanes, and cavalry charges–or rev up with tales of the Age of Men that never was, when the fire of our jets and the rattle of our protractors and the blaze of our blasters made the stars ours.

Or something like that.

Plot: Dalgard is one of our two main protagonists, a fourth or fifth-generation colonist on the planet Astra, now embarked on his manhood journey, travelling into unknown territory to bring back data for the Elders. A youth on this journey goes alone, or with only his knife brother–such as Sssuri, Dalgar’s merman best friend and, frankly, the brains of the operation. They have decided to explore semi-forbidden territory: a destroyed city built by Those Others (a hateful hiss is appropriate), the alien once-masters of the Astra, and the once-slavemasters of the mermen. The merfolk are free now, and have driven Those Others off the entire continent, but still, the dangerous remnants of their (hissssss) places and technology remains. This city was once the center of Those Others‘ indescribably advanced and also indescribably alien–but very describably evil–knowledge. It’s supposed to also be long-abandoned, destroyed by the cataclysmic fire of some unknown weaponry.

Dalgard and Sssuri find, however, that it isn’t. Some of them have visited it and are attempting to recover and remove technology and/or materials from the demolished city.
Meanwhile, a shipload of Terran astronauts has arrived, delicately poised as only Terrans can be, to put their grav-boots right in it.

Rated: Yeah, so, anyhoo, good book, you should read it.

Books Over Food

Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold
The Jargon Pard, Andre Norton
Sea Siege, Andre Norton
Lord of Thunder, Andre Norton
Swords against Death, Fritz Leiber
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Fury, Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore
Knave of Dreams, Andre Norton
The Last Planet, Andre Norton
Necromancer, Gordon R Dickson
Children of Dune, Frank Herbert (DRAT! I just realized this is the third part of the initial trilogy, not the second. That would be Dune Messiah. Ah well, it’s still a pretty good book.)
Ice Crown, Andre Norton
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (OH DAMNIT ARGH, the abridged edition. NO WONDER IT WAS CHEAPER.)
Night of Masks, Andre Norton
Skylark of Space, E.E. “Doc” Smith.
Wuthering Heights (NOT abridged. HAH.)
The Return of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs
A Gun for Dinosaur, L. Sprague de Camp
Spacepaw, Gordon R. Dickson
Skylark Three, E. E. Doc Smith
Telzey Amberdon, James H. Schmitz
And then in the *other* box,
Dare To Go A-Hunting, Andre Norton
Woodswoman, Anne LaBastille
Tarzan the Terrible, Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Lays of Beleriand, JRR Tolkien
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Miscellaneous thoughts: you can put Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in the classic literature section rather than the trash, but it still is going to be trash no matter what….

Book Review – Dread Companion – Andre Norton (repost)

42439752-dread_companion_1980_24321-4Dread 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 monsterand pinning it in place with his Survey flight insignia badge–gave me chills.

Rated: these stars are ours.