You Should Read This: An Appreciation of Andre Norton

Cover for Voodoo Planet by Andrew North/Andre NortonMy high school years were steeped in reading from several F&SF authors. Among them, the most influential was quite probably Andre Norton. In arranging my book collection in those early days, Norton was always satisfying, because she wrote a gazillion books and I had most of them. In fact, I know three fantasy landscapes well because I wandered them so often as a young reader: Narnia, Middle Earth, and Norton’s Witch World.

The book I’m working on right now, (working title CIRCUS IN THE BLOODWARM RAIN) tries to get at the feel of some of those books: a protagonist moving across a mysterious landscape laden with both treasures and perils from the past, along the lines of Breed to Come, Forerunner Foray, or Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D.

Norton, the first female SFWA Grand Master, wrote both fantasy and science fiction, both awesome, but I have a particular fondness for her science fiction, like Moon of Three Rings, Judgement on Janus, and Sargasso of Space. Her Free Traders have a gritty feel that predates many other works with a similar feel, like Star Wars or C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series.

The problem with talking about Norton is that she’s both prolific and consistent, making it hard to find stand-out books to recommend. So here, rather than a single book out of her 314 titles, are several possible entrances into her work.

    The Witch World series: Like a lot of Norton’s works, this hovers somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, but ends up sliding pretty firmly into fantasy. There are predecessors, long gone, who have left behind objects of great peril and power, and rival factions with differing degrees of what is either magic or technology that amplifies psychic powers. Technically, the series should start with Witch World, where Simon Tregarth of Earth finds himself transported to that world, but my own suggestion would be to back into the series the way I did, starting with Year of the Unicorn and its sequel, The Jargoon Pard, (the overall series is made up of a number of sub-ones) which will give you the flavor of the world before explanations begin.

    The Solar Queen series: The Solar Queen is the name of a Free Trader spaceship. these are early Norton, many originally written as Andrew North. Look to the earliest ones — Sargasso of Space, Plague Ship, Voodoo Planet, and Postmarked the Stars — later cowritten ones lack some of the energy of the early books.

    The Beast Master series: Norton often uses animals in her writing, sometimes as protagonists, but also as helpmates, as with the genetically altered animals that companion and assist telepathic ex-soldier Hosteen Storm. Like the Solar Queen series, the earlier ones written by Norton solo are stronger.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Robert A. Heinlein as someone to read not just because so many of his works are classics in the field but because he’s problematic at times. Norton, on the other hand, never is (at least to my memory). Many of her protagonists are strong females, while others are representative of minorities not found elsewhere in YA F&SF of the time, such as The Sioux Spaceman.

So…I salute you, Alice Mary Norton, and deeply regret never meeting you. You’re one of the people that shaped my writing, and you did that to a significant degree. Here’s to your stories, and all the readers who will find them in the centuries (or so I hope) to come.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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