A Grandmaster without whom…

September 22nd, 2013Posted by Nancy

Witch World

I’m talking about Andre Norton and the fact that I might not be the writer I am without her influence.  Probably any number of writers would say the same thing, especially female ones, especially female ones of my generation.

Oddly enough, I read none of her YA fiction growing up.  The first book of hers I ever read was Witch World, the first of her Estcarp series, which was clearly not YA.   Reading it was one of those moments when the sky lights up and the angels sing and, much less dramatically, you think “THIS is what I want to do.”  The next book I had that with was Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave, which I’ll write about in a later post.

The characters in Witch World were adults, with adult concerns of survival, politics, justice, freedom, morality and the places where you were forced to make the hard choices.  Though it was from a male point of view, there were two key female characters who were both strong and flawed in their own ways.  It presented a society run by women that was not utopia and whose rulers were not always wiser – if usually less venal – than the more traditional lands that surrounded them.  There was no explicit sex but there was the straightforward acceptance of both desire and sexual violence.

The basic structure of the story (reluctant allies, male and female, who had to battle their own preconceptions as well as an enemy and evil force) was one that Norton would use over and over, with varying degrees of success.  My personal favorites are Witch World, Year of the UnicornThe Crystal Gryphon, and the collection Spell of the Witch World,  each of which I have read more times than I can count.   Of her SF novels, Forerunner Foray and Dread Companion are on the “bathtub book” list, though the second is only nominally SF and much more a story about the perils of entering the faerie realm.

Witch World came out in 1963 at a time when female writers routinely hid their gender (Norton’s real name is Alice Mary) and it was rare to have women as main characters with equal agency, power and will as men.  Though a “romantic” ending is the usual conclusion, it rarely has anything in common with conventional romance novels.  The key to Norton’s romances is the meeting of equals who are tested by fire to emerge with a deep bond based on their acceptance of each other’s individuality.

When it came time to write what was my second go at a “real” novel (the first was heavily influenced by Alan Dean Foster’s Bloodhype), it was Norton’s model that I ended up emulating.  There are certainly worse ways to learn to write.

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