At Last It’s a Girl’s World in Andre Norton’s Octagon Magic


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When I read Steel Magic, I wondered rather plaintively if Norton would (or could) give her girl character a less trammeled role in the next book. It’s true that Sara gets to be a cat, which is cool, but she doesn’t make her own decisions. She’s told what to do at every step, and she has to perform her assigned tasks under much more challenging physical conditions than either of her brothers.

Octagon Magic is, in a lot of ways, the answer to my wish. It’s the first straight-up girls’ book I’ve read in the Norton canon, and it’s part of a sea change in how Norton seems to have perceived her intended audience. By 1967, the Witch World series was well under way, and the Free Trader/Forerunner universe was opening up to strong and proactive female characters. She’s not writing boys-only adventures any longer. She’s writing for girls, ...

Equus: Story of the Horse Frames its Narrative Through Science


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There’s been a bit of buzz lately in the horse pastures of social media about the PBS series Nature’s two-part series on the horse. Because this is the internet, the usual naysayers are in full cry: It’s All Wrong, They Didn’t Do It Right, They Didn’t Do MY Breed/Philosophy/Discipline, Let’s Hate on the Ones They Did Do. It’s been difficult to hear myself think through all the bitching and kicking.

And yet, once I was able to shut off the not-so-dull roar and actually watch the episodes, for the most part I liked them. They’re not aimed at specialists. They’re designed for an audience that doesn’t know much about horses, but is interested in the kinds of things Nature viewers are interested in. Science, history, humans interacting with animals, and of course, lots of pretty pictures.

In that context, these two hours of beautifully filmed documentary work perfectly well. ...

A Girl’s Life is No Picnic: Andre Norton’s Steel Magic


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After reading and rereading so many Golden Age Norton space adventures, shifting to the Magic books feels like starting all over again with a new author. We’re in a completely different genre, children’s fantasy, and a completely different universe, revolving around kids and controlled by magic. Even the prose feels different: clearer, simpler, with fewer archaisms and stylistic contortions.

Steel Magic was the first of the series to be published, in 1965. It came in the midst of an efflorescence of kids’ fantasy, including A Wrinkle in Time (1962), and it built itself around cherished themes in the genre: magic, portals, groups of free-range siblings saving enchanted worlds.

Magic and portals were very much on Norton’s mind at the time—she was also writing and publishing the early Witch World books—but the genre would have been both dear and familiar to her. She mentions one other book in the novel, The ...

Unicorn Magic with Realistic Underpinnings: Meredith Ann Pierce’s Birth of the Firebringer


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I’ve gone on record as not being a fan of talking-animal fantasies, but I make exceptions. The Silver Brumby is one, and there’s The Horse and His Boy, which for all its problems still has some lovely bits. And now, having missed Meredith Ann Pierce’s Birth of the Firebringer when it was first published, I’m adding another to my very short list of talking-animal stories that I actually enjoyed.

The book is not technically about horses, but close enough. It’s about unicorns. It’s a hero’s journey, with a mysterious prophecy and an ancient evil and a prince’s son who won’t play by the rules.

Our hero is callow young Jan, whose father the prince overprotects him, in his estimation, and won’t allow him to go on pilgrimage to be initiated as a young adult. Jan is constantly getting into scrapes; his “games” range from irresponsible to deadly dangerous.

...

Killer Flora, Fascinating Fauna: Andre Norton’s Voorloper


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The title of Voorloper keeps tripping me up. The word refers to an itinerant human trader on the planet Voor, but I keep reverting to the conviction that it’s an ungainly alien creature à la the bog lopers of the Witch World. It’s disconcerting, especially since the edition of the novel that I have is lavishly illustrated in the style of the late 1970s. Dad has a porn ’stache, kid and girl have Peter Max-style faces and hair, and everybody’s wearing elaborate embroidered Russian-style jackets.

There certainly are inimical aliens in the book, but they’re truly alien and physically insubstantial. The humans refer to them as Shadows. There are no known intelligent species on the planet, and nothing humanoid. It’s open for colonization under the rules of the Forerunner universe, which disallow colonies (but allow trading posts) on inhabited worlds.

Once I get past the title, I’m looking at another ...

A Horse Between Worlds: The Mystical Side of Sleipnir


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The dark of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is a strange in-between period, a kind of time out of time. Even in cultures that begin their year around one of the equinoxes, there’s something just a little different about the weeks around the winter solstice.

When we last met Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, we focused on the practical aspects: how his parents got together, how his body might have been organized (or is it her? Or is it genderfluid?), what his superpowers were. But that’s not all there is to Sleipnir. Commenters were quick to point out the more mystical aspects of the All-Father’s mount.

One popular theory among academics and folkorists is that Sleipnir’s eight legs represent the legs of the pallbearers carrying the dead to the grave. Sleipnir had a direct connection with the dead and the otherworld in his ability to carry Odin through all ...

Culture Wars in Andre Norton’s Eye of the Monster


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Eye of the Monster is an interesting book in multiple senses of the phrase. It’s the story of a standard plucky Norton hero, this time named Rees Naper, struggling to survive on a hostile planet, in this case the colony planet Ishkur. Rees is the son of a Survey man, and his mother, as usual in these novels, is dead.

Rees’ father has disappeared and Rees has been forcibly adopted by his uncle, pulled out of Survey school and hauled off to Ishkur to be instructed, or rather indoctrinated, in his uncle’s “mission” beliefs. Uncle Milo is a true believer, and that belief is sharply at odds with the reality of the planet.

The Empire to which Rees refers here appears to be Terran, which is a bit disconcerting after the alien empire of The Sioux Spaceman. It’s been colonizing worlds occupied by sentient but low-tech native species: here, the ...

Riding the White Horse Into the West


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We began the year with a post about the White Horse Between the Worlds: the ancient belief that a white horse (or a grey, as most white horses technically are) possesses mystical powers; that he (or she) can walk from world to world, and stands watch on the border between the living and the dead. Now, as the year ends and the Solstice is upon us, we’re back in that liminal space. In that space is one of my favorite films of all time.

I first heard about it from the Lipizzan community, which is small because very small breed, and everybody knows everybody else. Word was out that there was a film out, and there was a Lipizzan in it. That film was the 1992 Irish release, Into the West.

Of course I got to work finding a DVD, those being the days before streaming video (and ...

TV Dramas with the Right Amount of Horse Fantasy: Free Rein and Heartland


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Horse people have to find good horse-themed movies and TV where they can, and mostly they have to put up with errors that aren’t evident at all to the non-horse person, but to them as knows horses, are painful to watch. Some things can’t be helped, particularly when multiple horses play a single role—we can spot the drastically altered conformation, the weirdly messed-up markings, the distinctly different gaits. A film or a TV show that gets it right, or manages to do so most of the time, is pure horseaholic gold.

Last time I watched two Australian films that get it right to a remarkable degree, though Thowra in The Silver Brumby isn’t really the right color (film-Thowra is a pretty golden palomino instead of a cremello) and might not be the right gender (as far as I can tell, the adult “Thowra” appears to be a mare). Still. ...

When It All Goes Wrong: Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents


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When I read the cover copy for The Defiant Agents, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a comfortable read. It wasn’t quite as bad as I expected, but I was glad to get through it, and I won’t be going there again. Of all the Norton books I’ve read and reread for this series so far, this for me was the most cringeworthy.

We’ve talked at various points about how some of Norton’s works have held up better than others. Some manage to entertain in a cheerful retro way, with their tin-can rockets and their recording tapes and their female-free universe. Others are a little too much of their time, as we’ve taken to saying around here.

It’s not that Norton isn’t trying to respect her characters. She is, very much so. She’s done a whole lot of research. She’s studied the Apache language and tried to ...

When It All Goes Wrong: Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents


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When I read the cover copy for The Defiant Agents, I had a feeling this wouldn’t be a comfortable read. It wasn’t quite as bad as I expected, but I was glad to get through it, and I won’t be going there again. Of all the Norton books I’ve read and reread for this series so far, this for me was the most cringeworthy.

We’ve talked at various points about how some of Norton’s works have held up better than others. Some manage to entertain in a cheerful retro way, with their tin-can rockets and their recording tapes and their female-free universe. Others are a little too much of their time, as we’ve taken to saying around here.

It’s not that Norton isn’t trying to respect her characters. She is, very much so. She’s done a whole lot of research. She’s studied the Apache language and tried to ...

Power, Freedom, and Horse Movies: The Silver Brumby and The Man From Snowy River


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After I finished reading Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, I had an irresistible urge to find out if there was a movie. Sure enough, there was, and it was a Prime Video option: The Silver Brumby, aka The Silver Stallion. 1993. I dived right into it.

What I wanted out of it was visuals. The landscape. The animals and plants. I wanted to know what a snowgum looked like, and what kind of mountains Thowra ranged through.

I got that. I also got insight into what makes a film likely to succeed, versus a book which can go much deeper into detail and—significantly here—can offer viewpoints that might not sell so well to the wider audience of film. Mitchell’s book belongs to Thowra’s—his viewpoint for the most part, and he is the protagonist. It’s all about him. If you use the term gaze, what you get here is ...

Adventures in Space and Time: Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict


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Galactic Derelict is another Andre Norton novel I almost-remember reading. I remember the opening, with a Norton Hero(TM) riding into a camp in the desert. I very vaguely remember that this iteration was Native American—Apache, he turns out to be.

I had forgotten that Travis Fox is in Arizona, and I wouldn’t have known that I’d end up living not all that far away from where his ranch is supposed to be, along with the secret Canyon of the Hohokam where he meets a crew of time travelers masquerading as archaeologists. That turned out to be a nice bonus. I know the landscape, and I can imagine going for a horseback ride in the desert and running across a dig. Archaeological sites are rather thick on the ground out here. There are Hohokam villages everywhere.

Unlike the previous volume in the series, Time Traders, this one doesn’t spend much ...

Epic Fantasy Starring Horses: The Wild Magic of The Silver Brumby


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For years my horse friends have been telling me about the Australian classic, Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby. It’s a must-read, they said. It shaped our youth. You can’t miss it.

Finally one of my writer colleagues took matters into her own hands while clearing out her book collection and sent me her childhood copy—hardcover, with illustrations. It’s a precious gift. Thank you so much, Gillian Polack!

We’re out of summer now in the Northern Hemisphere—but the Southern is just turning into spring. Aptly enough, then, here’s a Down Under version of the Summer Reading Adventure.

The story is fairly standard. Wild horse is born, grows up, deals with horse friends and enemies, and fights constantly to keep from being captured and tamed. He would literally rather die than be domesticated. (Which is rather ironic considering that there are no truly wild horses left in the world. They’re all feral—descendants ...

Adventures in Time Travel: Andre Norton’s The Time Traders


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Now this is more like it. It’s the book I thought I was getting when I read The Crossroads of Time. Not that that didn’t turn out to be a nice adventure, but I was expecting travel to past and future, rather than parallel worlds.

And here it is.

Petty criminal Ross Murdock—Norton liked this name, as witness Murdoc Jern of The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars—is in deep legal trouble, but the judge offers him an out: to sign on to a government project. He’s not told what it is or where it is or what it does, only that his sole alternative is serious jail time.

Ross chooses the unknown, which turns out to be the first test. There will be many more, and many mysteries, until he learns that he’s been “volunteered” for a top-secret gig as a time traveler. The technology is extremely advanced but ...

Writing Fantasy Horses Right: Kristen Britain’s Green Rider


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Green Rider was published when I was taking an extended break from the genre, during a period of Very Long Epic Fantasy Series, including one that’s done rather well on television. I heard about it because horses, had it in the TBR pile, but never quite got around to reading it. Then came this blog series, and multiple reader recommendations, and here we are.

Back in the day we would have reckoned this a clone of a clone of a clone, a distant descendant of Tolkien via D&D and the many Tolkien imitators of the Seventies and Eighties and early Nineties, but it’s a deft pastiche and there’s love in the way it follows its predecessors. It’s a direct descendant of Mercedes Lackey’s Herald series with a distinct dialogue going on, a lot of thinking and transforming. I’m very curious to know the chain of influence that led to the ...

Blowing Up Assumptions (and Other Things): Andre Norton’s Uncharted Stars


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Fans love this entry in the Norton canon. It’s got breakneck adventure, weird inhospitable one-climate planets, unspeakably grotty slums on worlds where the income inequality is off the charts, not to mention Free Traders, the Thieves’ Guild, the Patrol, and Zacathans. And Forerunners, both live and long, long, long dead.

Murdoc Jern still can’t catch a break. He and his alien partner Eet managed to get the price of a ship out of the Patrol at the end of The Zero Stone, but in this heavily pragmatic economic universe, it’s not working out the way he’d hoped. He needs a pilot in order to get the ship off-planet but can’t afford a good one and refuses to take the one the Patrol keeps offering him. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the port fees are piling up.

At the very last instant, with Eet’s help, Murdoc finds a pilot ...

All the Fine Fantasy Horses: Mary Herbert’s Dark Horse


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As summer finally fades—though here in Arizona, that is a very long process indeed, with heat that persists all the way through October until that final, blessed break into winter—I’ve continued the Summer Reading Adventure, but with a shift as the season changes, from longtime favorites to a couple of recommendations from commenters. This time, I’m reading Mary H. Herbert’s Dark Horse, first of a series published from 1990 until about 1996. I missed it when it first came out, so it’s completely new to me. Next time I’ll dive into Kristen Britain’s Green Rider, which has been in my TBR pile literally forever. Finally, I say. Finally! I shall read it!

So then. Dark Horse.

Gabria is the last survivor of a clan of nomadic horsemen massacred by an evil sorcerer. She swears vengeance, but the only way she knows to achieve it in her extremely sexist ...

Throwback Planetary Adventure: Andre Norton’s The Zero Stone


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I actually remember reading this. I remember the title, the ring it refers to, and the inimitable Eet. I don’t remember anything else, so most of it seemed new, but with a sort of distant echo of, “Wait, I’ve seen this before.”

Some of that has to do with the fact that I’ve been working through the entire Norton canon, and she certainly had her favored tropes and plots. The Zero Stone, though published in 1968, is a throwback to her planetary adventures of the Fifties, with its overwhelmingly male-dominated universe. You’d never know that the Witch World was well under way, or that this same universe could also contain the likes of Maelen of the Thassa and the alien Wyverns (the latter are even mentioned in passing).

The only females we see here are the cold, unloving mother, the nonentity sister, and the cat who serves as an ...

This Is How You Write a Horse: Dun Lady’s Jess


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Whenever writers ask me how to do horses right, I refer them to Doranna Durgin’s Dun Lady’s Jess. It’s not only that it’s written by a lifelong horse person, or that it’s a kickass fantasy in its own right, or that it’s a nice shiny award winner. There’s nothing else quite like it.

There’s plenty of nice chewy genre stuff going on in the book. It’s a portal fantasy with parallel worlds. There are wizard wars and breakneck chases and nasty politics. There’s interesting worldbuilding: a world in which magic takes the place of technology, with spells for everything from cooking food to healing broken bones to waging war. The good guys have complex lives and motivations, and the bad guys are not evil Just Because. They have reasons, mostly having to do with money and power.

But when it all comes down to it, I’m there for the horses. ...