Year of the Unicorn (which has absolutely nothing to do with unicorns) was a favorite of mine when I was twelve or so. But I hadn’t read the loosely related The Crystal Gryphon until now.

I still like Unicorn very much, and though I’m sure I would have liked Gryphon more had I read it at the proper age, it’s still pretty good. Both novels have heroines who are brave, intelligent, resourceful, and altogether awesome while still following somewhat traditional roles, in both cases an arranged marriage which they want to go through with. I like this. There should be room, in fiction as well as life, for both rebelling against tradition and consciously sticking to it.

The writing of both, but Gryphon more than Unicorn, is a little stiff and distanced, old-fashioned and formal but rarely attaining elegance. I expect that’s why Norton’s books are mostly out of print. I’d be curious how Norton comes across now to someone who didn’t read her when they were a kid.

The Crystal Gryphon splits its first-person narrative between Kerovan, a young man born with hooves, yellow eyes, and the angst of being labeled a monster, and Joisan, the young woman promised to him who doesn’t know about his unusual attributes. They don’t meet until about three-fourths of the way through the book, and so the reader constructs the love story for herself by seeing how well-suited they are to each other. It’s very well-done.

Along the way, there is an invasion, a magic crystal gryphon necklace, fights, escapes, fleeing across the countryside, and so forth. In a twist which is both predictable and deeply satisfying, Kerovan meets Joisan before she knows what he looks like, and decides to let her get to know him without revealing his true identity so if she can’t cope with his hooves, he can leave without her feeling obligated to honor their engagement. Lots of angst and the Andre Norton trademarked slightly confusing and pell-mell climax ensues, followed by a sweet though rushed conclusion. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

In Year of the Unicorn, Gillan is a foundling raised in a nunnery, very conscious that she looks different and “has odd thoughts.” As a price for their aid in a recent invasion (apparently the same one which was ongoing in Gryphon), the Were Riders – shapeshifting men from another world – are promised thirteen brides. The brides are housed briefly in the nunnery, variously resigned or hysterical. With no future worth looking forward to, Gillan seizes the opportunity to flee into the unknown by exchanging places with one of the brides.

In an evocatively described scene, the brides encounter beautiful cloaks tossed on the ground, and each choose one - and with it, the man who made it. But while the others are enchanted, Gillan sees through the illusion and, alone, makes a conscious choice of cloak and husband. She gets Herrel, “the least of the riders” due to being only half were, and the only one who offers his bride the opportunity to back out of the deal.

After this the book gets a bit incoherent and out of control. The other riders put all sorts of enchantments on Gillan and Herrel, she struggles with illusions and is split into two people, and there’s a lot of confusing wandering through surreal dreamscapes. What makes it worth reading is the sexy, angsty relationship between them. He’s a were-wildcat who can barely control his power! She’s an untrained witch with half her soul missing! Together, they fight the other Were Riders, assorted monsters, and some random bandits whose leader is named Smarkle - possibly that's what drove him to a life of crime.

There are fragments of “Beauty and the Beast” and other tales of shapeshifting men and the women who love them woven into the story. Gillan is a satisfyingly active, competent heroine, and Herrel is hot and angsty and appreciates her strength.

I feel sorry for the other brides, whom Norton mostly seems to forget about. I guess they stay in happy, stoned enchantment forever. Poor other brides!

Year of the Unicorn (Witch World )

The Crystal Gryphon

If anyone wants it, I have an extra copy of The Crystal Gryphon. Apparently I bought it twice.
As someone said, the internet's oldest established permanent floating flame war has started up again ("Just like the Greeks thought that they'd successfully put Hector down and that no one would survive to avenge him, so the establishment thought it had successfully put Heinlein down and no one would survive to avenge him,") reminding me of how much I enjoyed Heinlein's juveniles when I was twelve, though even then I had a taste for the odd, the dated, and the, shall we say, differently good.

I vividly recall reading Heinlein's rant in Have Space Suit Will Travel about how anyone who can't use a slide rule is a moron, and having to figure out from context that he was referring to an obsolete calculating device. That was by far the most sf-nal moment for me reading that book - a visceral sense that I was living in someone's future, and things had changed.

I'm now curious to re-read some of what I read when I was twelve and see how it holds up and doesn't.

Note: I refuse to re-read any Heinlein novels not listed, on the grounds that even at twelve, I was unable to read any of the late ones containing orgies, fanfic, grokking, "Sorry about the rape, Friday," etc, and I would probably find them even more unreadable now. I have never read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I hear it's more readable than most of his adult novels...?

[Poll #1607634]
Back in the 60s, Andre Norton wrote a series of children's books with "magic" in the titles: Steel Magic, Dragon Magic, Lavender-Green Magic, Fur Magic, Red Hart Magic, and Octagon Magic. The ones I've read (mostly when I was about ten) were fun, if not classic. Several have protagonists of color, though I haven't read those recently enough to recall how they were handled.

Dragon Magic is the one I recall liking best. Four boys separately find a jigsaw puzzle in an abandoned house. When they put it together, they are transported into a dragon-related episode of myth or history from their own ethnic backgrounds: a Chinese hero nicknamed "Sleeping Dragon," a dragon-monster in Africa, the Pendragon of England, Sigurd and Fafnir. I loved the idea that everyone had their own individual dragon story.

Dragon Magic: The Magic Books #4

I recently found a copy of Steel Magic, in which two brothers and a sister are transported to Avalon, and must depend on cold iron - a magically enlarged knife, spoon, and fork from the picnic basket they brought with them - to rescue three stolen Arthurian magic plot objects. Their quests involve them each facing their deepest fears (spiders, water, the dark.) It's a little rushed and definitely for children rather than teenagers, but sweet and entertaining. The giant magical silverware is a funny idea, but convincing rather than ridiculous.

Steel Magic: The Magic Books #1

Does anyone else remember these?
Donorboy: A Novel, by Brendan Halpin. After her mothers are killed in an accident, a teenage girl ends up with the biological father she never knew. A YA novel told entirely in emails, journal entries, recorded conversations, etc, it’s clever and funny but the form eventually becomes wearisome.

The Girl Who Saw The Future, by Zoe Sherburne. A psychic girl struggles with fame when her stage mother makes her go public. Nothing brilliant, but a readable and unusual take on the psychic kid plot.

A Country Child, by Alison Uttley. A childhood memoir barely veiled in fiction by the author of many mostly-forgotten but quite good British children’s books. If you like vivid descriptions of old-timey life in rural England, and I know I do, this book is for you. There’s no plot, but who cares?

The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, by Diana Pavlac Glyer. An excellent analysis of the Inklings as a writing group. Recommended to anyone with any interest in the Inklings, or who has basic knowledge of them and is interested in how writing groups function.

Here Abide Monsters, by Andre Norton. This bizarre fantasy put the Bermuda Triangle, elves, aliens, time travel, and Avalon in a blender, then forgot to actually blend. People from our world blunder into another weird world where they meet others from all periods of history, and learn that elves in flying saucers are kidnapping people and making them go cold and glowy, or maybe the flyer saucer people were aliens and the elves were someone else, it was hard to tell. Roman soldiers march, nixies attack, and there might be unicorns, I forget. Disjointed and strange, and I have no idea what was going on during the climax—and by “no idea,” I mean that, for instance, I could not tell whether or not several characters died. A mildly entertaining farrago of randomness.
These are both very short sf children's novels which I read while doing laundry yesterday. The Key novel is Scholastic and the Norton is Avon Camelot with the big C, and both editions, though I'd never read those particular books before, brought back fond memories of childhood reading.

The Norton is decent but the Key is excellent-- more haunting and less predictable. Both are about prejudice, albeit very different varieties, and the necessity of belief in things unseen. I think both are out of print and obscure.

Every Alexander Key book I've read so far has been about a kid or kids with psychic powers who ends up on the run from people who want to exploit him or her. In THE FORGOTTEN DOOR (1965), Jon, a boy from another world, falls through a door while watching a meteor shower, and lands in America. He can read the minds of animals and people, pick up English in a day, and alter gravity. But he doesn't remember who he is or where he's from.

He immediately runs afoul of a nasty bigoted couple, who tell the whole town about him until he becomes a scapegoat for anyone trying to cover up a petty crime or express their hatred of the Other. Luckily, he also falls in with the open-minded Bean family, who start by taking him in and end up risking everything for him.

It's a fast-paced, linear, simply-told story, but its simplicity masks a surprising depth. It's not an allegory, but the way the Bean family begins with a good deed of the easy sort (helping an injured child) and ends up putting their lives, livelihood, and even the lives of their own children on the line for him has all sorts of resonances in recent history, from the Holocaust to the Civil Rights Movement. But it's much less preachy than it easily could have been.

The startling ending is a result of Key taking his premise to its logical conclusion. It's touching and much more poetically written than most of the book, but though it's a happy ending for the good guys, it has dark implications for the world as a whole.

Andre Norton's OUTSIDE (1974) is hampered by a premise which predicts its own conclusion. Kristie and her older brother Lew are children living with packs of other other children in a domed-in city. The cities were all closed off because the world outside was made uninhabitable by pollution, and the adults all died of a plague. Now the kids are doing their best to survive, but the machines that keep the city running are falling apart, and no one knows how to repair them.

Kristie dreams of going outside, to the wonderful world of plants and animals that she sees in old videos. But everyone tells her that Outside is barren and all the animals are dead, and anyway there's no way out.

Obviously, with this premise, it will turn out that Outside is Eden. I can think of ways to make it less predictable, of which the most interesting would probably be that Outside isn't as bad as people think, but it's still full of dangerous mutant plants and animals, and that once the kids get into it, they'll face a whole new set of problems. (This is similar to the plot of Norton's THE STARS ARE OURS!) But OUTSIDE is too short a book to do that.

Norton does come up with an unusual twist on how the kids get outside, a mysterious Pied Piper figure. But while the book has a good narrative drive, it's ultimately too predictable and doesn't have enough resonance outside of its obvious messages. Also, though the text indicates that Lew is a teenager, maybe twenty at the most, the pictures show him as a thirty-something man with an embarrassingly seventies haircut and soup-strainer moustache. This is particularly jarring because he's not in any of the illustrations until near the end of the book.
Just what I didn't want to read: a pseudonymous article in by a woman who sold her first book for a large advance and with much excitement, only to end up broke, depressed, and returning to her day job. Her conclusion: unless you're John Grisham, you're all doomed.

Upon re-reading the article, I realize that her first book didn't do okay but not great; I _think_ that given the size of the advance, it was a big flop and the publishers lost a fair amount of money on it. But she doesn't say so explicitly. 150,000 advance vs. 10,000 copies sold: is that a disaster, or just not great? I think it makes a difference.

Current reading list:

ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE, by Andre Norton. She was a prolific writer of sf and fantasy in the days before many women were writing it, and was responsible for getting a lot of people hooked on the genre. Her sentences and sometimes plots are clunky but some of her imagery is full of a sense of wonder, and she writes sensitively about misfits and refugees and ordinary, non-Destined kids who make one for themselves. Her alien animals, especially the non-intelligent ones, behave convincingly like real animals in a real ecosystem. You can tell that Norton spent a lot of time sitting down and watching small creatures go about their business.

I loved her when I was a teenager, but most of her books don't hold up well for me now. Still, some do if read with a forgiving eye to the prose, so I'm reading some I missed on the first go-round.

ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE was inspirational for a lot of budding female sf writers, for the heroine is a young woman, Charis Nordhelm. She's not a beautiful, bosom-heaving, princess or Prophesied One or rescuee, but a well-educated member of the middle-upper class who gets sold into slavery when fundamentalists take over the colony. Because she's female and a linguist, she's sent to another planet to negotiate trade deals with matriarchal aliens who seem to communicate via dreams. So far it's pretty standard Norton, with a catlike alien and lots of hallucinatory shifts in time and place.

If you've never read Norton, I recommend...

YEAR OF THE UNICORN, in which an orphan with no future takes another woman's place to become a bride to a man from a strange tribe of shapeshifters. Gillian is a memorably sensible heroine, some of the scenes are quite beautiful, and her relationship with the man she marries is realistically awkward, sexy, and touching.

THE STARS ARE OURS! Anti-science fundamentalists have taken over (Norton did not like fundamentalists) and a secret crew of scientists escape to another planet, where they have adventures. Likable characters, exciting action, and a very cool alien world make up for the extremely stupid-sounding secret space travel formula and disjointed structure.

SORCERESS OF THE WITCH WORLD. There's a bunch of Witch World books but this one's particularly atmospheric. A young witch who may have lost her powers has to negotiate survival in a patriarchal tribe. That's the good part. It dissolves into incoherence once she escapes.

I could list more, but you get the picture. A few are duds but most are good reads if you're in the mood. Norton was, as far as I know, a prolific midlist author but not a bestselling one. I wonder if she'd have survived as a writer now.


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