Book Review: Web of the Witch World by Andre Norton

Web of the Witch World (Witch World Series 1: Estcarp Cycle, #2)Web of the Witch World by Andre Norton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge.

I think I really like Andre Norton. This is only the second book of hers that I’ve read, the second of the classic Witch World series. I really love what she’s done here but I think you’ve got to have read the pulp fantasy and sci-fi classics – in particular Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s Barsoom series – in order to fully appreciate it. She’s spun a new take on classic pulp fiction. In a way she was the George R. R. Martin of her time; she was flipping the tropes. But she was also establishing new tropes.

In this, the second book of the series, it’s like a continuation of the story of Witch World where it left off. Simon Tregarth, interloper from our own world into the Witch World, has married the Witch of the previous book, whose name is Jaelithe (which was not known until the end of the first book, because witches do not share their names), and she surrendered her jewel of power when she did so (marking her as one of the witches, who rule the land of Estcarp,) as is tradition because the power of the witches is lost when they give up (or lose) their virginity. However, the glimmerings of witch power that Simon possessed, unknown among men in the Witch World, bonds with Jaelithe’s witch powers, making them more than what she was before; though convincing the witches of this is a challenging task.

In the meantime, the witches, Simon, and the allies of Estcarp continue to fight the inter-dimensional invaders from Kolder, a society of advanced technology and no morality. They must trace the Kolders to their stronghold and defeat them and their technozombie and technology-possessed servants once and for all.

Many of the tropes she has flipped are based in gender. Burrough’s heroes are men of action who are constantly rescuing the ladies of the piece. Norton’s heroes are men of action also, but instead of cossetting and protecting the ladies of the piece, they are partners, with different but complimentary and co-equal skills, and the ladies of the piece rescue him just as often. For the 1960s this is well ahead of its time and I love it!

I can’t help but wonder whether the makers of World of Warcraft read her books, because the inter-dimensional gates, and the worlds they separate, remind me a lot of the world of WoW. I wonder if she was one of the first to write about such things? As far as I can tell, she was the first author to ever use the term Star Gate (but that’s another series.) These are the tropes she helped to establish, along with the super-advanced technological society facing off against a magical one.

I had pegged this series as “science fantasy” in my last review, saying that it was essentially fantasy but with elements of science fiction, but as Norton’s world unfolds I have changed my mind. I think it’s science fiction with some elements of fantasy. The “magic” of the witches, now that I think about it, is all explainable through psychic abilities, and may not be magic at all. And with that element considered, that might make it entirely science fiction after all.

Norton doesn’t linger on the things that we consider to be essential to modern speculative fiction. She isn’t that concerned with the long dissertations of the angst of the characters, such as how Jaelithe felt about having to give up her witch powers to follow her heart and marry Simon. But people don’t understand that pulp fiction at that time was designed to be little 150 to 200 pages of high action book. It’s an adventure story, and Norton keeps the pace lively; which is amazing, considering how much of the conflict takes place in psychic competitions of will and the actual sword and gunfighting is few and far between.

The purpose of the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge is to find new female authors to read whose work you enjoy. Well, it’s done the job in the case of Andre Norton, one of the forgotten triumvirate of female Grand Masters of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the other two being C. J. Cherryh and Anne McCaffrey.) Glad I finally sunk my teeth into this series, and I’ll be collecting and reading the rest of it.

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