I can’t believe I never read this before. I’ve collected a number of Andre Nortons over the years, but read surprisingly few of them – and I loved the ones I did read, which makes it weirder. Regardless, a friend on GoodReads recommended them to me… Well, no, she guilted me into it. Well, no, actually we struck a bargain: for every Witch World book I read, she will watch an episode of Doctor Who. Really, the numbers almost work out … (Well, no, actually, she reneged on her half of the deal, but what are you going to do.)
Simon Tregarth is a man whose mysteries we’ll never know. He’s being hunted, is all we’re really told, and he has a past which has made him a man of many martial skills. He has learned of an escape from his pursuers, and it’s certainly not something the pursuers would ever expect: he is sent to another world. The Witch World. His first impression is extremely positive (or negative, depending on which side you’re standing): his first act on stumbling into the new landscape is to rescue a woman who is being hunted like a fox by armed men.
She is no ordinary woman. She is a Witch – one of the nameless (to ordinary folk) virginal (lest she lose her abilities) women of power who are the bane of the enemy’s existence, possessors of a form of magic no man can match.
The story is fairly simple: a stranger involves himself in the war his new home is waging against the Kolder (unbelievably, I never twigged to the alternate spelling of that – nice, actually), and his otherworldly skills prove quite useful even against such enemies and alongside such allies as he never conceived of. One of the latter is Loyse, a frail-seeming noblewoman who breaks away from a domineering father and the marriage he has arranged for her; another is Koris of Gorm, a dispossessed price of extremely mixed ancestry who is not in any way a stereotype. Koris and Simon make a formidable, unconventional team which seems to be just what the Good Guys need to take the battle to the enemy and finally start making some progress.
The language is just shy of High Fantasy, formal and opaque and uninvolved. It’s very different from most of the fantasy being produced today, and it is helpful to keep in mind that this was one of the forerunners. It was published in 1963, and the genre was in its infancy. The concentration, the style, the direction, the depth, certainly the length are all different from what they might be today (written today it would probably be much longer). Another element which is out of fashion now is the fact that not all of Norton’s characters are beautiful. I don’t recall Simon or the as-yet-unnamed (till the end) Witch being described as terribly terribly attractive; I don’t recall much in the way of description at all except that the Witch was dark-haired. In the scene she runs into as an introduction, the description is used more to illustrate her plight rather than point up attributes Simon wouldn’t be and the reader shouldn’t be paying attention to at just that moment. In fact, most of the descriptions that really stand out in the books I’ve read so far have been of characters who are not beautiful – like Koris here and Herrel in Year of the Unicorn.
Because of the era this comes from, there is not the connection with the characters a reader is used to with current fantasy, and I was surprised at how little joyful exploration of the new world there was. Granted: war, some constriction of movement, and Simon’s not exactly typically filled with childlike wonder, but still: either Simon was remarkably uncurious about his new setting or the reader was not shown his process of discovery. Coming from (apparently) Cold War era Earth into a completely new world filled with completely new flora and fauna and architectures and people, I wouldn’t expect him to stand about gawping, but a little bit of hey-wow might have been nice. I wonder if it might have been in part because Ms. Norton was still world-building. For me Witch World is something of a relic of its time, a tantalizing bundle of possibilities which were not, in this volume and for me at least, fulfilled. But it’s only the beginning.