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The Things, They Change…

So Andre Norton’s back catalog seems to be mostly out in digital form these days—really out, and not in the shady iBook editions that had me going “I kinda wonder what’s up with that.” And while I re-read The Crystal Gryphon approximately eleventy million times as a pre-teen, I had not read most of the other Witch World books. (I think I remember “Gate of the Cat” vaguely.) So I picked up a couple in the High Hallack series (that being where Crystal Gryphon fits in) and started with Year of the Unicorn, which is supposed to be the first one and which I had to actually order in paperback.

I think I might have read this before. Did not remember the entire second half, but parts of it sound really really really familiar, and furthermore, there is a long ago piece of writing (now lost, owing to the great kindness of the gods of teenage writing) that I did that sure reads as if I had just read the first half of this book and gone OH MY GOD, YES! and went and wrote something with arranged marriages and magic and werewolves.

(Tangentially, arranged marriages are catnip to a significant subsection of pre-teen girls, a fact that I have been aware of for quite some time—possibly since I was one—and yet which I hardly ever see remarked upon. My stab in the dark would be that they are the socially acceptable intersection of rape fantasies and true luuuuv and since most of us haven’t got the sense god gave an avocado at that point, it hits a whole lot of buttons. We could also make a case for It Totally Looks Like Sex But Marriage Is Involved So It’s Okay, for those of us who had Good Christian Upbringing.* Other theories actively solicited.)

Ahem. Anyway! To continue, though, what I found myself thinking reading Year of the Unicorn was “Hoo, boy, you couldn’t publish this now if you stuck a twenty between every page.”

Well, it’s been just shy of fifty years since it came out. The language shift, though, is dramatic. I can’t think of anybody writing today who sounds like that—McKillip and Nancy Springer, maybe, and I haven’t read either of them recently, so I won’t swear that it’s still similar. Early Dennis McKiernan, before he got better at filing off serial numbers.

I’m not saying it’s bad, just that it’s much more stiff and formal writing than anything I’ve seen on a shelf in a very long time. I’m no editor, so maybe there’s somebody out there wishing that they’d get this style of prose in the slush pile—or possibly there’s a thriving vein of it, and I’m wandering past it going “La la la—ooh, bunnies!” But if it’s there, I am in ignorance.

Even Brust’s Phoenix Guards doesn’t bear a significant resemblance—it’s too sly. There is no slyness here, it’s all very sincere and straightforward and there are some really marvelous set pieces (and a couple other bits where I would have gone “Oh, for god’s sake, get thee to an editor, I’ll give you two out of body experiences but now you’re just wallowing,” but we could say that about anybody’s work, and the woman’s career spanned seventy goddamn years, so it would be unkind to nitpick at a novel closer to the beginning than the end.)

Obviously tones change, languages change, what publishing wants changes. But I find it surprising, re-reading, that things changed so much since then.

(There’s also a compelling argument to be made on re-reading that by the way, the Were-Riders have enchanted a dozen women who were, arguably sold into slavery unwillingly by their male relatives and are keeping them in a weird brainwashed illusion for the purposes of gettin’ lucky, and y’all just rode off and left after proving that the Were-Riders Really Kind Of Suck As People and never stopped and said “Does anybody think that’s creepy? I kinda think that’s creepy,” but maybe that’s covered in a sequel.)

I’m curious to see whether or not Crystal Gryphon holds up. It’s still got arranged marriages and my inner pre-teen totally had a thing for Kerovan, so, y’know, we’ll find out.

 

*Not that I can recall actually spending one iota of time being appalled at anyone in a book having sex outside of marriage, which is why I question this one’s utility. Mind you, my soul was a glass mountain and Christianity never made it more than a few feet up the side.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


My stab in the dark would be that they are the socially acceptable intersection of rape fantasies and true luuuuv and since most of us haven’t got the sense god gave an avocado at that point, it hits a whole lot of buttons.

I think there's a certain amount of that in there, and also a certain amount of wish fulfillment in that preteens have a whole lot of their social lives constrained already, and there's something very dramatic and exciting about the idea of being locked into a Grand Permanent Important Thing and then making it work and be awesome anyway. (God knows most of my embarrassing elementary school writings are full of things like Bravely Standing Tall Despite Being Seized Into Horrible Slavery, and those stories started including a lot of sex around the time my hormones turned on.)

And then there's the simple fact that it's a way to take a romantic relationship and make it exciting and fraught without an easy resolution. "Boy and girl meet and fall in love and get along fine" isn't much of a story, and "Boy and girl meet and don't fall in love and so go their separate ways" isn't either, but "Boy and girl are FORCED into an arranged marriage and they HATE each other but there is NO WAY OUT and yet the other person is ACTUALLY FAIRLY SEXY" is sort of...conflict-y and unsubtle, in a way that ends up focusing very much on the romance.

I tend to agree with this. I would let my grade school-era diary become a historical object for my progeny, except for a few entries from my junior high days rather like the creative writings you mention.

Year of the Unicorn was the first Witch World book I recall reading. I liked it even though there were no unicorns in it. I don't think there's a sequel about the rest of the brides? ...at least they seem to be happy? >_>

I think arranged marriages are also one of those "skip the hard stuff of meeting someone and get to the dating part" things. (Also, power dynamics. >_> I know my catnip!) Also, the guy can't just dump you when he discovers you're a bookworm thesaurus girl. >_> So it's got a certain "captive audience" kind of feel, too.

+1 For me, it was always the "get someone to love you forever without the stress of having to date etc." that made me like arranged marriages. You two have to make it work, so there's a lot more room for messing up.

(...of course that was also related to the rape fantasy thing when I was young. Sex without having to worry about whether you're doing it wrong or not making it good enough for him! ...possibly I had issues.)

re: arranged marriages, for me it was the opposite; they (and pretty much any other romance) always left me feeling squicky and gross while anything involving monster battles completely took over my life. The, perhaps, source of this preference has become a little more obvious in recent years; I disliked the borderline rape fantasy tropes of Pern and the like, but I loved the dominance/power fantasy of controlling a host of powerful elementals in, say, pokemon or playing a warlock in WoW.

I sort of wish there was a beloved fantasy series that let young proto-tops/dommes know that that sort of thing was an option. (cough)

*files under 'Idea-components'*

I almost didn't even register the proto-arranged marriages in Pern, outside of a vague idea that that couldn't possibly be that easy. XD;;;; But then, I've always tended more towards loyalty and xeno as kinks rather than romance/marriage. *coff*

Also I completely agree with you on the whole language-dating. There are some books that I remember loving, but couldn't make myself go back and read now, for at least partly that reason.

It's been a decade or so since I reread Year of the Unicorn, but IIRC, most of the were-riders were depicted as jerks (if not as creepy as they should have been). However, the arranged marriage stuff in Crystal Gryphon was (to me at least) considerably less troubling. Also, I agree that the writing in Year of the Unicorn was seriously non-modern, especially the bizaree A. Merritt-esque section on the border between Arvon and High Hallack. The writing in Warlock of the Witchworld was equally odd, especially in the section involving Kemoc and the dark tower. OTOH, I remember the writing in The Crystal Gryphon as considerably more modern - it was published 7 years after Year of the Unicorn, but (at least to me) Norton's work became somewhat less Weird Tales-derived in those years.

I primarily wanted to say that it's interesting to hear your perspective on this, and that said perspective was expressed in an awesome manner.

I think I must have missed arranged marriages as a Thing... the only ones I can think of off the top of my head were the two that spectacularly failed to go through in The Outlaws of Sherwood. But I had the same experience with the language thing a while back, trying to read something where both plotting style and prose screamed early 80s fantasy so much I couldn't deal and sent it back to the library. (I *think* it might have been a Norton & someone else book, but I bounced hard enough-- more from aggressive foreshadowing than prose-- that I'm not even sure without going to look it up.)

I haven't read any Springer recently, but rereading McKillip always surprises me by how simple and clear her sentence-level prose actually is. It just builds up well.

McKillip's individual sentences are fairly basic, but she leaves out vast swaths of Actually Making Any Sense, so the sense (for me, anyway) is of being in a dream - every individual thing Is Fact, but they don't build up to a coherent whole very well. You know: ...and then I was at my father's house, but it didn't look like my father's house and anyway I had a completely different family in this dream, and my family was throwing this big feast and I was cooking in the kitchens, and I kept finding messages from the Autumn Court of Faery about the food I was making and how it was/was not Autumnal enough and would I like to come join the court... * Every individual bit was definitely true, but taken as a narrative whole it's just bizarre.

Not that I'm complaining about McKillip, I own several of her books. But they're like reading dreams, and I usually have to read something else more solid after.

* Yes, I've had this dream. It kept going, too - faery battles and all kinds of stuff.


Booksontheknob.com had most of those available for free on the Kindle during DragonCon. I picked them up but haven't read them yet.
I remember reading and loving her Magic books, Fur Magic especially, but it has been quite a while.

Oh, this is just too weird. We were just talking about Andrea Norton at breakfast this morning!
Mostly my Dad saying that Poul really liked editing her stories because she only had four ideas for her stories. ABCD, then it would be BCDA, then DACB and so on and so on. It was the way she told them that made them work. That and a good editor.

Edited at 2012-10-08 02:28 am (UTC)

Heh.

About... two years ago? I re-read The Crystal Gryphon and, um, the other books in that series (no titles due to brain fart and not being willing to look them up, fresh cookies are to hand) and hocrap, they aredated. I didn't think they held up well at all, for a number of reasons that you mention, and just, well, being more practical and pragmatic now. Could Josan really not have made some helpful logical leaps that would have kept the party out of trouble, later in the series? Did Kerovan honestly have to angst and wibble every goddam day? Could no one have punched that one mysterious guy the fuck out?

I for sure saw how they appealed to the young and newly-stirring of the female (and occasionally male) of the species, and even more, saw how they appealed to what I now know as power dynamics (witchery! telepathy! prophetic dreams! omg!) and kinks of the xeno-prefixed variety. I'm with your inner pre-teen, Kerovan was totally smoking hot. Those hooves just made him spicier! Along with the angst and woe, which now... eh, he'd get punched the fuck out too. Maybe even told to get a grip.

Edited at 2012-10-08 02:34 am (UTC)

I still have The Crystal Gryphon and sequels on my comfort shelf. It's definitely got its rough spots, but that's some of the charm. I actually really like Joisan's character arc - she goes from very young and uncertain of herself to a really solid, well centered person who stands up for herself, even against her husband. Kerovan doesn't get nearly the same growth. A lot of his arc comes from outside himself, whether he's being told that he's not actually the product of his mother's evil pact, or he's inheriting a house from a past life.


If you're interested in a recommendation, I really like Patricia Briggs's Dragon Bones and Drago Blood. Yes, I know, they've got 'dragon' in the titles, but they are not actually about dragons, people who ride dragons, people who commune with dragons, or any other dragon cliche you can think of. Her characters are very human; they take damage and recover from it, they make mistakes and suffer for them, they carry on and are ok and have scars and that's ok too.

Throwing in my support for Briggs - the Hurog books are amazing. I also loved "Raven's Shadow" and its sequel. F'ing amazing. It's actually sad she got famous for the werewolf books and no one has read these!

I think the arranged marriage thing also has a good bit of captive audience fantasy to it -- like, that fabulous inscrutable being would love me if they only knew me, and an arranged marriage would force a meeting of the minds and we would be enlighted to each other and fall madly in love! Also, it gives some weight to the Mr. Darcy fantasy, or the bad-boy-redemption scenario, since to have a happy ending the slap-slap HAS to end in kiss-kiss.

But the "Mr. Darcy fantasy" wasn't about an arranged marriage. That was the whole point of it: Jane Austen was writing in and about a society in which arranged marriages were mostly a thing of the past and people now had to make good marriages themselves, instead of having them set up for them.

I did not encounter arranged marriages very much, but I am willing to chalk up a lot of weirdness to Rape Is Sex You Don't Have to Feel Bad About. Because yeah, that is a fucked-up result of my sex ed.

Seconding that one! A lot of fantasy stories start from a premise of 'this quest was forced upon me so I can do awesome things without feeling bad for leaving my responsibilities behind,' and arranged marriage has often read really similarly to me in fiction.

In most pre-industrial societies, Arranged Marriages are the norm for anyone who comes from a family of any importance or wealth -- and I mean all the way down to the more prosperous merchants. It's only the poor (who, granted ,are most of the population) who get to choose their spouses. So the focus on Arranged Marriages (or avoiding them) in most fantasy is quite accurate for any society modeled on pre-industrial real historical ones, or facing similar economic constraints.

Even Brust’s Phoenix Guards doesn’t bear a significant resemblance—it’s too sly.

And then in Tiassa, he has Paarfi (the ostensible author of Phoenix Guards) write some about Vlad, in the exact same style. It's hilarious.

I don't know how Steve can even sit down to type that stuff coherently; I'd be sniggering too hard hit the right keys half the time.

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