Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Musings on a Witch World and What Survives

A few years ago I discovered Andre Norton's Witch World series and it's pretty good stuff.  She wrote seventeen books so I still have a lot to read, but I'm really looking forward to them.  Fortunately, they're all pretty short by today's standards, so they got that going for them. 
   They really deserve to be better read than I think they are these days.  I was surprised to see so few comments on Matthew David Surridge's review of the first novel at Black Gate the other day.  With my review today of Three Against the Witch World and the Appendix N stuff about her books over at Tor.com maybe she'll get a little more reader love.

   I think the biggest problem they have is their name - Witch World.  It's all a little twee.  If "witch" only brings to mind Margaret Hamilton or Margaret Murray, you might not think Norton's books will be the exciting, slightly pulpy heroic fantasy (yeah, they start off sort of sword & planet, but that kind of fades away) that they are.  
   And they really are a blast.  C. J. Cherryh's introduction to the excellent Lore of the Witch World describes how every valley has something new, behind which lies something else which is linked to the deep history of the Witch World.  That only hints at the depth of creation Norton brought to the series.
  As with so much of what I've read in S&S, I have to thank the late Lin Carter my entree to Witch World. He managed to get a new Witch World story for Flashing Swords #2, "Toads of Grimmerdale", and it's great.  I don't think if I had read that first story I would be writing about her now.  Dead twenty-five years and Carter's still garnering new readers for writers he loved.
   I wonder if there's still a place for the Witch World books in this day and age.  For all its success, I don't think the series ever developed quite the critical cachet of Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle and definitely never achieved the cultural critical mass of Tolkien.
   In fact what's the fate of all these mid-level fantasy series of the past forty years?  Will anyone hunt down Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books in twenty years?  How about Raymond Feist?  What about all the blatant Tolkien, and let's call them homages to be nice, books that sold well, like Terry Brook's Sword of Shannara or anything by Dennis L. McKiernan?
  Every year there's a new series started and of course that's what gets the attention.  Let's admit to ourselves, most genre fiction, good as it is, is disposable.  It's like pop music, rising up and reflective of its times, and then fading away from the larger public awareness.  Most of the times it's like Foghat, fun but nothing special.  The good stuff is like Deep Purple, and it's awesome.  But if no one ever hears it again, things will go on.
   It's the same thing with fantasy fiction.  We all find books that catch us in certain ways or at certain times.  They might even become our favorites even though no one else has even heard of them.
   And for anyone keeping track, I did make a Yes playlist for this week's Black Gate post.  It leaned heavily on Relayer and Going for the One.  I'm writing about the month's short stories next so I think I'll just put the Zune on shuffle.


  1. I'm not much of a fan of Norton, but I've only read one novel and a few short stories, so perhaps I need more exposure. As for mid-level fantasy being forgotten? I think there's some truth to that. How many names of favorite authors could one list, names that are practically unknown today? Fred Saberhagen, Andrew Offutt, even Robert Aspirin. Even the beloved darkness of Karl Edward Wagner seems to be known only in circles of the truly die-hard fans of dark fantasy. Zelazny and Lloyd Alexander, Delany and Jack Vance, yes, these are names known to older and experienced fantasy fans, but how many "Game of Thrones" readers have even heard any of these name? I think Terry Brooks is doing okay, but once he's no longer putting out material? Maybe it's just the cycle of things, today's popular writers building upon the groundwork of past authors. I do remember that fantasy literature was much more difficult to find 30-plus years ago, and there seemed much less of it.

    1. I'm enjoying the Witch World novels, but the short stories are much better. Less dated and simply better written. Lore of the Witch World's has some great stories.

      Yeah, I think it's the fate of most genre writers. I cut my teeth on Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson and especially Clifford Simak. At least Baen's kept Anderson in print, but when's the last time the other two showed up on a B&N shelf?
      As a sf/fant fan since I was knee-high, I do get a little saddened about the lack of genre knowledge among GoT or Star Wars fans. I think they're missing out on so much better writing, but what can you do. There's so much more product being produced and such a bigger, more diverse audience than we were young. So I blog about it but what's that really going to accomplish in the end?

    2. What does it accomplish? It has the potential to bring fresh eyes to the genres. Even if the number of true genre fans never goes beyond "cult" status, blogs such as this one continue a tradition that goes back nearly a century. Half a century ago it was guys like Moorcock and Leiber writing letters in the back of zines, arguing fine points and discussing writers few of us remember. Today it's blogs.

    3. I guess I've been a little bummed out by serious lack of genre history'knowlege I've been seeing lately. You're right and just thinking I'm walking the the footsteps of writers/fans like those two is actually pretty satisfying. That I might have turned Milton Davis on to KEW is cool. And there is so much great writing being done that it really feels like a renaissance.