Book Review: Storms of Victory by Andre Norton and P. M. Griffin

Storms of Victory

Andre Norton was a prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction during her lifetime. Before her death in 2005 she completed her final book, Three Hands for Scorpio, a fantasy novel. Whether she is better known for her science fiction stories or her fantasy novels, I do not know. Both are popular with me, especially the line of fantasy novels that launched Miss Norton to fame.

This line of stories is her Witch World novels. The Witch World is a medieval world linked to Earth and other worlds by a series of gates. Depending on which novel one picks up and reads, the gates may or may not have a great deal to do with the story. In any case, some of these gates are large enough to bring great numbers of people to the Witch World, while others can admit only one person at a time.

There are many cultures in the Witch World, which can confuse the new reader somewhat. I thought I would touch on the few which relate to today’s subject, Storms of Victory – a book containing two short stories set in the Witch World – so as to give any new readers a ‘map’ of this world. The first civilization that readers encounter in the Witch World is that of Estcarp.

Initially, Estcarp was ruled by the Witches’ Council, a council made up of women with the ability to wield Power. Power in the Witch World is not magic per se – though it certainly acts like it, and it can be used to cast ‘spells.’ In the first novel Power is said to be fed by will, imagination, and faith. Using this Power, focused through jewels each Witch wears, the Witches can control most forces (notably water and earth) and also perform acts that sound a great deal like telekinesis and telepathy. During the course of the novels, however, the Witches’ rule over Estcarp declines when their numbers are decimated.

Another society in the Witch World is that of the seafaring Sulcar. The Sulcar are usually traders, but they also tend to act as Estcarp’s navy. They raid into the countries of Estcarp’s enemies and will intermarry with citizens of Estcarp from time to time. The Sulcar go to sea in clans; their men, women, and children all work and live aboard their ships. They traditionally have little to do with Power beyond some control over ‘wind and wave,’ an ability only their wise women appear to possess.

A third culture to impact both short stories in the book, most notably the second one, is the race of Falconers. Falconers are mercenaries who live in the mountains of Estcarp’s southern border. They are a race of fierce fighters who are recognized throughout the Witch World series by the bird-crested helms they wear and the fighting falcons to which each one of their men are mind-bound. A Falconer’s word is his bond; they do not break their oaths and they do not truck with ‘the Dark’ or ‘the Shadow.’

The Falconers are a reticent race, but they do have two other distinguishing characteristics. They hate ‘witchery’ and they hate women; holding both in complete contempt and often referring to the latter simply as ‘mares.’ Though they deal courteously with outside women, they generally avoid them and only have contact with their own women at set times of the year.

What? Their race needs to continue somehow. As it is, the Falconers have a good reason for their dislike of both witchery and women. But you do not need to take my word for it if you read Storms.

The Witches especially find this Falconer practice repulsive, so they forbade even trading with the Falconers. The general population of Estcarp and the rest of the Witch World find it an odd custom, too. The Witches’ ban was later ignored – for very good reason – and by that point the Witches no longer cared. Despite the Falconers’ barbaric treatment of their own women, there is something extremely intriguing about this fictional race Miss Norton made. I have to say I really enjoy the Falconers, no matter their attitude toward women and most forms of Power.

All right, now to finish the crash course in the Witch World. The nation of High Hallack directly influences the second story in the book. Miss Norton once said that High Hallack was based on America, as suggested by the fact that High Hallack is in the Western hemisphere of the Witch World. Its geography is composed of a patchwork of independent valley dales – called simply the Dales of High Hallack – ruled by various medieval lords. In that way, the Dales seem somewhat reminiscent of the states.

High Hallack has no one group of rulers and no one ruler: each Dale is ruled by a lord and his family and no one gets to tell them how they ought to run it. There is also no united group in the Dales that wields Power, as the Witches in Estcarp did. Though some in High Hallack possess Power, they are mostly Wise Women. Others who have some Power may be among the ruling Dale families, but if so their Power is often either an ancient gift or an ancient curse. To the west of the Dales is the Waste, where a great many remnants of strange, bygone peoples – who most certainly did wield Power (and lots of it) – are still found and felt. Most people in High Hallack do not like the Waste and will not go into it if they can possibly avoid doing so. Those who do enter the Waste come back changed, for better or worse.

In the preceding novels, High Hallack had experienced an invasion from a country north of Estcarp called Alizon. Alizon and Estcarp do not get along in the least, so when invaders from another world – the Kolder – tried to conquer both Estcarp and High Hallack, they enlisted the help of Alizon.

Estcarp was familiar with Alizon and had less trouble with that country than High Hallack had fighting this foreign enemy armed with alien weapons. High Hallack finally beat the Hounds of Alizon (they are apparently called Hounds because their families and clans are set up like dog packs; they actually refer to their siblings as ‘littermates’) and drove them out of the Dales. Still, the prolonged war depleted the manpower of most of the Dales and left many holdings without a ruler.

The short stories in Storms of Victory are preceded and ended with reflections from a former border warrior of Estcarp named Duratan. The book begins with Duratan recounting his life and the events that led him to the place of records where he has begun living. This place is a worn down, centuries old keep called Lormt (do not ask me how to pronounce it; I make do the best I can with it). At Lormt he begins to take an interest in chronicling the stories of those who briefly benefit from the inhabitants’ hospitality. Duratan soon discovers he has some of the Talent – the Power the Witch women wield.

The Witches maintain that no man can wield the Power; if men do, then they are evil. Now, this cultural idea has been stood on its head from the first Witch World novel onward, but that does not make the Witches’ any more amenable to men who have Talent. Since Duratan is so far out of the way at Lormt, he has nothing to fear from the Witches. And soon he does not have to worry about them at all.

An enemy country to the south of Estcarp, Karsten, amasses an army to march on and invade them. Karsten has been about as friendly to Estcarp as Alizon has been over the years, so this attack is hardly unexpected. But there is no way that Estcarp has a prayer of matching Karsten army to army. The fact that Estcarp has been fighting on three fronts – northward with Alizon, southward with Karsten, and then with the alien Kolder – for years means they have few fighting men left to defend them. Even the Falconers are not numerous enough to stand against all the invaders. The only barrier between Estcarp and Karsten’s army is the mountains that form the southern border, the mountains where the Falconers live.

So the Witches resort to a dangerous plan. They evacuate everyone – or everyone whom they can reach and will listen to them – from the mountains and the surrounding areas. This includes the tightlipped Falconers and Estcarp’s own border men. Then, once everyone who has answered the summons is out of the way, the Witches combine their shared Power. As the army from Karsten is marching through the mountains, the Witches turn them.

They do not turn the army. No, they physically twist and reshape the mountains on their southern border. But this astounding achievement comes with a heavy price, namely the lives of most of the Witches’ Council. In one move, Estcarp is saved from its southern enemy and reft of more than half of its rulers. This event is then known throughout Storms of Victory and other volumes as The Turning.

Despite the loss of so many Witches, Estcarp manages not to fall into utter chaos. The Guard Captain of Es City, the capital of Estcarp, takes command of the nation and tries to hold the country together. That is where the first short story, The Port of Dead Ships, begins.

The Port of Dead Ships introduces the reader to old faces from Norton’s previous Witch World novels: Simon Tregarth, an Earthman from World War II with Power who upset Estcarp’s idea of Power wielders; Jaelithe, his wife, a former Witch; Kemoc Tregarth, Simon’s youngest son who also wields Power; and Orsya, Kemoc’s mutant wife from an eastern country called Escore. Orsya, one of the Krogan people, needs to swim at certain hours of the day or she will literally dry up and die.

Then we are re-introduced to Koris of Gorm, a misshapen dwarf with a handsome face and fine honed war skills that earned him the position of Captain of the Guard. Gorm was an island nation off the coast of Estcarp which was captured and ‘ravished’ by the Kolder. Everyone on the island is dead; it has only a few inhabitants – the Estcarpian guards who keep watch to make sure none try to steal the alien tools remaining there. With the fall of the Witches’ Council Koris has become ruler of Estcarp in all but name, having not declared himself master of the realm. With him is his wife, Loyse of Verlaine, the daughter of a Karsten noble whose line lured ships to their destruction and plundered the cargoes from the wrecks. Hating this life, Loyse escaped to Estcarp, where she met and married Koris.

These six are in council with a Sulcar captain. The captain has word of ships being lost in the south; with the threat from Karsten eliminated and Alizon reduced to petulant raiding on the northern border, the interim of peace has allowed the Sulcar to begin practicing their merchant skills again. Except that a handful of ships, sailing south in search of old and new trade, have been found adrift. More disturbing, the ships have been found with their cargoes intact but the entirety of their crews gone. There are no bodies, no signs of struggle. The ships have been found completely empty of human life. A scary find indeed, especially for those who make their life on the sea.

Since no physical trace can be found of the crews, the only answer the Sulcar can come up with is that these strange disappearances are the work of some dread Power. Despite constant remembrances of the terrible Kolder war, these ‘dead’ ships do not bear the signs of the same tools. It appears that whatever Power is the cause of the mystery is based squarely in the Witch World. The Sulcar captain has come to ask the aid of those with the Power to find the source of the dead ships.

However, he has found no help from the remnants of the Witches’ Council. They are working hard at the moment to try and regain their former strength. Also, the blow to their numbers has dealt a worse blow to their pride. They have had their way for too long and, now that they can no longer have it, they refuse to do anything other than nurse their wounds and build their power up again.

So the captain has come to this council particularly to ask Jaelithe’s help. Although she is no longer officially a Witch, she has not lost her Power, and he is hoping that she can find out what is causing the problem.

However, Jaelithe does not have the skill for a ‘farseeing’ of such magnitude. But the narrator of Dead Ships, the Sulcar woman Destree M’Regnant, does. Destree also has the ability to read a person’s future, which usually turns out ill for the person she has read. This happened to the captain’s brother, so he hates her for simply existing, and the dire readings of her particular Power has made her an outcast among the clannish Sulcar her entire life. Despite all this, Jaelithe is determined to have her help whether the captain likes it or not.

Destree ‘farsees’ a place to the south, the place where the ships have been disappearing. In doing this she discovers volcanoes spawning new islands somewhere in the same direction. But these events are not nature-born. Something, some Dark Power, is building these new islands for a purpose. And any purpose of something of the Dark is bad, bad news.

Maintaining order in the country and along its borders with the forces of Estcarp so thinly stretched, Koris can spare few men to fight this Power. Nor can the remaining Witches be roused out of their collective sourness to go and see to the problem. That leaves the present company – excluding Koris and his wife, since they are both needed to maintain rule in Estcarp – to search out and destroy this evil power.

Despite the Sulcar’s hostility toward Destree, Jaelithe makes it clear that the other woman is not staying behind. Knowing it’s better not to argue with a Witch, as much because they are often right as for the fact that doing so can be very unhealthy, the Sulcar captain grudgingly allows Destree to join the voyage.

The Port of Dead Ships is the longer of the two short stories. On a personal note, I would recommend that no one read Dead Ships at night. Later on, it can get a little creepy. So if you are not the type of person who enjoys creepy stories, put the book down when it gets dark, otherwise you might just jump at every creak and bump in the night you hear. Norton was good at being scary when she chose to be.

The second short story in Storms of Victory is by Pauline M. Griffin, a writer whose stories were published with the approval of Miss Norton in her books. Miss Griffin’s story is called Seakeep and has something of a cliffhanger ending. Nevertheless, it is one of the BEST additions to the Witch World universe I have ever read, and it is this story I have been working up to describing.

Seakeep is the name of the story and of a small Dale in High Hallack. This Dale faces the sea (hence its name, Seakeep), and it is ruled by a woman. This is uncommon among the Dalespeople, since women from the ruling houses of the Dales are typically married off to increase their family’s land holdings. While Una of Seakeep was indeed married – well, that’s jumping ahead of the story.

Seakeep was spared the ravages of the war with Alizon because it was too far north and too secluded to be much of a military threat or advantage. Despite not being physically devastated by the enemy, the Dale still lost many of its men during the war. The people of High Hallack learned early on that Alizon intended to wipe them out. So the Dale lords banded together to fight their enemy and, eventually, they drove them back across (or into) the sea. Seakeep’s few remaining men returned home, including Una’s father. But he could no longer rule his Dale; an injury during one of the final battles of the war had cost him the use of one arm and both legs.

This led to him relying on Una and her mother, who died sometime later, to run his Dale. This was something that Una proved more than capable of doing. However, fearing that some outsider might force himself on his daughter, who was unwed, Una’s father married her off to his best friend and second-in-command, Lord Ferrick.

Since marriage alliances are the norm in the Dales, Una did not mind this turn of events. Also, she had known Ferrick her entire life, which was more than many Holdwomen could claim. And because the marriage meant no greedy outsiders would gain control of her beloved Seakeep, she was content with the arrangement.

But things soon took a turn for the worse as an epidemic struck the Dales. In some places, people got sick and then recovered to go about their lives once more. In other places, including Seakeep, many died of the disease. Most of Seakeep’s men, including the hale ones who had just attained manhood, went down fast and hard. Una also came down with the disease but fought her way out of it, only to find in waking that her husband and father had succumbed.

For a time afterward, Una was able to run her Dale just fine. But then the very thing she and her father had had the foresight to dread happened; a tyrannical Dale lord began trying to win Una’s consent to marriage. Knowing that he was a tyrant would have been enough to turn Una against him, but there is more. She has one chance: find a suitably large company of ‘blank shields’ – mercenaries for hire – to turn back the avaricious Daleholder’s larger force. And Una knows precisely what kind of blank shields will do the trick:

Falconers.

This is a really bad idea, right? Falconers hate women. The idea that one of them – let alone a whole company of them – would swear sword oath to a woman is enough to make many, even among the Dalespeople, think that you are insane. But of the other companies of blank shields who still remain in High Hallack, Una knows next to nothing. How can she be sure that such blank shields, even if they were Dalesmen, would not be more trouble than they were brought in to fight?

Falconers are not such an unknown. Once given, their oath is for keeps. They would sooner die than violate it in spirit or letter. If Una can get even a small company to guard her Dale, she need not fear that they will turn against her or abuse her people. The problem with the plan, of course, is whether or not the Falconers will even listen to her, let alone swear sword oath to her. If she cannot gain their support, then Seakeep is doomed.

In Linna, a port town on the coast of High Hallack, a Falconer captain named Tarlach and his company of five hundred Falconers are trying to decide if they should ship back to Estcarp or remain in the Dales for some more time.

But more rests on Tarlach’s mind than this problem. Since the Turning, the southern mountains of Estcarp’s borders have become unlivable. Foul creatures of the Dark, spilling over from the east or roused by the upheaval of the mountains, roam the area. The Eyrie – the Falconer men’s base in these mountains – is long gone, and the forced twisting of them has rearranged and made them treacherous. Without a base, without a home, the Falconer race may be doomed to extinction.

Tarlach is soon roused from his gloom when fighting breaks out nearby as a gang of thugs attempts to capture a traveler. Thinking the traveler is a youth because of ‘his’ clothes, Tarlach and his lieutenant help the bystander fend off the attack. A few streets later, though, they learn they have rescued a woman – Una of Seakeepdale.

I will avoid spoiling the rest of the story. If you want to know more, find Storms of Victory and start reading! And, as I mentioned before, Seakeep’s ending is pretty much a cliff hanger. If you enjoy Seakeep, then you will want to find the sequel to Storms of Victory, which contains the second half of the story. The sequel to Storms is Flight of Vengeance.

I know neither half of this story will appeal to everyone, but all the same, I highly recommend both volumes. Have fun reading, everyone! I know I will!

Until next time!

The Mithril Guardian

 

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