The last book of Miss Norton’s reviewed here was Star Guard. Though I have plans to soon revisit the Witch World universe she created, we are not going there just yet. Our next stop, however, is almost as colorful. Allow me to introduce you, readers, to the world of Beast Master.
No, I am not talking about the TV show of the same name. While I enjoyed that series, I cannot help but wonder how it ended up sharing the same or a similar name with the book. There are no likenesses between the two stories.
At the beginning of Miss Norton’s novel, we learn that Earth – Terra – has been turned into a radioactive blue ball by an invading species called the Xiks. The Xiks are not human, though they are relatively humanoid. The first Beast Master novel does not go into great detail about what the Xiks look like.
Everyone on Terra is dead. Everything on Terra is dead. And at the Separation Center of the Confederacy, human colonists from other worlds have to deal with veterans of a world that is just plain gone. Many of the Terran veterans of the Xik war have lost their minds to grief because of the destruction of their world. These veterans either attack those who are trying to help them or they turn their weapons on themselves. Not a pretty picture, to be sure.
A Commander at the center is dealing with one such veteran’s case right now. Hosteen Storm, a Galactic Commando, is asking to leave the Center for the colony world of Arzor. He is a calm, cool, Amerindian man. Unlike many of the people at the Center, the psych-medics have been unable to find any sign of mental instability in him.
Maybe this is because he is one of the few Beast Masters. Beast Masters, once used to survey new planets for possible colonization, were reconverted into commandos for the war. Their bonds with teams of animals meant they could scout out danger faster than unaided humans in the Survey Department. During the war, their animals helped them track down enemy bases, sabotage enemy equipment and camps, and the Xiks were never able to face down the animals very well in personal combat.
To all appearances, Hosteen Storm seems completely healthy. Remarkable for a Terran veteran, true, but otherwise he seems to be nothing special.
Yet the Commander at the Center is reluctant to let the Beast Master go. Something about the young man is off. Oh, he answered the psychologists properly, and he has helped them handle the other, more unstable veterans who are mourning Terra’s destruction. But there remains something about him – a danger the Commander cannot put his finger on and which he cannot name. He only knows that he would rather not let the Commando leave the base.
However, he also has no precedent or excuse to keep him at the Center. Reluctantly, he gives Storm his papers. The Terran veteran accepts them, then leaves to pack his things and pick up his team.
Storm’s fascinating team consists of Baku, the female African Black Eagle; Ho and Hing, a mated pair of meerkats, and Surra. Surra’s ancestors were the small, fox-faced and eared dune cats. But they were bred successively with bigger and bigger cats over the years. So now, though Surra retains the distinctive fox-face and ears, along with the desert treading paws, she is the size of a cougar. Of the four animals on the team, she is the unquestioned empress.
Storm, one of the Dineh, the Navajo, has a reason for picking Arzor as his next stop. Not only is the planet the most like his native Southwest U.S.A., it is the home of an old enemy. The Commander’s instincts are right. Storm is not yet done riding the war trail. He has a score to settle on Arzor, though he has never met the man he wants to kill.
Once on Arzor, a planet which is pretty nearly the equivalent of the Southwest in terms of culture and land (though the sky has a mauve tint), Storm hooks up with a man named Put Larkin. Larkin is hiring riders for a drive to his range. He has a herd of horses he has to get home quickly. Storm’s Terran heritage causes a pause, but when the young Beast Master spectacularly tames an untrained horse, Larkin happily hires him on the spot.
On the trail, Storm makes an enemy of a fellow driver named Coll Bister. Bister gives the impression of a bigoted, swaggering, boastful man. But later events cast doubt on this idea. He is too cautious, and his hatred of Storm too deep. A blustering fool might take a dislike to a newcomer, but only upon having his fanny handed to him in a fight will he hate a man. Bister, however, hates Storm even before the other knocks him to the ground.
To add to this, Storm keeps hearing about some sort of trouble between the human settlers and the natives. Terrans and humans from other worlds usually avoid settling on planets with native populations. But the first settlers on Arzor came when space travel was still touch-and-go. They landed and found that – whoops – there was already a sentient species on Arzor.
These aliens – called Norbies – are roughly seven feet tall with white horns on their heads. Green skinned and very slender, the Norbies’ vocal chords are constructed in a way that prevents them from speaking human languages. In a twist of fate, no human can speak their whistling, chattering tongue either. Instead, they communicate with humans through a form of sign language, called “finger talk” in the novel.
To avoid the friction American settlers and Indians in the West encountered, the human settlers made strictly enforced pacts of friendship with most of the Norbie tribes. They may pass through Norbie territory while driving their herds, and the Norbies are happy to trade with them for horses, meat, or other things. Ranchers will hire Norbies as workers on their ranges, and the Norbies are good at tracking lost animals. Otherwise, though, a human cannot enter or hunt Norbie land without the Norbies’ direct say-so. There are outlaws who use the territory, certainly, but both the settlers and the Norbies dislike them.
The system between the two species does not please everyone on both sides, but by and large it seems most settlers and Norbies appreciate and like each other. This makes the determined, bigoted hatred of Bister and some other settlers out of character. These guys believe that recent losses in frawn and horse herds can be blamed on the Norbies. Most other ranchers do not buy this story, but that does not mean these hot-blooded men may not go off and do something stupid. If the balance between the Norbies and human settlers is upset, it will mean all out war. And primitive people do not do well when they war with more advanced peoples.
Storm, determined to pay his debt, does not want to get involved in this brewing fight. His mission is made even more complicated when he encounters his quarry during a night in town. Storm was expecting a man he could hate. Instead, he has found a man he can respect and could even like, if his blood-debt were not in the way.
Over the course of the book, however, both Storm and his quarry are drawn into the conflict between the Norbies and Settlers. Storm runs into successively greater and deadlier surprises along the way. Just because Terra is a blue ball of radioactivity does not mean the Xiks are willing to leave humanity alone. Their hatred runs too deep, though no human has any idea why the Xiks hate them. Attempts at reconciliation between the two species always ended badly for the humans involved.
Does Storm do what he came to Arzor to accomplish, you ask? You will have to read the book to learn that, readers! I have spoiled a large part of the story as things stand now. If I say any more, you will not need to read the book. And I want you to at least try it. Hopefully, you will enjoy it. And if it makes you a fan of Andre Norton’s writings, then so much the better!
See you around!
The Mithril Guardian