Reparations and Redemption:

Andre Norton’s Sorceress of the Witch World

With Sorceress of the Witch World we reach the end of the series-within-a-series starring the three Tregarth offspring, with special bonus wrap-up of the story of Simon and Jaelithe. Finally, having followed the brothers and their adventures, we come to the youngest and the only daughter, Kaththea.

Kaththea, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is the real center of the triad.

Most of what Kyllan and Kemoc do is in some way connected with Kaththea. They become fugitives from Estcarp on her behalf. Her arrogance, ignorance, and overall bad judgment cause major upheavals in Escore, and nearly destroy both of her brothers.

By the time we come to her story, karma has caught up with Kaththea. She’s been stripped of her powers and most of her memory, and she’s aware of both those deficits. She’s also all too well aware that her brothers have paired up happily (in spite of her, to a large extent), and her attempt at the same was an unmitigated disaster. Kaththea, as we say these days, is not happy with her life choices.

As with so many other Norton novels, I came to the book as if it were completely new. I recognized the main characters, including the one Kaththea ending up pairing off with, but the plot and settings had slipped my memory altogether. The reread therefore mostly felt like a fresh read, and my reactions were those of 2017 Me. I’m sure Long-Ago Probably Somewhere in the Seventies Me swallowed the story whole and went on eagerly to the next.

My current and older incarnation needed to pause and reflect before moving on. My copy has a gloriously irrelevant swords&sorcery cover with white-blonde busty female and exuberant male, and hints at wild romance. It’s not exactly true to what’s inside.

What we get is vintage Norton. Minimal hormones. Lots of questing here and questing there. Kaththea finally realizes what a liability she is, and more so now she’s empty of power and memory. She’s a void waiting to be filled, and she’s very much afraid that something new and evil will try to possess her.

She makes an end run around her brothers and convinces Dahaun and Orsya to send her away from the Valley, back to Estcarp where she hopes one of the surviving witches can solve her problem. I actually enjoyed the discussion between the sisters-in-law: women settling things among themselves, taking for granted that they had the right to do so. None of them has issues with female inferiority. They’re all used to being the ones in charge.

Kaththea doesn’t get far on her journey before an avalanche takes out the party. She survives but is captured by a giant, fur-clad barbarian (all right, so that cover may be slightly relevant after all). He is a Vupsall, which is sort of like a landlocked Viking, with distinct overtones of Ignorant Savage–that part has aged badly. He takes her back to his village in his sled drawn by huge dogs.

The village sorceress quickly takes possession of her. Utta is of the Old Race, and we get a clear sense of how long-lived they are compared to ordinary humans: they show no signs of age until they’re near death, and she looks ancient. She’s been with the tribe for generations. Now she’s dying, and she needs a successor.

We learn here that witches are born with the power, but sorceresses (and sorcerer-adepts) acquire it by learning. Utta combines the two. She spell-binds Kaththea to the tribe, and proceeds, by slow degrees, to teach her what she needs to know in order to take Utta’s place.

Kaththea is at wits’ end to escape, find her brothers, get back to her life, but she is willing to learn as much as she can first. Kaththea, as always, is all about Kaththea.

While Kaththea is learning bits and pieces of spells and sorcery—Utta has been careful to leave gaps in what she knows, to keep her bound and effectively helpless—she finds Utta’s treasure cache: a box of ancient scrolls. These, we learn as the story goes on, come from one of the many ruined cities of Escore, and were made by an ancient sorcerer who liked to experiment with gates between worlds.

Utta dies having done everything she can to make sure Kaththea will never leave the tribe. Kaththea of course has other plans. And being Kaththea, even when she tries to help the tribe, she does it wrong. She casts a foreseeing to determine whether the tribe should stay in one of its camps or leave before it’s attacked by sea raiders, but she does it the way she does everything else: she only asks about herself. That could be a problem, she realizes too late.

And so it is. Kaththea remains safe when raiders destroy the tribe, all but the chief’s junior wife, Ayllia, who quite understandably hunts down Kaththea and tries to kill her. Kaththea thwarts the attempt and takes Ayllia captive.

With Ayllia in tow, Kaththea hides from the raiders in the ruined city, and heads for the sorcerer’s place of power. His wand is still there. Kaththea takes it, and Ayllia bolts, activating the portal. Kaththea runs after her, with some thought of redeeming herself by saving this last remnant of the tribe—Kaththea is not thinking clearly; not that she ever really is.

The portal leads to a world readers of the series will recognize: a postindustrial wasteland full of strange people and stranger machines. They’re not exactly Kolder, but they’re a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The sorcerer is still alive, and he’s there, enslaved to the evil masters. When Kaththea tries to reach her brothers to either call for help or find her way home, she comes into contact with another relative instead: her mother.

This is where Jaelithe and Simon have been all this time. They disappeared when the triplets were children, but time hasn’t passed as quickly as it has in the Witch World. They’ve been here for a matter of months, versus the years in which their children grew up, fled Estcarp, and cut a swath across Escore.

So now we’ve come full circle, back to Simon and Jaelithe fighting their way through a proto-Mad Max version of hell. They collaborate with Kaththea to find and free the sorcerer-adept, Hilarion, for whom Kaththea feels the nebulous, inchoate, barely physical attraction that stands in Norton books for love—but after her last major misstep in that department, she’s seriously spooked.

The four of them defeat the wicked master of machines, reopen the gate, and return to Escore. Hilarion is profoundly shocked to find his home in ruins. Kaththea runs away because she’s afraid of what she feels for him—though her mother has her own opinion about that.

The Tregarths abandon Hilarion and head back on foot to the Valley, linking mentally with Kemoc in the process. It’s not an easy journey; the landscape ranges from devastated to deadly, and Jaelithe works one of her illusion spells to make them all look like monsters, which keeps them safe from human attackers.

While this is going on, Kaththea is moping continuously about not having a plus-one. Her parents do. Her brothers do. “What of me, of ME?”

Kaththea never loses sight of her priorities.

She also realizes that someone or something is tracking them through Ayllia. It’s Hilarion, she thinks. And that, she tells herself, is Dinzil all over again. He’s bad. He’s evil. She has awful taste in men.

Jaelithe isn’t so sure, but she allows as how dumping him might not have been a good idea. She decides it’s best not to let him know they’re on to him. They’ll keep going and figure to defend themselves and the Valley once they get there.

When they finally do reach the border, they find a battle in progress. Kemoc is in the middle of it. Jaelithe conjures an illusory army to drive off the forces of evil. Kaththea, with her customary dreadful judgment, adds to the conjuring of dead soldiers by calling on Hilarion. That’s not a good thing to do to a living man at all.

It’s a fierce battle, but the ruse succeeds. Parents and sister are reunited with Kemoc and Orsya, and they escape to a less endangered location. There they catch up on all the news, and Kaththea and Orsya have a bonding moment.

Afterwards, when Kaththea is trying to sleep, Orsya’s magical healing cordial opens a gate of dream to Hilarion. He wants to know, surprisingly calmly, why Kaththea named him among the dead. Kaththea is all stiff and righteous and “Seek not to raise your banner here again.” Hilarion will not be baited. You’ll need me again, he says. And you owe me for death-naming me.

Sure enough, less than a page later, a crawling evil catches them in its spell. Kaththea calls on Hilarion. He comes. He saves them. Kaththea finally stops fighting her attraction to him. And that’s the whole shape of their future, saving Escore with their combined powers.

As for Ayllia, she’s taken in by the Green People and cared for, so that’s all right.

The ending happens at lightspeed. It’s like, oops, word count’s maxed out, gotta wrap, zoom.

It’s less unsatisfying than it might seem. By this time I know not to expect any kind of developing romance. That’s not how Norton does it. What we have here is as close to an evolution of feeling as I’ve seen so far; Kaththea fusses and frets over Hilarion, discusses him with her mother and her girlfriend, and generally almost acts like a real girl, in contrast to her brothers and her father, for whom love comes as a foregone conclusion.

We’re seeing the female side of it for the first time. Jaelithe must have had to do some hard thinking before she proposed to Simon, and Dahaun and Orsya both went well outside of their usual spheres to match up with Kyllan and Kemoc. Orsya especially had to betray her own people, and he’s a drylander whereas she can’t be away from water for more than a few hours or she shrivels and dies. It must have been a huge and harrowing process for her to recognize her feelings, and then accept them and act on them.

The men are terribly inarticulate about all this. Kaththea is less so, though Hilarion manages to put her in her place quite handily. He’s got a thing for her, it’s clear to  Jaelithe (and me) long before Kaththea catches on.

Clearly this level of characterization is not a priority for Norton, though there’s a sense that everybody has to pair off at the end of their story. Her real interest is in the nature and development of magic—finally we get to see one of her characters learning how to do it—and the ongoing conflict between post-magical-apocalypse, sword-wielding Witch World and the ugly mechanical dystopias that keep turning up on the other sides of worldgates. (Note what that says about the world Simon exited by portal to reach the Witch World.)

And now I understand why Kemoc is the Warlock of the Witch World, and not the Sorcerer. He’s naturally gifted but minimally educated. Versus Kaththea, who loses her natural gifts and has to gain them back through learning. Hence, she’s the Sorceress, rather than the Witch she was originally intended to be.

She finally redeems herself, at least, and learns the hard way to think of others as well as her precious self. It’s a difficult lesson, and she deserves every scrap of pain and suffering for what she’s done to everyone from her brothers to the Vupsall to Hilarion. One hopes the lesson sticks, as the last couple of paragraphs indicate, and she never makes the rest of the world pay for her selfishness again.

Now that we’ve finished this particular series-within-a-series, I’ll jump around a bit in terms of publication dates, as I read through what I have on my shelves. Next time I’ll be rereading one of my favorites of all the Witch World novels, The Crystal Gryphon. I hope you’ll join me.

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