Webs Within Webs:

Andre Norton’s Web of the Witch World

Web of the Witch World ~ In the second novel in the Witch World saga, the story picks up not long after the end of the first volume. Earth native Simon Tregarth and his witch, who has revealed to him that her name is Jaelithe, are now married, and Jaelithe has apparently accepted the loss of her powers—the inevitable consequence of sex. She is no longer a witch and no longer carries the jewel of her office.

Simon meanwhile is now March Warder of the South of Estcarp. The other key couple of Witch World, Koris and Loyse, are betrothed; Koris has become Seneschal and Marshal of Estcarp, and he and his love are living in Es Castle, far away from Simon’s headquarters. The political situation is as fraught as ever; the evil Kolder have been defeated but are not gone, and the rest of Estcarp’s enemies are still going strong.

As the novel opens, it is a dark and stormy night, and Simon and Jaelithe wake to a psychic distress call that they trace back to Loyse. Simon and Jaelithe. She reacts with shock and exultation: “I am whole!” Her witch powers haven’t evaporated now she’s had sex. She still has at least some of them.

Simon has a sadly predictable reaction: But what about meeeee? Never mind that she gave up everything she was to marry him. If she gets to keep any of it, he leaps immediately to the conclusion that she won’t want him any more.

Jaelithe, who has no concept of female subjugation, pays no attention at all. I love how she forges ahead, just as if she were an actual whole independent person instead of The Wife, and celebrates her wholeness, though as the novel goes on, the initial joy is tarnished by the witches’ refusal to take her back.

We won’t realize this for a while however. In the beginning, it’s apparent that Loyse is in trouble, and Jaelithe and Simon set out to discover what’s happened. Loyse has been abducted by her husband-by-proxy, the Duke of Karsten, in order to consummate the marriage and confirm the alliance with the very wealthy wreckers of Verlaine—the Duke being perpetually in need of funds, and not fond of losing anything that belongs to him.

Loyse is now a Plot Token, but Jaelithe makes sure to speak up for her, and remind the men that Loyse [a] dressed up as a man to escape Verlaine, and [b] has some agency of her own. They should not underestimate her. (Advice the author herself might have taken to heart, but that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.)

Simon has a plan. It involves infiltrating Verlaine, taking out Loyse’s father Fulk, and assuming his appearance by magic, then infiltrating Karsten in that guise and liberating Loyse from the Duke. It’s very complicated, very dangerous, and ultimately unsuccessful, because there’s more at work here than the usual political intrigue. That’s the theme of the book: endless interwoven complications revolving around a constant center.

The Kolder are back, but in not quite the same way they were before. They’re still fielding zombie armies, but they’ve added a level to this: elites who are under their control via a talisman, but who are capable of a degree of autonomy. Fulk is one of these, and when Simon takes his shape and clothing, he also takes the talisman, not knowing at the time what it is.

By this point Jaelithe has gone to the witches to ask for her jewel back, and Simon has not heard from her. This makes him even more certain that now she realizes she still has her powers, she doesn’t want him. As far as he can understand, a woman with her own life and career has no use for a man. But he’s too busy to mope much.

Loyse meanwhile is captive and helpless. She was lured out of Es Castle onto a ship, and is now in Kars. Her jailer is an old acquaintance: the Duke’s mistress, Aldis. Aldis, like Fulk, wears a talisman. Loyse is going to be raped, and Aldis makes sure she knows it. Aldis also gives her a knife, to use as she chooses.

When Yvian comes to claim his bride, Loyse leads him a not-so-merry chase around the bedroom, but she doesn’t use the knife to kill either herself or him. Aldis appears, disposes of him, and pulls Loyse out of there.

The castle is in the midst of a battle. Everywhere they go are dead and dying men. Loyse is under mind-control and is helpless to do anything but follow Aldis through a bolthole to a hidden boat on the river. The skiff takes them to a ship, and Aldis informs Loyse that she is now duchess, she is stupid, and she is a valuable hostage.

Simon and Koris have taken Kars, but not Loyse. Koris is beside himself. Simon appoints himself the voice of reason. They conclude that the Kolder have mind-controlled Fulk and Yvian and the missing Aldis. The army’s witch investigates Aldis’ chamber, finds evidence of a talisman, and determines what the thing does.

Having thoroughly destabilized Karsten, the invaders decide to follow Loyse, and speculate that she’s been taken to Yle, the Kolder stronghold. An ancient mariner confirms this speculation and gives them a trail to follow—he saw the skiff, and saw that the ship it floated toward was not powered by ordinary wind or oar. Koris immediately orders the fastest Sulcar ship available, and sets off in pursuit. Simon, uneasy, ponders what to do, and thinks about returning to Gorm and reactivating one of the Kolder aircraft to get into Yle.

Yle is “locked tight,” as Koris says and Simon expected. There’s no way in. Simon finally mentions the air option, and Koris leaps on it. They all turn around and head for Gorm—apparently instantaneously, or else the copy editor wasn’t on the job, because there’s no sense of time passing, just Yle in one paragraph and Gorm in the next.

Simon takes time in the dead city to mope about Jaelithe, until Koris calls him away to the aircraft. They’re still there. Simon knows exactly how to fly one.

He’s mind-controlled through Fulk’s talisman, which he’s still wearing. (Not smart, that. Not smart at all. But very convenient for the plot.) He flies straight to Yle, and finds Aldis there with the helpless and mind-controlled Loyse. He picks them up and heads out “to sea.”

While he’s flying under Kolder control, the witches take over and divert him, using a white Falconer bird. Aldis fights to keep him on course. They crash in a miserable swamp, which turns out to be the Tormarsh, the home of the Tormen—relatives of Koris’ mother.

Simon, now free of Kolder control, helps Loyse overpower Aldis and escape the downed craft, leaving the Kolder agent behind. They trek through the marsh and find a shrine of Volt, the bird-entity whose ax Koris carries, then follow a road to a ruined city. Past that, and near death from thirst, they fall into a trap, and wake to find themselves captives of a young Torman and an elder woman, evidently a matriarch. She interrogates them, determines who they are and how they relate to Koris, and leaves them in a room without an exit. The only way out is through magic.

While so imprisoned, Simon manages to get in mental touch with Jaelithe. With her help he tracks down Aldis and discovers that she has made contact with the Kolder. Jaelithe meanwhile has been told by the witches that her power isn’t really real, and even if it were, there’s not much of it left.

Jaelithe is disappointed but undeterred. She has been learning how to use her altered magic, and has determined that it’s linked to Simon. And now she has a plan—but the contact snaps before she can relay it.

The Tormen have agreed to give Simon and Loyse to the Kolder. Meanwhile Alizon is attacking Estcarp, drawing off the bulk of Estcarp’s forces. The situation is complicated, as usual, and dire, also as usual.

The upshot of all this is that Koris has to do his job as Seneschal and deal with Alizon (unlike Simon, who has long since forgotten about his own responsibilities in the south), and Simon and Loyse, with Aldis, are carried off in a submarine to the distant, and hidden, Kolder base. Jaelithe, mindlinked intermittently with Simon, sets off after them on a small, fast Sulcar ship. A larger fleet follows.

Simon and Loyse end up in the Kolder base. Jaelithe on the surface ship runs into a major roadblock: a sea-spanning mass of toxic weed. While Simon does what he can to infiltrate the Kolder base and Loyse lies around helplessly, Jaelithe manages to set the weed on fire with oil and fire arrows and a good dose of magic. In the process she discovers that she’s stronger than she knew, and that she doesn’t need a jewel to wield her magic.

Simon in the Kolder base figures out how to open drawers and doors with his mind, and uses the knowledge to free Loyse and attack the Kolder leader. Jaelithe and a handful of Sulcarmen arrive to help, but there are far more Kolder and zombie slaves than they can easily take on.

With Aldis in custody, Simon and Jaelithe and company discover the gate through which the Kolder came into this world. Aldis’ talisman is their key.

The other side is a hell world, a planet of postapocalyptic ruins, haunted by skeletal creatures who were once Kolder and are now determined to take revenge on their fellows who abandoned them. They stage an invasion through the gate, having captured a Kolder master to serve as their key.

Aldis serves as a sort of Greek chorus here, explaining what’s going on to Simon and company. She’s completely mad, and there’s nothing human left in her.

Suddenly she breaks loose and runs. They need her talisman or they’re stuck here. Jaelithe tracks her by magic, using Simon’s strength to augment her own. Aldis dies, apparently from the aftereffects of the magic, but her talisman is still usable. They make it back through the gate, and Simon blows it up with an alien weapon.

The gate is now closed, and Kolder and Morlock-Kolder set to work killing each other off. There’s still the base to deal with however, and after reuniting with the Sulcarmen and the rest of the fleet that followed Jaelithe’s ship, Jaelithe prevails on the fleet’s witch to join with her and Simon, possess the Kolder leader and turn him against his own kind, and capture the base.

Now the Kolder are gone, there’s still the war with Alizon and the chaos in Karsten to cope with. But Simon is perfectly willing to take victory where he finds it. Which includes Jaelithe, who is clearly not about to abandon him. That’s a satisfactory ending, as far as Simon is concerned.

All of this is incredibly complicated, tangled, and twisty, but the actual line of the plot is fairly straightforward. Jaelithe didn’t lose her magic after all, Loyse is a pawn in a complex game, and Simon is the key to saving everything—but chiefly because of Jaelithe.

It’s a classic rescue-the-girl trope, turned inside out. Loyse doesn’t do much except serve as bait, and Simon’s efforts mostly just get him into worse trouble than he was in before. It’s Jaelithe who saves both of them, but she does it in collaboration with Simon. His knowledge, her power. They’re an effective team.

Simon is the one who mopes and fusses about their relationship. Jaelithe goes where she means to go and does what she needs to do. She’s always been the active member of the partnership. Simon is more reactive, and he’s the one who keeps getting captured and mind-controlled.

It’s kind of lovely. Simon’s strengths include his knowledge of machines and his command of military strategy. Jaelithe and the other witches are powerful strategists themselves, and their command of magic nicely balances Simon’s mechanical sense.

This is not your standard medievalist fantasy. It’s like a mashup of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, classic swords and sorcery, political intrigue, and a little inarticulate romance. Simon and Jaelithe are not demonstrative, but they are deeply bonded—emotionally and magically. It’s that bond that carries through everything that happens, and ends up saving them all.

I was a little disappointed Koris and Loyse this time around. Loyse has nothing much to do but be serially captured. Koris doesn’t even get to save her—he’s too busy, and in any case, we’re told, he’s too emotionally involved to be any good at it. It feels as if it was just too much trouble to keep that many characters going, so Loyse becomes a Plot Token with barely a word to speak for herself as the story goes on, and Koris gets dropped from the board.

I don’t quite get why Simon and Koris had to go nuclear on Verlaine, either, and their elaborate masquerade in Karsten gets lost in the Aldis plot; by the time we realize what’s happened, Loyse is gone and the castle is taken. The only real reason for the Fulk disguise is for Simon to get hold of the talisman, but you’d think it would occur to Simon that it’s a bad idea to keep the thing on him after he’s done being Fulk. Plot, like the Kolder, is in control here.

Overall this isn’t my favorite Witch World book. I’m not a fan of the Kolder in general, and the parts that interest me—the witches, the Tormen, the intrigue in the various nations—necessarily take a back seat to the tracking down and destruction of the Kolder. I’m glad to see them stamped out, and equally glad to look forward to more Witch World and less science fantasy.

Next, we’ll move on to Three Against the Witch World, which opens up this world in some very interesting ways, and fills in the history of the witches and Estcarp.

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