Jumpdrives & Cantrips

The Beast Master
February 14, 2008, 2352
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

The BeastmasterDespite being an extremely popular author and a Grandmaster of science fiction, Andre Norton (February 17, 1912 – March 17, 2005) doesn’t get all that much kudos online. In fact, on several science fiction history websites that give detailed lists of major writers she doesn’t make the list. Surprising to an extent, but nor were there any other female science fiction writers listed on those particular sites–even under male pseudonyms. And of course, back when Norton was starting out in the 1940s it was accepted that women would take names of a male or gender non-specific nature if they wanted to be successful authors.

The Beast Master was one of Norton’s more popular books from the looks of it, though I cannot verify this by numbers. She wrote a sequel (Lord of Thunder, 1962) as well as several more books starting in 2002 with Lyn McConchie as a co-author. I doubt it was the first, but The Beast Master depicted a near-telepathic connection between humans and animals before this idea became popular. With no particular surprise, I seem to recall James H. Schmitz (*cough*Telzey Amberdon*cough*), Anne McCaffrey, and Mercedes Lackey–all three use telepathic creatures fairly often–listed Norton as a major influence or inspiration.

In any case, our protagonist is Hosteen Storm, a retired veteran Galactic Commando Beast Master who has near-telepathic communication with his animal companions. The animals include a genetically modified cat (cougar and desert-fox), an African black eagle, a pair of meerkats, and his newly-acquired stallion–an impressive variety. Since the alien Xik destroyed his home world Terra, he decides to settle on a planet similar to Earth’s midwest. Storm ends up hired to help graze the local livestock and becomes a mediator between the planet’s native humanoids and the human colonizers. Of course, when he discovers those wily Xik trying to foment war between the two groups of residents, he takes action.

Hosteen Storm is Dineh (aka Navajo) and Norton must have done her homework on certain aspects of Dineh culture. Readers of this book in 1959 must have found it fairly progressive in terms of having a positive portrayal of a Dineh main character, but I still can’t quite get around the constant references to race. Not only does the race issue come up frequently, but the “Noble Savage” stereotype permeates Storm’s character and there is constant mention of racial knowledge (ie, Storm adjusts easily to using “finger talk” with the native population because the Dineh used to use sign language). However, in terms of looking at his interactions with the colonized and the colonizers, it does make for an interesting study. The book really emphasizes contact with “the other” both within social groups, and then by contrasting friendly and non-friendly relations between both social groups and species.

By today’s standards, the book’s plot meanders and isn’t particularly well-constructed. There are portions of the book that serve little purpose other than to Be A Moment Of Discovery And Awesomeness, and much of Storm’s role in the book is reactionary more than anything else. Unfortunately the big “reveal” in terms of Storm’s revenge subplot isn’t really resolved until the last three pages of the book, which doesn’t give it all that much room. It’s a pity that this book, which is far more character-driven than most books of the time, takes so long to address the main inner conflict for Storm despite having little teasers tossed in every once in a while.

For all that, the quality of story-telling still stands up and it was an enjoyable read. The Beast Master is not one of Andre Norton’s finest books, but it captured the imagination of many people, and was certainly more than worth the price at a used book sale. I’m not sure I’d go seek out the other books in the series, but I am a little curious in any case, and I’d be interested to see how much “Western” flavour remains in the later novels. If nothing else, it’s a nice fusion between Western and science fiction, which works well together what with the frontier-type ideas embraced in both (see Firefly for my favourite example of this if you have not yet done so).

As an aside, I must say, it’s not necessarily the best-looking cover in the world, eh? Personally, I have this image in my head of the artist having the animals listed out to him (“…and two meerkats”) then asking, “what the heck is a meerkat?” And some marketing guy saying, “It’s kind of like a gopher or something.” Lo and behold, our meerkat (upon the rump of the horse, if you look closely) approximates something like a gopher crossed with a beaver.

Norton, Andre. The Beast Master. New York: Ace Books, 1959. 189 pages. 50 cents (Canadian) from a used book sale.


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I’m a huge fan of the more overlooked and older sci-fi/fantasy releases. While there are many blogs out there that review books, they tend to look at the newer releases that I’ll inevitably buy and read anyway. I love collecting used books so I’m glad to see there is a site that will also review older books as well as the new ones. Keep up the fantastic work. I will continue to enjoy your blog.

Comment by Joshua Lew

Heh. Andre Norton, from what I have seen from my family collection, has some of the most consistently underwhelming cover art ever. Even fromt he usual ’60s Sci Fi Cover’ pool.

That’s the cover, as for the contents, I have to admit that early on I read a bunch of her stuff that just did not impress me at all. the Witchworld series lived in The Book Closet, and when I pulled it out to read at 15, I quickly decided to put it back and leave it there.

…I’d try this one, though. I’m a sucker for “Western / Science Fiction”.

Comment by flaede

Thanks for the feedback! I’m a big fan of revisiting old stuff as well as looking at the new, so that’s not likely to fall by the wayside. Good to know that people are interested in it, though. If you have any review requests I can always see what I can do–no promises, but I can certainly do my best.


Comment by admin

Flaede: I still haven’t tried Witchworld, but the collaborations that Norton did with Mercedes Lackey were pretty good. I think _Elvenbane_ was probably the best. I have a secret love of horrible covers 😉


Comment by admin

Great review and great review of Anne McCaffrey’s novel too. I love reading about these oldies-but-goodies.

Comment by kimber an

Glad to hear it, because there’s so much great stuff out there that’s older but just doesn’t get the praise it deserves. I’ll be trying to review some not-so-new books regularly.


Comment by admin

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