Sunday 11 March 2018

The Beast Master, by Andre Norton and The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

These two novels appear together here simply because both were recently chosen by the Classic Science Fiction forum ( -  there is one 30+ year old and one modern book chosen for discussion each month)

With the exception of the Janus books, I had read very little of Norton's works until quite recently, and The Beast Master (first published in 1959) was new to me.

The story has a bold and dramatic start – with the Earth being burned to a cinder in a war with the Xik, and the surviving humans being dispersed around the galaxy. One of these is Hosteen Storm, a Navaho, a former commando and a beast master: someone who is able to connect mentally with genetically modified animals. He travels with his animal team to Arzor on a long-planned revenge mission, but finds on arrival that the circumstances are not what he expected, and he is tested to the limit in battling unexpected enemies before reaching an optimistic conclusion.

It has been noted by other reviewers that Norton had a penchant for setting stories in rural or wilderness areas rather than cities, and that native tribes often feature. Both are true of this book, which also shows what I am coming to recognise as her tightly-plotted adventures, with rich descriptions and, for the period, good characterisation. She was a very competent story-teller, and I finished this book in two sessions. However, the story did not seem particularly memorable to me, and did not capture my interest in the same way as her Janus novels, which are among my favourites.

I note that there was a sequel,  Lord of Thunder, published in 1962, then three more co-authored by Lyn McConchie no less than four decades later: Beast Master's Ark (2002), Beast Master's Circus (2004), and Beast Master's Quest (2006 – the year after Norton's death). There was also a US film, The Beastmaster, made in 1982 and a Canadian TV series, BeastMaster showing 1999 to 2002, but neither stuck to the original story.


The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin comes highly recommended, among other things winning the Hugo award in 2016. It is set on a tectonically very active world in which civilisation is routinely crippled every few centuries by periods of catastrophic earthquake and volcanic events – known as the Fifth Season – after which the survivors have to rebuild and start again. So the landscape is littered with the remnants of past civilisations – deadcivs – the most enigmatic and impressive of which are vast obelisks which hover and drift in the air, whose purpose was forgotten long before.

The people of this world appear to be mostly human, with exceptions: one variety of human has a special and spectacular talent, the ability to sense the structure of the ground beneath their feet and by an effort of will to draw energy from around them to stop – or trigger – tectonic events (echoes here of Orson Scott Card's A Planet Called Treason). These orogenes are widely mistrusted and are controlled by the Fulcrum, a paramilitary organisation whose Guardians train and discipline the orogenes. There is also another and very different form of humanoid life – the mysterious and highly dangerous stone eaters who rarely interact with people.

The structure of the story follows the current fashion of starting with separate plot threads which at first appear to be unconnected but are pulled together in the latter part of the tale. Jemisin adds her own twist to this as is apparent early on, in that she starts with a catastrophic incident close to the end of the story, and the various threads take place at different times; some before and some after the incident. So the first thread starts with Essun in the comm (community) of Tirimo, a middle-aged woman who is secretly an orogene. Then we start to follow the life of Damaya, a lonely young girl, from the time that her orogenic ability is discovered through the early part of her training in the Fulcrum. The final major thread follows a few years in the life of Syenite, a female orogene, and her relationship with Alabaster, a senior orogene with whom she works and who has a curious link to Antimony, a stone eater. The chapters follow each of these threads in rotation.

The story is cleverly constructed and well-written. One unusual feature is that it is told in the third person except for Essun's chapters which are related in the second person – the identity of the narrator, who refers to Essun as "you", does not become apparent until the end.  I found it slow to get going and didn't really become engaged with it until about half-way through, when the action accelerates to the point that I was eager to return to the book each day to discover what happened next. The story does not disappoint, but I admired it more than I liked it. The author has a habit of killing off not just characters but entire comms after describing them well enough to make the reader begin to care about them, the overall effect being rather depressing.

The Fifth Season is the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, is already available – and won the Hugo Award in 2017.