263. Andre Norton’s Beast Master

Not every draft post actually gets posted. I started one a year ago in which I asked “What science fiction or fantasy world would you most like to live in?” That’s not the same as which one do you like to read about. I love the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of them. Or, if I were caught in one, I probably would end up dead.

The question never reached the website, but in the draft I answered, “Arzor”, which is the planet in Andre Norton’s Beast Master novels.

In many ways, The Beast Master is the ultimate early Norton. Many of her protagonists are orphans, and Hosteen Storm is a hyper-orphan. He has lost not only his family, but his whole world. He is haunted not only by painful memories, but by an oath sworn during his childhood. He has to choose between the angers of the past and the promise of the future, and in choosing, eventually finds a new family.

Hosteen begins the novel as a man apart, loyal only to his team of mutated animals, with whom he communicates telepathically. This kind of communication is a trope that Norton has used liberally, at least since 1952 with Star Man’s Son. (Incidentally, the first novel I checked out on my first visit to a library.)

Hosteen, half Navaho, half Sioux, chose to enter the Beast Master Corps, where he was teamed with a dune cat, an African eagle, and a pair of meerkats,. This was decades before Timon brought meerkats to everyone’s attention. They trained together, then spent the Xix war engaged in reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Now Earth has been destroyed, and the team is all that Hosteen has left.

He musters out on Arzor, a frontier planet much like his native Arizona. It is exactly what he would have chosen, but in fact he is impelled to go there in pursuit of revenge on a man he has never met. Hosteen will wrestle with himself throughout the book, torn between his oath and his growing respect and liking for the would-be victim and his son Logan.

Arzor is a transmogrified Arizona, with modernized cowboys on variform horses. Frawns look a lot like bighorn sheep; the yoris is clearly a distant relative of a kimodo dragon; the norbies are really, really tall Indians with horns. If you are inclined to cynicism (as I normally am) this could come across as a crude mashup. I have to fall back on my favorite phrase, “Somehow, Norton makes it work.”

For my taste, the trick is to come just close enough to the familiar, while keeping just the right admixture of the outré. It’s a tricky, narrow path, and nobody does it better than Norton.

When Hosteen first meets the man he has sworn to kill, he turns aside from the confrontation for reasons he does not understand himself. He subsequently becomes involved in an expedition to the Arzorean back country, which postpones his confrontation, but becomes a deadly adventure in itself. He and his team, with the aid of his would-be victim’s son, overcome an old and deadly enemy.

Finally, Hosteen’s oath can no longer ignored . . . but, even though the novel is nearing sixty years old, I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

Three years later, Norton wrote Lord of Thunder, a beast master sequel. which was quite good, though not up to the original. Four decades later, she wrote three more in the series in conjunction with Lyn McConchie: Beast Master’s Ark, Beast Master’s Circus, and Beast Master’s Quest. It seems that Norton liked Arzor as well.

The Beastmaster films are unrelated to the original, although the title is ripped off and the animal characters (two ferrets, an eagle and a panther vs. Norton’s two meerkats, an eagle and a dune cat) certainly looks suspicious. Caveat view-or.

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