(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 44.)
My disappointment with Andre Norton's Lord Of Thunder began with the discovery that the cover image was not proportionally true to the content, but it didn't end there. Sadly, this is not about a man who can summon lightning while standing in front of a space-plane perched on the nose of a gigantic, owl-eyed cat as an eagle soars before a swirling vortex of a backdrop. All those elements do factor into the book, but, in the more expected sizes and never in such a riotous tableau. In fact, Norton's book almost seems designed to arrange those elements to minimize their surprise and delight. Yeah, it's an adventure on a far-flung planet featuring fantastic animals and a man that can call lightning from the sky, but the whole thing has the air of business-as-usual.
Maybe that's because it is business as usual. I've written about Norton before when I covered her 1965 novel The X-Factor and found myself experiencing a sense of déjà vu reading Lord Of Thunder. Both feature protagonists who can communicate telepathically with intelligent animals wandering around a desolate, dangerous land but this wasn't really what triggered it. The familiar feeling came from a sense that Norton had a beginning and end point in mind for her story and didn't really care all that much how she filled the points between.
Maybe I'm being too hard on her. She wrote for years, from the '30s through up to her death in 2005, and enjoyed (and still enjoys) a devoted following. And, boy, could she turn them out. Her bibliography lists over 200 books, 30 in her Witch World series alone. Lord Of Thunder is the first sequel to one of her most popular novels, 1959's The Beast Master, which lent its name, elements of its premise, and little else to the much-broadcast-on–'80s-cable Don Coscarelli fantasy movie Beastmaster. (Joke from an '80s stand-up comic whose name I don't remember? "What does HBO stand for? 'Hey, Beastmaster's on!'")
It wasn't hard to piece together what I missed, though I did start to suspect Norton had a better story to tell the first time around. Set on the planet Arzor in a future in which Earth has been devastated by a hostile race called the Xik, both novels drop an Earth-born Native American (or, "Amerindian," to use the term Norton preferred during its brief vogue) named Hosteen Storm into the hero slot. Hosteen's a "beast master" able to communicate with animals because of his Navajo heritage. (The novel just kind of takes as a given that of course he'd have this skill.) Storm's animal friends include a large "dune cat" named Surra, an African Eagle named Baku, and a meerkat named Hing. Hing's mostly M.I.A. for this adventure, but Surra and Baku play considerable roles at the novel's beginning and end. (I would have been fine if they'd done more, frankly, since they're better developed than most of Norton's human characters.)
The clever conceit of Norton's Beast Master novels–she followed up this pair years later with three more entries co-written by Lyn McConchie–is that Storm plays the role of frontier settler on a planet filled with natives that serve as analogues to the Native Americans of the Old West. Some are hostile. Some have formed an uneasy relationship with the "Terran" settlers. Trouble is, it's too neat an analog and Norton's treatment of Azor's native "Norbies" feels informed more by westerns than a real affinity for Native American culture. Here the Norbies' unexpected retreat to talk "medicine" creates unease. Even Norbies not usually allied with one another has chosen to participate in the medicine talk, despite the fact that their talk coincides with the Big Dry season, when most on Azor choose to stay put rather than face the hostile weather.
What's stirring them up? It takes a while to find out. First Norton has to send Storm off in search of an off-worlder's lost son, who's gotten himself stranded in the wilderness. (Storm addresses the newcomer in the deferential term reserved for patrician off-worlders: "Gentle Homo." That's not a particularly relevant detail but I thought I'd share it anyway.) Storm at first refuses but when the Gentle Homo decides to set off on his own, Storm and his half-brother Logan set off to the rescue.
Thus begins a lot of wandering until Storm eventually–and I mean eventually–hits on the source of all the trouble: a crazed scientist with power over lightning who's stirring up the Norbies to attack the settlers. But for a book called Lord Of Thunder the Lord Of Thunder isn't particularly interesting. Storm and Logan aren't all that interesting either. Norton's not much of a prose stylist and after establishing a few details of her characters' personalities she pretty much lets readers do the rest for themselves. And while I appreciate Norton's world-building early on–there's a lot of attention to detail in the book's first chapters–it gives way to incident piled on top of incident that mostly seem there to fill the space.
Maybe I'm missing something. Over at SciFi.com, Paul Di Filippo reviews The Beast Master but lumps this book in with his praise.
First in the novel's list of impressive assets is the character of Hosteen Storm. An orphan of the most drastic sort–his entire world is dead–Storm is also a veteran, scarred by all the carnage he has seen. Amazingly, considering her venue, Norton imparts an almost noirish cast to him. He's a figure straight out of one of the novels John D. McDonald was writing at this time, about World War II survivors forced to confront civilian life. He could be a Keith Laumer protagonist as well, tough and hardened, with a chip on his shoulder. Norton makes much of how he has erected a barrier between himself and other people, open only to his animals.
I'd love to read that. But I didn't find that here. Maybe I should read The Beast Master, but my two experiences with Norton make me want to keep her novels at a respectful distance. I can see why she has fans, but I don't know that I'll ever be one of them. She gets the job done, but there's more workmanship than craftsmanship to the effort.
Want to read past Box Of Paperbacks Book Club entries? All previous installments of The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club are archived here.
Next: Vanishing Ladies by Ed McBain
Then: The Man From Planet X: #1 The She-Beast by Hunter Adams
(I've been saving this one for just the right time and I think that time has come.)