Sunday, July 7, 2013

Beast Master's Planet!

Years ago I had a professor tell me that sometimes a reader encounters a book at just the right time for it to make maximum impact. That has happened to me a few times over the years, enough to know that sometimes when a book is not connecting, I will set it aside and try later. Often I find that later works great and I thoroughly enjoy a book which was formerly giving me heartburn for some reason.

I've been like that with the works of Andre Norton all my life. Most times I find her stuff difficult to penetrate by no fault of hers, difficult to lock onto and get any excitement from. A few times I've been thrilled such as when as a youth I encountered Key Out of Time. But mostly I've always found Norton a bit dense, especially the "Witch World" stuff I've tried to read a few times now with little success.

But this week I've had a breakthrough with two of Norton's classics, the two vintage Beast Master novels gathered together under the title of Beast Master's Planet.

The Beast Master, the first novel was first published in 1959 and tells the tale of Hosteen Storm a Navajo veteran of a great war against an alien enemy called the Xik. Storm is part of a team made up of himself, a mutated mountain lion named Surra, a black eagle named Buka, and two meerkats named Ho and Hing. This team had been specially designed for missions during the war and Storm's team was one of the few remaining after the war which had ended in the utter destruction of Earth itself, something the natives of that planet were having a hard time with.

Storm goes to Arzor a wild planet settled by humans a few centuries before but home to the Norbies, a vast and sprawling culture of aliens noted for their height and their notorious horns. As you might expect there is more than a bit of tension between the settlers and the natives, something Storm is drawn into almost immediately.

As it turns out Storm has a specific mission on Arzor, to find and kill a man named Brad Quade. What Storm's complaint against Quade is exactly is kept a secret for much of the novel, but Storm finds Quade and discovers that he has much in common with this man, a man he grudgingly comes to respect. This poses a problem.

The Beast Master is a sci-fi novel for sure, but what it really is, is a western. There's no great secret to this as with little changes to the details, the story could have easily been set in the desert Southwest of the United States. There are aliens, there are ray guns, but what there is mostly is robust adventure.

Hosteen Storm is a noble hero, but also a warrior with no war left to fight. This is the story of a solitary man who thanks to his team is never alone, but always isolated from his fellow men. A strange man well respected by those around him, but kept at a distance too. This is the story of man trying to fit in, something we can all identify with I suspect.

The finale of The Beast Master led to a sequel a few years later.

Lord of Thunder picks up the story of Hosteen Storm, still on Arzor as he is trying to forge a future for himself. He is drawn into a larger political struggle as it seems the Norbies are heading to the mysterious Blue Mountain and the settlers suspect a war is looming. Through a complicated network of details, Storm finds his way into the peaks and  into a great and sprawling mystery.

There was before the settlers, perhaps even before the Norbie natives, another culture on the planet who have left behind their traces hidden in the mountains. That background had been touched upon in the first novel, but comes more front and center in this one.

Lord of Thunder is a thorough adventure tale, full of bravery and strategy and tactics galore as the mystery is examined and threat to the whole planet uncovered.

Andre Norton's "Beast Master" stories were plundered in the early 80's to fabricated the fantasy movie The Beastmaster. This movie, which hoped to piggyback some of the success of Conan the Barbarian takes the notion of a man connected to a team of animals and then dumps pretty much the rest of Norton's plot and background. I like this movie pretty well, but I can safely say that a true-blue filming of Norton's original novel would make for a superior adventure. John Ford would've been the ideal director.

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