Dark Piper: Intense and memorable for young readers

Dark Piper by Andre Norton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDark Piper by Andre Norton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsDark Piper by Andre Norton

A decade-long war is finally over and the people who live on the planet of Beltane are relieved. During the war, Beltane, where many scientists lived, was recruited for the war effort and served, unwillingly, as an experimental lab. After the war, most of the scientists left the planet, creating a brain drain, and the people who remained were pacifists who looked forward to starting a new way of life without interference from the Confederation.

When a disfigured veteran named Griss Lugard is brought back home to Beltane, he warns the citizens that because the Confederacy has fallen, there is no law, and they shouldn’t trust people who want to come to Beltane because they might have bad intentions. While the citizens of Beltane are eager to accept and shelter refugees fleeing war-ravaged worlds, Lugard vehemently objects, arguing that some of the refugees could be pirates looking for government and military secrets left on the planet, including secrets that are in the brains of Beltane scientists. While the citizens think Lugard is a military man who sees everything as a threat, Lugard thinks they are all naïve.

A real threat eventually materializes while a group of children are visiting Lugard’s home (given to him by the government in exchange for his service) on an archaeological expedition. Lugard protects the kids, now separated from their parents, by hiding them in an underground cave. When Lugard dies of his injuries, the kids are trapped underground without adult help.

Dark Piper by Andre Norton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCan the children, led by Vere Collis, a boy who was training to be a ranger cadet (and the story’s narrator), get back to the planet’s surface? If they do, what will they find? Was Lugard right about the threat, or was he a madman? And what kind of research were the scientists of Beltane doing? Vere and his friends are about to find out…

As I’ve frequently said in my reviews of Andre Norton’s books, If I had read Dark Piper when I was a kid, I would have thought it intense and memorable. It’s for that reason that I think young readers are the best audience for her science fiction novels, even if that wasn’t Norton’s intent when she wrote them decades ago. This story, with the loss of parents and the trekking through underground tunnels, would be especially unforgettable.

As an adult, I found the pace uneven with some scenes, especially the initial ones in the caves, that go on for way too long. I also found the xenophobia and distrust of refugees uncomfortable to read about in today’s climate. I appreciated, though, the strong and smart female characters that Norton created for this story.

Dark Piper and another stand-alone novel, Dread Companion, have been published together by Baen Books in an omnibus edition called Dark Companion. Tantor Audio has recently released an audio version of Dark Companion. Dark Piper is narrated by Derek Shoales who does a very nice job interpreting Vere’s pleasant voice.

Published in 1968. Audiobook published in 2021. The planet Beltane had been unscathed by the all-encompassing war of the four Sectors when Vere Collis and his friends were trapped by powerful explosions on the surface. Their leader was killed, but the group wandered for days underground to find a way to the surface. They emerged to find that they were the last human survivors on Beltane. Only strange and deadly mutant creatures now roamed the surface.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. I agree with you. As a young reader I was riveted by her stories. They were full of intensity, with high stakes, and I didn’t notice that the plots were often pretty simplistic. Looking back, it’s clear that her worldbuilding, while not bad, was dated, and absorbed a lot of Cold War values.

    That said, I might seek these two out and read them, because I can’t remember if I read them as a kid.

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