I first found Andre Norton on the shelves of my elementary school library in fourth grade. I have no idea which of her novels was the first one I read. I just know whichever one it was, it was far from the last. One after the other, bound only by whatever limit our library put on me, I read all I could find on the shelves. And then I read them again. And then again. By the time I left that school in sixth grade, if you picked up one of her books and looked at the sign-out card (yes kids, once upon a time, library books had cards in the front where you’d print and sign your name and then the library would keep the card until you returned the book) you’d see my name running its length — four, five, six times per card, sometimes with no other names intervening — just my name, then my name again dated a few months later, then my name again after yet another few months. Card after card, book after book: a multi-year record of one fan’s love of an author’s work. Over the years I steadily recreated that elementary school collection in my home, and every now and then over the years, I’d pull down one of my favorite trio of Nortons, Star Guard or The Stars Are Ours, or Space Rangers, and damn if they still didn’t get me each time. So when my family planned a trip this summer to Alaska that would involve a lot of driving around, I downloaded the audio version of The Beast Master, another favorite but one I hadn’t read probably since high school (roughly 35 years ago for those counting), curious at not only my reaction, but my eleven-year-old son’s as well. We listened to the Brilliance Audio unabridged version, read by Richard J. Brewer (six hours, 36 minutes).
How did it do? Pretty darn well. I could always be accused of being swayed by nostalgia, but my wife and eleven-year-old son had never read the book (nor seen the movie cough cough “version” cough of it) and they both thoroughly enjoyed it. That didn’t surprise me so much; I thought they might like the aspects I’d remembered: a telepathic bond between human and animal, cool creatures like a desert puma and a huge eagle, evil aliens and “blasters.” What surprised me though was what I hadn’t remembered at all — The Beast Master, it turns out, is a Western.
Sure, it’s set in the future where there is interstellar space flight and ray guns and Earth has been turned into a radioactive cinder after winning a vicious war with an alien race known as the Xik. And yes, our hero is a Navajo space soldier who, during the just-ended war, used his telepathic bond with a genetically modified puma, eagle, and a pair of meerkats to scout out enemy installments and sabotage them. But once Hosteen Storm, having passed his psych exam, lands on the planet Arzor, it turns almost pure Western.
Arzor is a frontier planet, a rough and tumble, dusty and dirty kind of place, whose main business is cattle raising, um, I mean “frawn” raising. Upon landing, Storm, thanks to his affinity with animals, quickly impresses a local herder by gentling an unbroken horse, and he’s given a job helping drive the frawn herd to auction, which will involve interacting with the indigenous population of Norbies (contemptibly called “goats” by some human settlers due to their horns) and fending off predators, especially a huge carnivorous lizard. Replace “Frawn” with “longhorn,” Norbies with “Apache” or “Comanche,” the big lizards with mountain lions, settlers with, well, I guess you don’t need to replace settlers, and you can see the Western parallels pretty easily. Throw in the fact that Storm is actually on Arzor to find and kill a man who somehow wronged Storm’s family (Western revenge/honor plot), the rising tension between settlers and Norbies (the Western Cowboys/Settlers and Indians plot), a few brawls and knife fights, bird totems, a bond between man and horse, a flash flood, and terrain that will remind you of Monument Valley, and you almost expect John Wayne (ask your parents, kids) to come riding in at some point. Instead, we get the Xik, who perhaps aren’t as defeated as we thought at the start of the novel.
The Beast Master mostly moves along quickly and efficiently, with a nice balance of action (various fight scenes between humans, human and Norbie, human and lizard) and introspection (Hosteen trying to find his way, having lost his planet, his purpose as a soldier, and now struggling with vengeance as a sole guiding principle). That goal of vengeance, which starts out so simple at the start — find the guy and kill him for what he did — grows ever more complex as Hosteen meets his target and later his son and realizes neither is quite what he had expected. How that storyline plays out is my favorite part of the novel and is handled in great fashion throughout. As is Hosteen’s sense of isolation: for having lost Earth, for being a soldier, for being a Navajo, for being an object of pity. Norton takes a risk in not having him always be so likable, but it is more realistic for that decision. She also does a nice job portraying his relationship with the animals, leading to some moving moments in the book.
There’s a lot going on in the book: Storm’s quest for vengeance, the possible arrival of the evil Xik, a possible war brewing between settlers and natives, legends of hidden caves in the mountains built by an ancient starfaring race, a running feud between Storm and one of the other frawn-drivers. At times things felt a little cluttered.
There’s no doubt the Noble Savage rises big time here, both via Storm and via the Norbies. And I confess, there were a few times I cringed in the audio version when the Norbie sign language got translated into broken English a la the old “You go’um West, White Man?” style. On the other hand, it’s nice to think someone back in the 50s and 60s was presenting the treatment of Native Americans in a critical fashion, and not in wholly simplistic form — Storm, for instance, wrestles with being torn between two cultures: the traditional Navajo and the space-faring modern Western world.
Richard Brewer did a good job of reading all the parts, offering up distinctive voices and accents and making it quite easy to distinguish among the many characters. His “Western” voicing was particularly apt to the content. Despite a few painful moments, all three of us found the book thoroughly enjoyable. I’m already eyeing my copy of Star Rangers again. Recommended, both as a print book and/or as an audio version.