From almost fifty years, not a year went by where Andre Norton didn’t publish a book (or four). Her prodigious output made her one of the most-published Ace Double authors, and one of the most-published female SF writers to boot. Most of her early work spent a long time out of print, though Baen Books has re-released a sizable chunk of her Ace works, two per trade paperback. Star Gate was combined with Sea Siege to form From The Sea To The Stars (why Baen doesn’t use the old titles, or mention they’re Ace Doubles, is beyond me), and I think Star Gate was the stronger half.
One last note: many of her novels had their copyrights expire, so you can find a dozen or so on Project Gutenberg; these copies also find their way as badly edited bargain price kindle/e-reader editions, banking (successfully) that people are too unaware to check Gutenberg first. While Star Gate and Sea Siege aren’t on there, nor the Witch World books, you can find Star Born and Time Traders and Voodoo Planet and a half-dozen old Norton Ace novels.
While it has only the barest similarities to the 1994 movie and subsequent TV series, Star Gate does indeed have a star gate. Instead of the film franchise’s military SF, Norton’s is a variant on the time-tested sword-and-planet yarn.
Centuries ago, a group of Earthmen fled from a dying Earth to set up on the habitable planet Gorth. Going by the title “Star Lords,” these humans raise the native Gorthians from primitive savagery, but the developments from this interference has triggered a schism in the Star Lord camp. One group wishes to profit off the Gorthians, setting themselves up as the gods of Gorth. Another group wishes to leave, having meddled too much already on Gorth, and find some other habitable planet to reside upon. A third group has found themselves connected with the Gorthians, and wishes to pay the planet back for their interference… somehow.
The book starts with protagonist Kincar s’Rud gaining his inheritance from the dying hold-lord: first, he finds out he is actually the son of one of the Star Lords. (Never mind that his surname, s’Rud, implies he’s a descendant of earthling Lord Rud.) Next, he has to flee before he can be killed by his fellow Gorthians, but hears of a meeting place for other half-breeds. Lastly, he finds a magical Tie, which is actually a pebble on a necklace and not an article of clothing, which foretells danger and great adventure for its bearer (or something; it’s a kind of analogue to the One Ring). Kincar sets off with his pet Mord—a small flying critter that’s mostly claws and teeth and eyes—and finds the other half-breeds and the Star Lords are planning on using an ancient gate to transport themselves to an alternate Gorth.
You can see where this is going; they’re chased through by the Gorthians and Star-Lords-gone-bad who are pursuing Kincar; they end up on an alternate Gorth where the Star Lords came as conquerors, not protectors, and have set themselves up as the vain gods of the planet. This won’t fly with the original Star Lords, who now have a way to pay Gorth back for their meddling. So it’s a battle between good and evil, although there is scant combat between the Star Lords and their foul doppelgängers. What fight scenes the book has aren’t bad, but are a tad contrived; the climactic showdown and ending are pretty slick, though not what I was expecting.
Andre Norton’s work largely fell under the “juvenile” label, which would later turn into “teen” and now “young adult.” That said, she never writes down to her readers or acts condescending, making it very accessible for older readers. Her prose is very strong, and she has a good grasp of writing. I’ve noticed she has a few quirks. As juveniles, her protagonists are young men who fall into a subaltern role to older characters, resulting in them having a diminished impact: they don’t so much act or move things along as stand around while things happen nearby. (It wasn’t as bad here as it was in Sea Siege, though, where Griff is more a hanger-on to the plot than a protagonist.) The juvenile format is also restraining: there’s not much in the realm of character development, and don’t expect a romantic interest or Conan levels of bloody combat… but the fight scenes Norton writes are far from bloodless.
Norton has a bad habit of avoiding description at all costs—about five chapters in, she sprinkles in details like the dirt is blue and the plants aren’t green—which wasn’t helped by her decision to use as much Gorthian terminology as possible. Granted, it wasn’t hard to piece together that a larng was a domesticated riding animal (which we’re told has six legs), but when, for example, the word Styr is used both as a location (a holdfast) and a title (ruler of said holdfast) things become problematic. And like a lot of ’50s speculative fiction, there’s the frequent exposition overload, either in an information dump or to speed over a few months to get to the plot. Neither of these flaws make Norton’s work less readable, but they were irritating.
Sword-and-planet is one of the most rigidly formulaic sub-genres in speculative fiction, though Star Gate has a couple of changes/omissions. Being a juvenile, there’s no girl for Kincar to “get”—so, scratch the obligatory love interest. The fight scenes are front-loaded, quick, and somewhat contrived. And while he does find the alternate world’s version of himself, it’s not a double, and there’s no climactic showdown between them. I’m on the fence about this; I think the trope is too cliché and glad Norton didn’t use it, but on the other hand, the book could have used another climactic showdown or two. I do think the setting elements—ancient spacefaring humans, the primitives they gifted civilization to, alternate worlds, and all that—makes Star Gate unique for the genre.
I’m hoping Star Gate is a good example of Norton’s science fantasy work, because if it’s any indication at all, the Witch World books should be entertaining. Star Gate has some flaws, yes, but was a wild and fun adventure romp. A simple two-fisted adventure tale in the mold of other, better two-fisted adventure tales, but one with an interesting setting and twists. (Both of these are things I couldn’t say about Sea Siege; Star Gate has somewhat redeemed Norton in my eyes.) It wasn’t bad by any means, but didn’t rise very high, either, remaining an entertaining if simplistic read. It reminds me of cotton candy: fun, tasty, but ultimately insubstantial.