We have tried long to live upon the remnants of the Before Time, ever looking backward. But why should we? There is no night without a star, so the blackness of our night can be lighted by our own efforts. We are ourselves, not the Before Ones. Therefore, we must learn for ourselves, not try to revive what was known by those we might not even want to call kin were we to meet them.
Andre Norton was one of the most prolific female writer in the science fiction/fantasy field, penning over eighty novels in her lifetime, including the popular Witch World, Time Traders, and Solar Queen series. I’ve ended up with about a dozen of them, but coming clean, I’ve read two so far, and I wasn’t that impressed by them. Granted, they were bit minor ’50s works buried in Norton’s massive bibliography, so I assume aren’t reflective of her writing. So I’m giving Norton yet another go, with another tattered ex-library book: No Night Without Stars. What attracted me to this one was its awesome name and post-apocalyptic setting. I’m a sucker for the apocalypse, even when it’s that weird hybrid that reads like fantasy, but with decaying cities and rusting robots in the background.
Sander of the Jak Mob was an apprentice smith, until his father died and his uncle decreed him inept at his trade. Rather than continue as an apprentice, Sander opted for self-exile, wandering the world in search of the legendary Before People to prove his worth as a craftsman. After sneaking through the still-bleeding remains of a raided village, he stumbles into Fanyi. She’s had mystic training to gain a psychic foresight, also searching for the Before People; unlike Sander, she wants to use their knowledge to find a way to wreak havoc on those who raided her village. They agree to travel together, braving the strange mutant animals and other wilderness hazards. And, of course, their adventure will go far beyond either of their wildest imaginations.
This would be the happy, idealistic post-apocalypse—a world which has progressed so far beyond its catastrophe that it has regained its childlike, naive enthusiasm. Goodbye to the fears of the “apocalypse is happening now” novels; hello to pale echoes of past darkness and a brighter future ahead. That also means it reads like a stock fantasy, with swords and ye-olde speak and all that, with mutants and rubbled cities replacing monsters and castles. I have a soft spot for that weird science-fantasy apocalypse, but I know not everyone has my tastes—despite the robot on the cover, don’t pick this one up if you’re allergic to fantasy.
Right away, I see Norton’s prose is better than I remembered from my previous two experiences. The writing is still sparse, and has a distinct juvenile feel—Norton wrote most of her books for teens, and tended to write down to them rather than pull their vocabulary up—but the prose is steady, more sure of itself. An ornamental prose that echoes the fantasy-like long-post-apocalypse world of epic quests and mutant animals is a plus, setting the tone and atmosphere well. It’s also nice to see two tween protagonists out on their own; the other books had their teenage protagonists in determinedly subaltern roles, meaning the protagonists tended to stand around watching while the adults manipulated the plot.
The improved prose and characters makes for better reading, but it’s still not a perfect reading experience. The setting is something of an unexplained void, and I’m not just talking about its lost history: the environs and inhabitants are glossed over. It’s a problem I’ve had with previous Norton works; they feel like drafts or sketches, the boundaries of a novel waiting to have the details poured in. For example. As written, just five groups of humans exist in this world, six if you count the Before People.
- The Jak Mob, a roving band of nomads, whom Sander leaves before the book starts. (The characters say others exist, but none are named or seen.)
- The town of Pradford, from where Fanyi comes, which is obliterated by the time Sander reaches it in chapter one.
- The Sea Sharks, a group of sea-reavers, who destroyed Pradford… and who gain the formal title of Sir Not Appearing In This Book.
- The Traders, a random group of merchants who head into the Before People ruins and mine it for metals and valuables. They show up for one chapter, to be deus ex machina’d out of the story for rather unconvincing reasons.
- The White Ones. I should mention that all the characters here are a different color (at first; that thread is lost by the time you get to the Traders.) Sander is brown, Fanyi is black, and there’s this bunch of homicidal Aryans (blue eyes, blonde hair, pale white skin… not making this up) wandering around killing everybody the meet. When they lose a battle, they commit ritual suicide. Their reasons are never explained.
No Night also follows some of Norton’s formulaic tropes: young people without parental guidance off on epic quests, aided by bizarre pets, who must overcome successive predictable obstacles. The “pets” are Fanyi’s two fishers—weasel-like creatures related to the pine marten, grown to gigantic mutant size—and Sander’s koyot (koyot, coyote, get it?), who will wander away and then happen to show up at just the right moment. Fanyi has vague psychic “gift” powers, whose doubtful existence is made concrete in the book’s final act. (Part of her “gift” is a gem necklace that the reader ought to realize is just a fancy ancient compass, which implied her powers were questionable. They aren’t.) The young protagonists exist in a world free of sex or violence. The latter isn’t that noticeable a loss, since there’s enough action to keep a young boy’s attention without going into gory detail, but the former stands out when you have a man and a woman on a quest of self-discovery.
The last two Andre Norton novels I read were okay, but not spectacular. I liked this one a bit better. The tone is more consistent, the characters are still stock everymen but they felt more like real teenagers, the setting is still under-defined… but it coalesces into a passable novel. Up until the finale. The last act—finding what they seek, in a way—comes out of nowhere, is powered in large part due to authorial deus ex machina and Sander doing stupid things. While its message takes the book in a good direction for the last page, the route there felt a bit forced and predictable. Many of the elements introduced earlier… lead nowhere.
So, not a perfect book—it feels rushed, more like a draft to a better novel, which sadly it isn’t. An enjoyable read as a juvenile adventure novel, in its own way, provided you don’t stop and think about some of Norton’s big problems (the world’s lack of depth being the big one). The last act is a huge letdown, and though the characters don’t really mature during their epic trek, they do at least leave with the ideal that this world has just matured in some small part. And the title still rocks out. Still, I liked it much better than the last two Nortons I read, so at least I’m progressing upward in her bibliography.