Andre Norton's Witch World

To start off this blog it seems reasonable to give a review of a book I've just finished reading, Andre Norton's Witch World, first published in 1963. And me being me, the mere use of the word "reading" needs a bit of explanation. A few years ago I began a subscription to and have greatly enjoyed reading unabridged audiobooks. I listen to them when I'm driving alone in my car and when I go for walks or do "mindless" chores.

What brought me to this book? Amusingly, the famous "Appendix N" of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (1st edition), a bibliography of literature that helped inspire the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game of the late 1970s. I recently received my pdf copy for my pre-order of Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics role-playing game which aspires to provide a D&D-like game for playing an "Appendix N"-like game (indeed, they reprinted Appendix N in its entirety).

As I read through the list of works in Appendix N I realized there are a number of authors listed there of whom I've read none of their works. Andre Norton was one of the most obvious gaps in the works I read and so I picked up the unabridged audio recording of it.

So, what is it about? Without going into massive spoiler territory, it begins with Simon Tregarth, a disgraced World War II veteran of our world being hunted by people who clearly mean to kill him. Simon Tregath is not a man to hide in a corner and weep about his fate. Rather, realizing he is running out of escape options, decides to enjoy one final good meal and gets his pistol ready. He is clearly not a man who will go down quietly. He doesn't want to die but he realizes he is out of options.

Or so it seems. A man visits him and gives him an opportunity to escape, an escape which takes him to another world. (A "Witch World" you could say.)

It is worth discussing the character of Simon Tregarth a bit. I found him a very enjoyable protagonist to follow. He is a very practical man who does not doubt what his own senses and intellect tells him. Finding himself in a world where magic is real and wielded apparently exclusively by women he accepts this reality immediately. He is a man who trusts his instincts, who won't waste time thinking too many steps ahead but who also won't allow himself to be blinded to long-term consequences. All in all, the type of character you find yourself enjoying the experience of watching. In a fight of Simon Tregarth vs. Chuck Norris, I'm betting on Simon Tregarth.

But Simon is not the only character of interest. Simon immediately rescues a witch of Estcarp and quickly finds himself in their service. The names of witches are secret, for names have power. Norton ably handles having as one of her main protagonists a nameless character. Estcarp finds itself dealing with enemies assembling around it. In Estcarp another of the protagonists is introduced, Korus, a former noble of one of the neighboring lands.

While Estcarp is a land ruled by women, its neighboring lands are not. The final protagonist is Loyse, daughter of a minor noble of one of the lands neighboring Estcarp. We see her being forced into a marriage for her father's benefit. Though she is no witch, she too is a powerful character in her own way and one determined to find her own destiny.

To give away more of the plot or characters would spoil the book. It is worth noting that while having a character from our world  making a journey to a fantastic one is a fairly common literary device, albeit one not used as often as it once was, Norton puts her own spin on this, suggesting that Simon is not the only person or thing not native to this world.

Overall I give a very strong recommendation to this work. I say this as one who knows next to nothing as to what Norton did next with the setting and characters - a quick glance at Wikipedia shows me that there are a lot of Witch World books out there. I do know that I'm interested in the characters and setting enough to want to know what happens next.

Since I mentioned this in connection with AD&D, what does this book bring to gamers? Quite a bit I believe. Simon Tregarth is definitely a "player character" type of protagonist. He does not wait for action to come to him, he seeks out action. He's a careful protagonist when required but a bold one when that is needed as well.

The nation of Estcarp is an interesting take on a fantasy realm which does not seem like it was taken right out of our Middle Ages while still seeming believable. The lands they visit and the allies and enemies they encounter are excellent sources of inspiration. Finally, I recall from the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide and old Dragon Magazines the suggestion that older D&D games made liberal use of world-jumping and this novel shows how this could be done very smoothly.

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