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Ordeal in Otherwhere by Andre Norton

Ordeal-in-Otherwhere.jpgMost, if not all, of Andre Norton's science fiction took place in a shared future history in which human colonists (called Terrans) had spread out into the galaxy to such an extant that Terra had become a lost place of legend. I'm not sure how much of the future history Norton had worked out, although the article in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction finds outlines of a rise and fall of a Galactic Empire, although I believe all that happened in the remote past of most of her stories. Mostly it seemed to allow her to use some common elements between stories, including Free Traders, colonies, blasters, credits, Survey ships, interstellar wars and resulting refugee planets, ancient pre-human Forerunner races and superscientific technology, telepathic animals, etc, etc.

Ordeal in Otherwhere is a sequel to Storm over Warlock. However, there's a shift to a new protagonist, Charis, who is a typical Norton protagonist: an orphan whose father is murdered at the beginning of the book by the fundamentalist colonists they were thrust amongst in a failed attempt to prevent the fundies from following their extremist beliefs into rogue behavior. (Distrust of religious fundamentalism is basic to American science fiction, and so I guess it's not unusual to see it crop up in Norton's story universe, which is built from many common tropes of the field. Still, the antagonism to know-nothing fundamentalism seems heartfelt.) Like the typical Norton protagonist, Charis is thrown on her own resources and has to dig deep inside herself to find the strength to survive an existential crisis. Norton's favorite story is the rite of passage. What's unusual about Ordeal in Otherwise is that, as far as I can tell, it was the first of her novels to feature a female protagonist, and that made this book stand out for a generation of young female readers.

Charis soons find herself sold into a form of indentured servitude to a Free Trader (indentured to a Free Trader? Hm), who is looking for a female to help him make contact with the matriarchal rulers of the planet Warlock, who are called Wyvern. The Wyvern are witches, although their magical powers are rationalized as psionic. Amongst other things they have the ability to create dream worlds, which are the otherwhere of Charis' ordeal. After making contact with the Wyvern and spending time with them, Charis begins to develop powers of her own, and before long she's allied herself with the protagonist of Storm over Warlock, Lantee, along with his two telepathic wolverines and a telepathic alien cat (another common Norton trope), in an attempt to prevent rogue Traders from stealing the secret of the Wyvern powers.

Ordeal in Otherwhere is just about a perfect title, but the book itself seemed a little rote to me. It doesn't have the twilight mood of Norton's best books, and it doesn't connect with the mythology of the mysterious Forerunners, which gave her universe a sense of deep time and civilizational permutation. That was a disappointment, because I'd seen the book listed as part of the Forerunner series, but it turns out to be only retroactively part of the series because the heroine of Forerunner Foray is the daughter of Charis and Lantee. The most interesting thing about Ordeal in Otherwhere for me was the way she worked out rules for how psionic powers function -- for example the way that locations have to be visualized in order for someone to teleport -- but I was mostly curious whether Norton had come up with the rules herself or had borrowed them from elsewhere. The world-building in the novel is otherwise nothing particularly interesting, although the matriarchal society of the Wyvern is perhaps unusual and bracingly contemptuous of humans. Norton eventually shifted away from science fiction into fantasy, and you can see the tendencies already at play in the essentially magical nature of the Wyvern powers. Still Charis is a sympathetic character of the plucky type that you want to see succeed. It's a young adult novel, so you can be pretty sure she will, in fact, succeed, with a little help from her friends, furry and otherwise.

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