Completed 8/25/2015, Reviewed 8/26/2015
“Web” was a bit of a surprise. I liked “Witch World”, but didn’t love it. I struggled with the prose and simply the act of reading. The version of the book I had was a first edition paperback with a font that looks like 6 point on yellowing paper so old, it’s orange. I could only read about twenty pages before getting tired. It was nominated for a Hugo in 1964, but it didn’t generate the excitement in me I thought it would. “Web” on the other hand, had me totally enrapt. I ate it up despite the similar prose, tiny font, orange pages, and watering eyes. I’m guessing that I needed to warm up to the world building with one book, so I could slide right into it with this one.
The first thing that struck me as great was how Norton recapped the first book through the first several chapters. Sometimes recaps can be annoying, but it being a year and a half the first book, I found it put me right back into this weird universe. You see, we’re not really sure we’re on earth, even Simon the main character doesn’t exactly know where he time-space travelled to, but he learned the language, integrated into their society, even marrying one of the witches. Now a new crisis has emerged. Loyse, who posed as a boy to flee her betrothal to the evil duke Yleth, has been returned to Karsten where she will be forced to marry him, despite being in love with Koris. Simon and Koris undertake to rescue her, and Simon eventually falls once again into the hands of the Koldor.
In putting together that summary, I realized it sounds soapy, but these stories are considered the predecessor to the contemporary subgenre of romantic fantasy. In addition, the fantasy is layered with an unknown technology, bending the genre even further. There are flying machines, submarines, and recording devices, but nary a steam engine or dirigible. And it all works to create a fascinating world with likeable characters and exciting adventure. And one more bend, Norton’s work is also considered YA, drawing young girls into a predominantly male genre even before it was commonly known that she herself was a woman. Her given name was Alice.
The prose is still a little terse for me. It reminds me of Tolkien’s style from his posthumous work, though not nearly as complex. I found myself having an easier time reading it after about 20 pages in. It’s a little like Shakespeare, at first you’re lost, then after a short while, you’re in the rhythm and groove of the words and it flows comfortably.
Simon is a great understated hero and I have a fondness for Loyse who breaks gender stereotypes left and right. Jaelithe is interesting. She had to give up her witch powers when she chose to marry Simon, reinforcing the old trope that women must choose between marriage and career, or that sex causes powerlessness. To my relief, she discovers other magic within herself, turning the trope on its head. I was happy to read in my research for this review that Norton often shook up this notion that women were powerless and that sex and power were mutually exclusive. No wonder she was able to draw so many girls of the baby boomer generation into the genre.
I think if I went back and reread the first book, I would probably rate it higher than I did, in light of my reaction to this book. It’s a great adventure chock full of imagination. I wonder if she isn’t just the founder of the romantic fantasy, but of dark fantasy as well. Fantasy of course has always had a dark side, think Grimm and LOTR, but there were times I was confusing my memory of “Witch World” with the very dark universe of Richard K. Morgan’s “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy (“The Steel Remains”, “The Cold Commands”, and “The Dark Defiles”), though those are darker places than most people probably would want to go. I give “Web” four out of five stars.