Review: Zarsthor’s Bane (Witch World #11: High Hallack Cycle #4) by Andre Norton *spoilers*

November 10, 2016 2016 Review Challenge, 4 Stars, Andre Norton, Book Review, Classic Fantasy, damsel in distress, Epic Fantasy, Epic High Fantasy, Fantasy, Fantasy - Hopeful, paperback, prickly pear heroine, Re-Read, recommendations, series, War & Recovery, Witch World 0 ★★★★

Review: Zarsthor’s Bane (Witch World #11: High Hallack Cycle #4) by Andre Norton  *spoilers* four-stars
Zarsthor's Bane Series: Witch World #11, High Hallack Cycle #4
Published by Ace on November 1, 1978
Genres: Fantasy, War & Recovery
Pages: 204
Format: Paperback
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Zarsthor’s Bane—it bound them all in a mystic web of ancient peril: the man whose madness drove him to seek it; the boy who followed him; the girl and her cat who crossed their path in the wild and lonely reaches of High Hallack; and the host of spirits waiting in lost An-Yak for the final confrontation of magic with magic, power with power . . .

Brixia, once the lady of a Hall in High Hallack, and her companion, the cat Uta, while scavenging for their living in the deserted Dales, are drawn into Waste where Light and Dark Magic still exist, in search of a power object, Zarsthor's Bane. While fending off an attack by predators, Brixia discovers a place of Green Magic.

Bane: [beyn] noun
1. death; destruction; ruin.
2. Obsolete. that which causes death or destroys life

I love this book. It’s weird and dreamy and at some points really hard to understand (and follow). I’ve read Zarsthor’s Bane many, many times now. I can honestly say that I feel that I find something new during each re-read. I’m also extremely lucky that I located a First Edition Illustrated copy. Zarsthor’s Bane reminds me of a fever dream or daydream. There are parts that are so dreamy and slightly off-focus that I sometimes wonder if this was written while Norton was under the influence. The amazingly vague but incredibly detailed illustrations only reinforce that feeling for me.
ZBane chapter heading

Of all the books in the Witch World Series, Zarsthor’s Bane is one of the worst transgressors as far as accessibility. It is steeped in Witch World lore the reader desperately needs in order to get even a basic understanding of the book. And Andre Norton does not handhold her readers. She makes no real attempts to be accessible. There is no prologue. There is no info dump. There are no explanation(s). There is only the now and the journey and the task.

Zarsthor’s Bane starts with the introduction to Brixia, our heroine. She was once a high lady of the Dales – a pampered bower dweller taught only what she would need to know to run her own Keep one day. That was until the Alizon came and she escaped alone with only her life. The text does not identify the invaders (the Alizon) nor explain why they were so horrifically successful. I know because I’ve read the majority of this series but a random reader would be in the dark. This is only one (major) example of Andre Norton’s expectation of the reader’s knowledge in the plotting on this novel. Witch World has a lot of “doorways” into it from other worlds. During the attempted Kolder invasion, the Kolder (from a high tech world) tried to take over one continent while making an alliance with the country Alizon to take over a different continent. The Kolder gifted the Alizon machines very like tanks and then sent them to the Dales of High Hallack. These high-tech weapons deployed in a low tech world caused unbelievable (and previously unknown) amounts destruction. Numerous Keeps and Dales were completely destroyed and unsalvageable – leaving a lot of displaced refugees as well as growing (and unmanageable) bandit groups creating further havoc and devastation.

Brixia has been homeless and alone – with the exception of the cat Uta – for many years. It is important to realize Norton’s obsession with cats to understand cats in the Witch World. The Witch World has cats but very few of them. Cats – being small but crafty predators willing to co-habitat with humans and thus keeping the humans’ food supplies safer – are greatly prized in Witch World. They are considered intelligent and lucky but for the most part very few “own” cats. Another important fact is that the Alizon is a culture focused on dogs and hates cats. The Alizon attempt to kill any and all cats they run across. So for Brixia to locate a cat in the Dales after the war and that Uta was willing to befriend Brixia and become her companion is a big thing.

One day while hidden, Brixia and Uta run across two travelers preparing to camp for the night is some ruins. Uta decides to alert the travelers of their presence, spurring Brixia to speak with them. She meets the page Dwed and the mind-blasted Lord Marbon who appears to possibly be in a geas. Dwed is extremely hostile because he is protective of his lord and wants to protect him from embarrassment and ridicule. Dwed is young (no age given) and Marbon is all the “family” he has left. Dwed explains that Marbon suffered a head injury that has made him obsessed with an ancient story of his line: the story of Zarsthor’s Bane.

ZBbane - Eggersdale

Due to Dwed’s hostility, Brixia camps near them but not with them. This is fortuitous, especially since Dwed is unfamiliar with safe behavior in the lawless land they are in. This allows Brixia to spy bandits shortly before the bandits fall upon Dwed’s and Marbon’s small camp. Brixia warns them of the danger and they take a hidden passage to safety. While in the hidden passage, Brixia and Marbon are left alone for a short time and during this time Marbon manages to infect Brixia with his obsession – it feels/seems as if Brixia is placed under a geas to assist Marbon.

But it was not only his visible madness which aroused her fears – it was something inside herself. Her head – she wanted to cry out – to wrench free of this Marbon and run and run – Because – deep in her she stood in front of the door and if the door was open –!

This was not the shrinking that the same sometimes feel when confronted by the abnormal among their own species. Her new emotion was totally alien. She could not turn her head, break the tie between their eyes. There was a need rising in her – something she must do – and nothing else in all the world mattered but that need which compelled, which made her its prisoner. She found herself whispering:
“Zarsthor’s Bane.”
Zarsthor’s Bane, page 47

The girl no longer questioned the purpose of her own actions. Dimly she understood that she could not turn aside now from this trail.
Zarsthor’s Bane, page 73

ZBane - face
So Dwed, Marbon, Brixia and Uta travel the hidden passage which ends above the ruins they left. Marbon runs off, closely followed by Dwed and Uta but with Brixia somehow left a little behind. Brixia follows their trail for some time as night closes in but she gets misdirected by…something. I really can’t say for sure what it was but I’m assuming it was of the Dark. The footsteps Brixia was following all were accompanied by Uta’s paw prints except when she got misdirected so I would say it was of the Dark. But…while Brixia was on the wrong path she is pulled (called?) to this…magical tree that she names Green Mother. The wrong path brought Brixia to a powerful weapon of the Light.

While – she held her head high – Into her nostrils Brixia drew air scented with a fragrance which could be at the other end of a balance from the rotting stench of the narrow upper path. Sweet, fresh – she thought of meadow grass lying in the early morning, webs on it pearled with dew – flowers just opening to the day. There was a garden – open to the sun of midmorning – its blossoms ready to be harvested and dried for the sweetening of bedclothes and body linen – it was –

Without being quite aware of what she did Brixia got once more to her feet – moved on into the night, drawn by that scent which grew ever the stronger. So she came to the foot of the tree – Oddly twisted were its branches, and those lacked leaves. But it was aflower and the flowers were white. Seeming to extend from the tip of each petal – like the glow of a small candle – was a wisp of light.
Zarsthor’s Bane, page 63

Luckily, Brixia is called to the Green Mother tree just when she needs it most. The Green Mother gives her nourishment, some type of healing sap(?) that Brixia drinks from the bark. The Green Mother also gives her safe shelter for the night – protecting Brixia from strange toad-like creatures of the Dark. I need to do some digging but I *believe* these are the same toads from the short story the Toads of Grimmerdale located in Lore of the Witch World. In the Toads of Grimmerdale, the toads are evil creatures of the Dark called on for vengeance and in hate.

If a toad might rise upon its hind legs, show evil intelligence in his bulbous eyes, fangs within its gaping mouth – then that might approach in appearance these croaking things. Save that these toad creatures had no smooth skin – rather that was covered with ragged patches of very coarse hair – hair – or find tendrils. A longer growth weaved from each corner of their mouths, matching similar ones set above each eye. These were in constant motion as if the unwholesome threads had a separate life of their own.
Zarsthor’s Bane, page 63-66

The Green Mother tree gifts Brixia one of her potent flowers. The protection of the Green Mother only extended as far as her branches extended but the flower in Brixia’s hand was mobile. The toads could not grab Brixia while she was under the Green Mother’s bough but they were circling her and the Green Mother. In the Witch World, completed circles in repetition/multiples of certain numbers (like 3, 6, etc) have great amounts of power. It was possible that encircling Brixia and the Green Mother a particular number of times would allow the toads to grab Brixia. The flower, embodying the power of Light wielded by the Green Mother tree, allowed Brixia to fight back against the toads trying to take her – breaking their circle and driving them back.

ZBane Flower & Toads

Later, as Brixia path goes further into the Waste, she is attacked by the Dark again. With only a rock behind her, Brixia finds herself cornered by a desiccated, evil bird woman and her minions. Brixia uses the power of the flower (ha!) to save herself again. After fighting the Dark, Brixia realizes that she is currently lost in the Waste. Forced there by the powers of the Dark. Feeling herded, Brixia proclaims her individuality:

“I live,” she told empty desert before her fiercely. “I have arms, legs, a body – I have a mind – I am me, Brixia! And I serve no will save my own!”
Zarsthor’s Bane, page 79

This affirmation reminds me heavily of Eleri’s battle cry in Key of the Keplian (1996):

“On strange roads have I walked of my own will. I do not walk with another’s feet.
I do not strike at another’s word.
I am myself and my own.”

Key of the Keplian

Brixia gets back on the proper trail (evidenced by Uta’s paw prints) and is able to catch up with Dwed, Marbon, and Uta.

I really disliked Dwed. He was aggressively hostile to Brixia the entire time. With no reason given. Considering Dwed’s position – alone with only a mind-blasted man to take care of – he should be interested in non-lethal company. But not Dwed. Dwed has a lot of unnecessary anger and dislike of Brixia. He is rude, nasty, and aggressive at all times.

After Brixia catches up with Dwed, Uta, and Marbon, they camp for the night. Dwed slaps Brixia awake in the middle of the night – while calling her “outlaw slut” – because Marbon wandered away. WTF. It greatly upset me since Marbon seems to be geas-held AND has a brain injury which all started before Brixia and it was soooo uncalled for. To make matters worse, Dwed never apologizes to her – even after she saves EVERYONE.

The resolution of Zarsthor’s Bane comes quickly but strangely. Brixia’s flower from the Green Mother reveals an underwater city, An-Yak. Marbon and Dwed are taken over by long-dead personalities while Brixia and Uta protect them from the Bane. Brixia, when she opens the box the Bane is in, is swept into the past. Brixia finds herself hanging over a dinner party table. The table is headed by one man and there are various other diners who look to be of the Light (with one exception who looked out of place). She watches as Zarsthor confronts Jartar (creator of the Bane and the head of the table) over the Bane’s creation. She watches as Jartar is also confronted by his companions who are of the Light – with the exception of a young looking (but still evil) bird woman – while the Bane is of the Dark.

Suddenly Brixia is in a purgatory fronted by both Jartar and Zarsthor. She learns that they were so angry at each other – for reasons so long past that they have been forgotten – that they have been stuck battling ever since. She releases them from their bindings – using the flower – which destroys the Bane. Sadly, the reader is never told WHY the Bane was created. Dwed mentions something about an insult between Zarsthor and an Old One but no real reason is given.

I never understood why Brixia got involved in this situation. It’s blamed on Uta, on geas, etc. but in reality, the only person Brixia has real contact with is Dwed who is a horror to her at almost every moment. I enjoy Brixia’s dream-like adventure but it’s not my normal kind of read.

So. Zarsthor’s Bane is a book for people who are already Norton fans and specifically those who are fans of the Witch World series. I do recommend Zarsthor’s Bane BUT please remember that Ms Norton is not going to explain anything.

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