Thursday, March 15, 2007

Book Review: Three Hands for Scorpio



Oh, they walk alike, they talk alike, they even cast their magic alike...

Three Hands for Scorpio by Andre Norton. Tor Fantasy, New York: 2005. ISBN: 978-0-765-34385-7.

Some fantasy novels are good. Some fantasy novels are bad. Lo, because this fantasy novel is neither good nor bad, I am about to spew it out of my mouth.

Yech. That left a nasty aftertaste.

That's about as harsh as I wish to get on this one since it is the final novel by the late great Grand Dame of fantasy, Andre Norton, the first woman to be declared a Grand Master by the SFWA. I was unaware this was her final novel when I flipped it into my big bag of cheap paperbacks at the bookstore, but unfortunately, I think the best part of this book is the charming cover art by Tristan Elwell.

Bland is the first word that comes to mind, and it describes everything from the plot to the characters to the intricate and surprisingly dull details of just how magic works in this particular sword-and-sorcery world. It's not an awful book, but it's certainly not a great one, either. It is essentially just another forgettable trade paperback sword-and-sorcery novel.

The book starts out on a bad note, laying out, before we have reason to care, all the ins-and-outs of the made-up political alliances and geography. Unless you have a photographic memory, you will not be able to keep track of all these details, but be warned: Norton will refer back to them throughout the book. If you skim this part, or do less than memorize it, you will soon be lost.

The novel's three heroines are teenage triplets. They, and every other character in this novel, are interchangeable. Since this is sword-and-sorcery, they come with a psychic connection. They have magic powers, but in spite of all the details on magic, I'm unsure of what they are. Adding to the confusion, the triplets take turns narrating the story, so I often had to stop halfway through a section and flip back to its beginning to remind myself who was talking. Perhaps I'm prejudiced (I have an innate hatred for first-person narratives that switch narrators), but the story-telling seems grueling and ineffective. This is aggravated by minimal description, awkward sentence structure, and an affected style. Keeping track of this tale requires a lot of mental effort, but the book offers little payoff.

I think the story goes something like this: There's tension between two kingdoms. The one to the south is a more-or-less benevolent matriarchy while the one to the north is a decidedly less benevolent patriarchy. Adding to the north's problems is a new religious leader with a message so evil it's described only in vague, nondescript terms. While the father of these girls, who's a duke or something, is negotiating some kind of treaty with some northern clan leaders, some other clan guy kidnaps the girls and rather than charging ransom or dispensing with them in appropriately grisly fashion, decides to lower them unharmed into a chasm full of dangerous wildlife, based more-or-less on a real gorge in Alabama. There the girls meet a man named Zolan who, it turns out, is in cahoots with some dead aliens whose spirits live in anthropomorphic clay jars. One of these aliens went bad and possessed the evil new religious leader. The girls and their new friend have to get out of the gorge alive to stop him. After that, your guess is as good as mine.

On religion, there's not much to say. There's a religious organization called a church, of which the queen is the head, and it seems to involve monotheistic goddess worship. As for the new, evil religion, we never really learn what it's about, besides disrespecting women.

The characters are not compelling, and Norton does nothing to explore the psychology of what it's like to be three psychically connected triplets. Do they ever yearn for alone-time? Begrudge their sisters' skills? Experience tension? Compete for boys? Have co-dependency problems? We never learn any of this.

The Three Hands for Scorpio do not come across as spunky heroines, thoughtful protagonists, or anything else. They simply don't come across. Fans mourning Norton's passing will want to pick up the book for her memory's sake, but this is certainly not the book that made her famous. For readers new to Norton, it would be better to try her earlier works first.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating:

Myth Level: Low
Quality: Low
Ethics/Religion: Medium/High
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