With a publishing career lasting 71 years, a track record probably matched only by the equally venerable Jack Williamson, Andre Norton passed peacefully in early 2005 at the age of 93. But not before having a chance to see her last novel in print, thanks to the frantic efforts of Tor to print and bind a single copy for her to hold literally on her deathbed. This is the kind of heart-tugging story people love, and it really is a moving image from which SF can bid a fond adieu to one of its most enduring novelists. But I'm afraid few readers who aren't already longtime, dyed-in-the-wool Norton fans will be very fond of the tedious and unfocused Three Hands for Scorpio.
A review like this, following so closely upon the death of the artist in question, always leaves a reviewer skating on thin ice. There are likely to be people who misunderstand what reviews are all about and interpret this as an inappropriate personal criticism of Norton. Allow me to put the kibosh on those misapprehensions from the start. As I always say, "It isn't personal." Book reviews — at least as I approach them — are only ever about the books, and I've always been open about not being much of a fan of Norton's writing, though, as with any author, I'm open-minded enough to keep giving her work a chance. Her passing is sad, but I think we'd all feel privileged beyond words to enjoy a healthy and active nine-decade run. And Andre Norton certainly made the most of hers. Requiescat in pace.
The praise first. The best thing about Three Hands is its trio of appealing heroines, who could easily carry their own long-running series. Tamara, Sabina, and Drucilla are the telepathically-linked triplet daughters of Desmond Scorpy, the Earl of Verset, near the northernmost border of the kingdom of Alsonia. My ears pricked up at the mention of magic-using triplets. This alone is fantasy's Holy Grail, the Fresh Idea; mere words cannot convey how sick to death I am of seeing farmboys who are really long-lost royal heirs or courageous mage-women who must rush off into certain peril to save the men they love. Norton creates protagonists whose likability does much to carry the adventure through its slow passages and mundane predicaments. If I remember nothing else about this book — and I won't — I'll remember them.
Desmond is Alsonia's warden on its northern border, where the threat of war with neighboring Gurlyon is ever present. A delegation from Gurlyon arrives at the Scorpys' castle to come to terms, but immediately the talks are threatened by deliberately provocative (to put it mildly) behavior by the guests. Among them is a lunatic monk named Udo belonging to a fanatical religious order called the Chosen, who denounces the triplets as whores the minute he's walked through the front gates. To quote Ian McShane in Deadwood, that's not the tone to get a deal done.
That night, the girls are abducted from the castle by Maclan, a personal enemy of Desmond's, and they soon find themselves entrapped in an underground cavern leading to a realm appropriately called the Dismals, populated by lots of gross and dangerous critters. But here they meet the enigmatic Zolan, a young man who has lived in the Dismals for years and who may or may not be Gerrit, the grown-up rightful heir to Gurlyon's throne, abducted as a small child and never seen again.
Zolan, with his pet/sidekick, the catlike Climber, promptly abandons the girls to their own devices, and after a few chapters of interminable wandering, the triplets eventually encounter the Jar People. These are the survivors of an ancient race in hiding in the Dismals, who no longer exist in corporeal form and can only escape their underground realm by possessing another person. But only an evil one would do that. Unfortunately, one of their number, Tharn, has in fact gone the evil route. Possessing a man whose identity (when it is revealed at the climax) comes as no surprise, Tharn has escaped into the world above, where he has allied himself with dark powers and seeks to wreak havoc and do all the kinds of bad stuff fantasy villains enjoy. The girls' underground wanderings, which seem annoying and repetitive moreso than actually hazardous, were evidently a test to determine if they were worthy to serve and protect Zolan on his quest to go above ground and capture Tharn. What the Jar People might have done had they decided the girls didn't pass isn't explored, nor is the fact that Zolan seems far more skilled and capable in many ways than they are. (Sabina has to be rescued from near-death by her sisters at least twice in the book's first half.)
What torpedoed the book for me were two key failings. The first is purely a matter of taste: Norton's prose. I find it mostly just boring and pretentious reading, and in this regard she doesn't seem to have changed much in half a century. Occasionally her prose is such a vivid shade of purple that it veers into the ultraviolet. I find this kind of thing nearly unbearable to read; my eyes literally film over. Why some folks think it's good writing will always elude me. The other is that the story suffers from a lack of strong conflict. For the longest time we have no clear antagonist to identify. At first we suspect Udo and the kidnappers to be the bad guys, but then we learn they were opportunistically manipulated by the Jar People to get the girls into the Dismals. (Udo really turns out to be a big nobody when all is said and done.) We're halfway through the book before Tharn is identified. And exactly what it is he gets out of escaping into the world above and causing war between Alsonia and Gurlyon remains shrouded in obscurity. We never get a clear idea of Tharn's motivations — hell, we don't even see him until the end, in an obvious "surprise" reveal — which weakens his authority as a villain and makes us have less stake in the protagonists' peril.
Other problems are in the details. Norton is fuzzy on how the rules of magic work in her world. At first we are given the impression that the sisters' telepathic link is something extraordinary and special, something apart from the usual Talent that most people in the book possess. Later on we see them sending and receiving to everybody, and there doesn't seem to be much special after all about their being triplets. Also, Norton tosses in odd bits of randomness without setup or explanation. At one point the girls' mother causes Climber to transform into a humanoid being. They exchange a bit of dialogue, then Climber transforms back. Norton never clarifies how their mother did this or which form is Climber's real one, and the event doesn't reoccur and is never mentioned by any of the characters again. WTF?
By the end, I was so impatient to get out of this yawner of a saga that the climactic confrontation registered zero on the excitement scale. Had I not been reviewing this book I wouldn't have bothered to finish it. It saddens me to have to say so about the final novel in a career of such longevity and endurance.
The last chapter is titled "An Ending—?" But it seems that the Scorpy triplets' story has indeed come to an end. Then again, Norton had a number of protegés, some of whom are big names themselves. If Three Hands for Scorpio proves a popular seller amongst Norton's dedicated base, I suppose there's nothing stopping one of those writers from bringing these girls back and, quite possibly, giving them a really strong story worthy of them.