Spell of the Witch World (Witch World Series 2: High Hallack Cycle, #2) - Andre Norton The cover blurb of my copy of Spell of the Witch World is deceptive. After three paragraphs of effusive – but general – praise and comparison to Tolkien, the final one explains “[h]ere you will meet the twins, Elys, the witch-sister, and Elyn, the warrior-brother – and the pact that drew both into perils beyond the laws of our everyday stars.” Leaving aside the over-the-top rhetoric, the deception lies in the fact that Spell comprises three novellas – “Dragon Scale Silver” (where we meet the twins), “Dream Smith” and “Amber out of Quayth” – connected only by their Witch World setting.

Elys and Elyn of “Dragon Scale Silver” are the children of Estcarp refugees who washed up on the shores of High Hallack and found refuge in a fishing village. When Alizon invades some years later (after the twins’ parents have died), Elyn goes off to fight them, and Elys flees with the other villagers to hoped-for havens inland. Through her witching abilities and aided by the village’s wise-woman and Jervon, a wounded soldier who’s sought succor with the refugees, Elys learns that her brother has been ensnared by an ancient curse and she’s the only one who can rescue him. It’s a well told if formulaic entry in the Witch World oeuvre. What puts it a bit above average is the ending, where Elys learns what her brother really thinks of her.

“Dream Smith” is a departure from other works of the author that I’ve read. I would describe Norton’s typical prose as “concrete” but here it reads closer to a traditional fairy tale. It’s the tale of Collard, a young smith horribly disfigured in an accident, and Jacinda, a young girl equally marred. They find the usual happy ending in a dream world he creates. Again, well told but not overly memorable.

“Amber out of Quayth” is the best story of the three. Ysmay is the sister of Gyrerd, who returns from the Alizon wars with a new wife, who displaces Ysmay as lady of the hold. Faced with a lifetime of drudgery under her brother’s wife or retiring to an abbey, Ysmay fair leaps at the chance to marry Hylle, a stranger from the North. I could draw a parallel with “Bluebeard,” though the specific danger to Ysmay was not the same. Regardless, Ysmay soon learns that it’s not a “good thing” to be Hylle’s wife when she finds herself in a battle for body and soul. I enjoyed this one the most because of Ysmay’s character. She was more fully developed than Elys in “Dragon Scale Silver,” who is one of Norton’s stock characters, hardly distinguishable from a large cast of alienated youths searching for their lives’ meanings. Granted, Ysmay too is part of that company but her personality and trials stood out for me. I had a greater affinity with her particular plight than Elys’.

Recommendation? As with my review of Year of the Unicorn, this is a “read” for Norton fans, a credible addition to Witch World lore. For the general SF audience – if you’re in the library or at a bargain-book table and you’re looking for something comfortable and untaxing to distract you from global climate change, you could do worse.