War and Hell Dimensions:

Andre Norton’s Warlock of the Witch World

In Warlock of the Witch World, the second Tregarth sibling, Kemoc, gets his turn in Norton’s trilogy-within-a-series, and carries on the story begun by elder brother Kyllan. Kyllan is settled in the Green Valley with its Lady, Dahaun, and the age-old conflict the triplets revived when they came over the mountains is now a full-blown war. The Valley is in serious danger.

It’s council of war time. The Valley has had to call on every possible ally, including a man of the Old Race called Dinzil, whom Kemoc hates on sight—while Kaththea has exactly the opposite reaction. Kemoc realizes (and everyone points out) that he’s probably just jealous of the man who has come between him and his sister, but he can’t stop feeling that there’s something wrong with Dinzil.

After the council Kemoc is sent with the Green Man Ethutur to request an alliance with the aquatic Krogan, while Kyllan and Dahaun will do the same with the mysterious subterranean Thas. Dinzil apparently will stay in the Valley, and so, also apparently, will Kaththea.

Kemoc’s mission is unsuccessful, but he has a fateful meeting with a young woman of the Krogan, Orsya. On the way back to the Valley Kemoc and Ethutur are attacked by a horde of evil creatures—the war is ramping up again. Kemoc drives them off by calling up powers he has no clear idea how to use, which does not please Ethutur at all. The Tregarths’ blundering ignorance is as much a threat to Escore as the enemies they keep trying to fight.

While Kemoc has been out causing trouble, people have been trickling in from Estcarp, drawn by the viral compulsion Kyllan infected the Borders with in the previous volume. The brothers and Dahaun go to retrieve a group of them—there is no rest for anyone here in Escore—and run into a Thas attack, in which Kemoc takes a poisoned wound.

Kemoc does not have the best luck in battle. He lost part of the use of his hand in Estcarp, and now his leg is badly damaged. On the way back to the Valley, he falls into a river and is carried away, and is captured by Krogan. They plan to give him to the forces of evil, but Orsya manages to rescue him.

She helps Kemoc get back to the Valley, only to discover that Kaththea has left with Dinzil, supposedly to seek out a place of power and use it  to enhance her own powers and find Kemoc. Kemoc panics because he can’t reach her mentally, but the war has escalated again, and everyone is busy defending the Valley.

When the battle is over, the Valley has won. Kemoc goes off alone to find Kaththea, after convincing Kyllan to stay and protect the Valley. Kemoc is rather unkind about the fact that he is closer to Kaththea than Kyllan is, and Kyllan is hurt. But Kemoc is in no mood to spare his feelings.

Kemoc’s quest brings him to one of the many ruins that dot the landscape of Escore. He calls on his learning from Lormt to search for his sister, using her scarf and an ancient spell.

The scarf leads him to the land of the Mosswives, who send him to a seer named Loskeetha. Loskeetha presents three futures, all of which end in Kaththea’s death at Kemoc’s hand.

Kemoc is devastated. He’s all but paralyzed by indecision, but keeps on going, because he’s a Tregarth, and Tregarths are stubborn. And Kemoc is first and foremost about Kaththea. As long as she’s anywhere out there, he will find her.

He falls immediately into a new adventure: Krogan versus Thas and evil humans. One of the Krogan is Orsya, who keeps turning up wherever Kemoc is. She’s captured and carried off.

Kemoc is already smitten with her, not to mention deep in her debt, but when he tries to go to her rescue, he can’t move–stopped cold again by Loskeetha’s prophecies. Finally and almost too late, he tears himself loose and goes after Orsya.

Eventually he finds her. He uses a Borderer trick—throwing his voice to confuse the enemy—to rescue her from a new-to-Kemoc threat, the Sarn Riders. The pair escape by water, since Orsya can’t survive for long on dry land; the route just happens to go toward the Dark Tower where Kaththea is.

Orsya goes a long way toward helping Kemoc stop wibbling and let himself make decisions. She also helps him find food that’s safe to eat, and guides him on secret ways that avoid the Shadow—he hopes.

It’s an eerie, dangerous journey, and it comes to a dead end. But Kemoc’s learning from Lormt comes in handy again. He utters a brief spell, and the way opens.

They find themselves in a tomb, with deliberate reference to a similar adventure in the first Witch World book, when Koris found Volt and his ax. This time the prize is a sword, and Kemoc is compelled to take it.

Orsya approves. She wins a prize of her own on this journey, a gleaming cone with magical powers. We will learn that it’s a unicorn’s horn, and it only works as long as she’s a virgin—not, as we might expect, another case of “women can’t have sex and do magic;” male virgins can wield it, too.

Kemoc’s sword has a mind of its own: it channels the spirit of its former owner when its current bearer is in danger. It saves them from a gigantic water monster, and helps them escape yet another threat from the Thas and a find a temporary refuge. Orsya uses the horn to “scree” (i.e., scry), and warns Kemoc that the land around the Dark Tower is thick with illusion. He can’t trust his eyes.

This is the most important advice he’ll receive, and to he does his best to follow it. Orsya continues to guide him, with the help of a Merfay who is invisible to Kemoc, but he can see the creature’s wake in water.

The end of the quest is the weirdest part of the long, weird adventure. Orsya has to stay behind—the Dark Tower is surrounded by dry land—and Kemoc goes on alone through a land of spells and illusions. Whatever seems normal or human or attractive turns out to be evil. Anything good looks hideous.

Kaththea’s scarf guides him and the magical sword protects him. He makes his way into the Tower and through it to a hallucinatory landscape in which he finds himself in the shape of a toadlike monster. He still has the sword, and it shows him the way through the hell dimension to his sister.

But first he finds Dinzil, who is as beautiful as ever. We know what that means. Dinzil has gone completely over to the dark side.

Kaththea is in his thrall, and terrified by Kemoc’s monstrous appearance. He bombards her with childhood memories until she recognizes him. She is incapable of believing that Dinzil is evil. She is  full of herself and her brilliance and her wonderful powers which Dinzil is teaching her to use. Kemoc is just jealous, she says, because she’s not all about him any more.

Kemoc has heard that one before. He’s even told it to himself. But now he knows Dinzil is really evil, and Kaththea is under a spell. He fights to free her from it.

On this plane Kaththea is a monster as well, with human head and hands and toad body. Kemoc keeps on fighting to make her see the truth. It’s a lengthy battle, and though they escape Dinzil, Kemoc is not winning. Kaththea is a hard, cruel, stubborn thing, and the dark side is stronger in her, the more she works herself free of Dinzil.

Once they win through to the real world, Kemoc still has the paws of a monster, and Kaththea is even worse off than before—her head and face have gone completely monstrous. She challenges Dinzil, and plots to take over the Valley once they get to it.

Kemoc is coming to the conclusion that he can’t let Kaththea live. She’s too dangerous.

It gets worse. She’s laid a compulsion on Orsya to lure her away from water, to use the Krogan’s blood to wash away the spell that has turned Kaththea into  monster. Kemoc manages to fight her off and save Orsya—making a choice of his own.

It is by no means an easy or a simple choice. Only after he’s made it does he realize he could have used his own blood to heal Kaththea. It’s pure malice that made her fix on Orsya.

He is still determined to save his sister. Orsya has to fight hard to keep him from going back to the Dark Tower. Finally she convinces him to go to the Valley and warn them about Kaththea’s treachery. She is blunt about his lack of either knowledge or training.

They travel by water again to the Valley, and find it besieged by Kaththea, Dinzil, and a host of evil allies. Kaththea is trying to mind-call Kyllan and use him to get into the Valley.

At that point Kemoc completely accepts the inevitability of Loskeetha’s prophecy. It’s better for them all if Kaththea is dead.

He throws the magical sword at her, but it only stuns her. Dinzil mocks him and prevents him from using the sword again. Orsya leaps in with the unicorn horn and heals Kemoc’s hand. Kemoc, in despair, calls on the Powers he’s called on before, and brings down destruction on the enemy.

The first thing he thinks of when he comes to after the cataclysm is Kaththea. He cures her of her monstrous appearance with his blood.

She emerges with no memory at all, and no power. Kemoc and Orsya take her back to the Valley. That is the second defeat of the dark side—but not, as Kemoc declares, the last. There’s more to come.

This is the one book of these three that seemed familiar when I read it. As with the others so far, I remembered the characters and who paired up with whom, but of the plot, nothing. I did however recall monster-Kaththea and a little of the hell dimension.

It’s rather a headlong story, careening from one adventure to the next, most of which bear a somewhat numbing resemblance to each other. There’s a lot of slogging around in caves and apocalyptic ruins, and some downright trippy dimensional travel. We learn quite a bit about the history of Escore, including the fact that most of the sentients are mutated or genetically engineered humans.

This explains how the brothers can get it together with Dahaun and Orsya. Dahaun is a shape-shifting forest spirit of possibly immortal stock, and Orsya is nearly completely aquatic—she can’t survive more than a few hours away from water—but they’re still essentially human.

One big disappointment was discovering that not only do we never get the full story of Kemoc’s time in Lormt, Kemoc isn’t really much of a warlock. He has powers but, as everyone frequently reminds him, he has no training and no knowledge of how to use them–and no time or apparent inclination to do so. Every so often he pulls a magic word out of the air, and something, in portentous italics, answers. We don’t know what or who or why. It just happens.

Maybe it’s the Harry Potter effect. These days we’re expect wizards to  go to school and learn magic. Kemoc goes to school, sort of, but appears to have learned nothing coherent. He’s brought back a few random words that he’s not at all sure how to use, and he has a whole lot of unregulated, uneducated power. All the people either deploring or mocking his ignorance are not actually trying to teach him to use that power. Orsya gives him reams of advice and a fair amount of history, but nothing specific along the lines of, “Here’s what those magic words mean.”

Dinzil could teach him, one would think, but since Dinzil is solidly attached to the dark side, that’s not happening. Kaththea’s studies with him get her into massive trouble, and in the end, her mind is wiped clean. It’s as if we’re being told knowledge is bad, learning is dangerous, and good guys channel random powers that they just have to trust are good, too. It’s terribly scattershot by the standards of modern fantasy.

I find it somewhat ironic that Kemoc’s power tool turns out to be a sword. Kyllan is supposed to be the warrior of the triplets, but he doesn’t get a magical weapon. He gets a magical virus instead, and infects eastern Estcarp–which is as passive a “gift” as one can imagine. It’s the warlock who ends up with the magical sword.

And then there’s the whole Kaththea situation. Kyllan spends most of his time either waiting on her or dealing with the consequences of her uncontrolled and uneducated magical meddling. Kemoc carries on the tradition, with added near-total obsession. Must Find Kaththea. Must Save Kaththea. That he manages to find a love interest and keep her along the way is kind of impressive—and Orsya is very, very patient.

The trilogy so far has been as much Kaththea’s story as her brothers’. She’s the catalyst for everything they do. She’s the reason why they have to leave Estcarp, and the cause of Kemoc’s discovery of the spell against going east. She escalates the war with her random use of witch power, then turns against the good guys and fights for the dark side.

Kaththea is a case study in the ways in which power corrupts. She’s poorly educated, and she’s arrogant about what education she has. Kemoc is a passive receptacle for unknown powers. She actively cultivates hers. Initially she’s deceived by Dinzil, but after she catches on to what he’s done, she embraces the dark side. Kemoc is clueless but essentially good-hearted. Kaththea is outright bad.

It’s wonderful luck for her brothers that they both find strong, sane, grounded women who wean them off their sister. Kaththea is none of those things. She goes chasing after the first good-looking asshole who notices her, and she has a bad case of the arrogants.

I’m more convinced than ever that she’s Jaelithe’s ultimate revenge on the witches. She’s everything that’s bad about them, and little that’s good—and she drags her brothers along with her, until they’re finally saved by the offices of good women.

Magical women, be it noted. Women who are powerful among their own people, well educated, clear-eyed and sensible. They’re an effective antidote to the toxin of Estcarp’s witches.

Next time we’ll finally get to Kaththea’s own story, unfiltered by her brothers. It’s not what I was expecting. I’ll be interested to see if others agree.

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