This is the fourth title in Andre Norton’s Beast Master series. The first two (The Beast Master and Lord of Thunder) were written by Norton in 1959 and 1962. Three sequels were published as collaborations in the 2000s. The cover says by two authors, but it was obvious within a couple of chapters of this one that the only input by Norton herself was a story outline, if that. It got only more obvious as the book went on, because McConchie a) has not written a convincing pastiche of Norton’s writing style, b) is not as good a writer. McConchie’s own website states that all three of the “collaborations” were written solely by McConchie from brief collaboratively written outlines.
I don’t have a problem with high quality sharecropped novels — after all, I like good fanfic, and I’m perfectly happy to pay for pro-published fanfic if it’s good enough. However, for me this example isn’t good enough to buy, although it’s worth checking out from the library if you want to read more about the beast masters. A particular irritation for me was that McConchie is addicted to head-hopping, and is not good enough to make it transparent. This is not just using an omniscient point of view — this is dropping into a different character’s head for a paragraph or two, sometimes in mid-paragraph, in order to provide information that the main character for that chapter can’t know. By contrast, Norton had very tightly controlled point of view — and as a result was the author who got me thinking at a young age about how different POVs work, and how it can be used to give different effects. Thus the head-hopping had a fingernails-down-blackboard effect on me, although other readers might not be irritated by it.
The primary focus of this book is Laris, a young woman who accepted bonded servant status to a circus owner to escape a refugee camp. Laris has a valuable talent with animals, and is used both in the ring acts, and behind the scenes to look after the animals. In her time with the circus, she’s realised that it has ties to the Thieves’ Guild — and the latest scheme is the abduction of beast master’s animals. When the circus heads to Arzor, she’s used in a plot to acquire Hosteen Storm’s animals. Laris’s sympathy is with Storm and his family, but Laris has a beast companion of her own to protect… There’s enough backstory dropped in that you could read this as a standalone, although I’d really have to suggest you go and get the original pair of books instead.
The story’s enjoyable and fits in well with Norton’s world, even if I didn’t like some of the writing. Would I read the other two novels McConchie wrote using Norton’s setting and characters? Yes, but going by this one I wouldn’t go to any great trouble or expense to acquire them, and I probably wouldn’t keep them once I’d read them.