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The Scent of Magic
Andre Norton
Avon Eos Books, 361 pages

The Scent of Magic
Andre Norton
Andre Norton is the Grand Dame of Science Fiction, with an enormous number of SF and Fantasy books to her credit, including the classic Witchworld saga.

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A review by Lisa DuMond

Humans marvel at the miraculous sense of smell in animals -- sharks, bloodhounds, hyenas -- and assume that this innate talent is denied to their own kind. The Scent of Magic proposes that such human "noses" could be among us. Noses capable of detecting that almost imperceptible taint of blood in water, yes, but, more importantly, capable of tracing the corruption of evil on the air.

Willadene, orphan and virtual prisoner of the Wanderers Inn, has that once-in-a-century talent. All she desires is to escape the harsh treatment of her guardian and apprentice herself to Halwice, the Herbmistress. Escaping the inn will also mean escaping the clutches of the swinish brute she is to be married off to in a frighteningly brief time. It is this extraordinary gift of smell that will be her passage out of that grim life and set her on a path that will carry her to the Ducal palace and beyond.

Norton's focus on the smells and unseen signatures of Kronengred presents a unique way of viewing the setting and the cast of characters. Every location and every player bears the indelible mark of scents, good and bad. The descriptions of lavish furnishings and garments remain, but become secondary to the signals sent to Willa's sensitive nose. Often, these signals will be the weapon that keeps Willa and her companions from death or worse. And, may be the only chance for the imperiled kingdom.

Norton has created a memorable cast for The Scent of Magic. In a court where the balance of power is tipsy at best, alliances and rivalries seem to shift with the moment.

Interestingly, it is the male characters who prove the most memorable and complex.

With one exception: Ssssaaa. From her first appearance in the novel, she remains the most intriguing and captivating character in a book full of spies, assassins, ladies, and lords. Without speaking a word, she reveals hidden facets, mesmerizing even as she retains her mystery. If Ssssaaa really exists, I want one in the worst way.

If, at times, it becomes a bit of a stretch to imagine a civilization so lead by its nose, there is no such stretch in the presentation. Norton's grasp of dialogue allows conversations which would tend to the stilted in another writer's hand to flow with perfect ease. Court manners and street slang fall naturally from the lips of her cast.

Unlike many sword and sorcery novels, there is no period of adjustment to the speech patterns; even though drastically different from current language, it hits the ear without jarring or drawing a wince.

An adventure, a distant civilization, and a chance to experience a time and place in a new way -- no more than one expects from one of the Grand Masters of science fiction and fantasy.

Copyright © 1998 Lisa DuMond

Lisa DuMond writes science fiction and humour. She co-authored the 45th anniversary issue cover of MAD Magazine. Previews of her latest, as yet unpublished, novel are available at Hades Online.

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