RogerBW's Blog

Night of Masks, Andre Norton 03 December 2015

1964 children's SF. Nik Colherne's face was badly burned in an accident, and as a resident of the Dipple he can't afford the advanced surgery that might fix it. The Thieves' Guild offers him a new face, if he impersonates a boy's fantasised hero. But it's all rather more complex than that.

Perhaps over-complex: there are at least two factions of the thieves, as well as the Space Patrol which at times seems not much better. Nik and the boy Vandy, who apparently has some key information buried behind post-hypnotic suggestions, end up on the planet Dis, where an infra-red sun leaves it in permanent darkness and the weather, driven by a solar flare some years ago, is extreme.

It's a fascinating, if astrophysically implausible, environment, but mostly it turns into just another planetary survival story. Yes, there's a thing like an angler-fish with a light lure, but all the wildlife clearly gives Nik the creeps and is described in corresponding terms. (To be fair, most of it wants to kill him.) All too often, when Norton apparently can't think of anything else to do or wants to pad things out a bit, there's another monster encounter, or more escape across rough terrain.

More troublesome is the emphasis on stuff: a human out of doors on this perpetually dark world is blind without "cin-goggles", but everything hinges on possession of those goggles. There's occasional mention of hand torches, but nobody seems to take them seriously as an alternative, even when they have to go underground. At various times Nik, or his charge, or both of them, lack goggles and therefore have to creep their way around, with some effectively spooky writing, but too many times the plot is driven by who has goggles and who needs them. Or blasters. Or rations. It's all a bit logistics-driven, like a dungeon-bashing RPG of the sort with which Norton would be briefly associated over a decade later, but also sloppy: at one point Nik takes a spare pair of goggles from a Patrolman, then they vanish from the narrative even when his own are taken from him.

As for the personal elements, Nik is happy to go along with the Thieves' Guild proposal without asking too many questions. They're promising him a new face, after all, without which he's never going to have a normal life. But while this is obviously meant to be a story of moral redemption, Nik never actually takes any actions which don't serve to preserve himself and his own life; he never has to make a choice between a good outcome for himself and a good one for the kid. (And, after lots of foreshadowing about his new face being temporary unless it's stabilised later, it turns out in the end to be just fine even though the Thieves' Guild apparently never intended that it be more than a quick fix, that was all that was needed, and a real fix would have been vastly more expensive. Because, er? Hey look over there, it's another horrid creature!)

Although this is generally listed as the second Dipple book, the only connection is in the opening chapters; it's no more a sequel to Catseye than is Judgment on Janus. What this trio of books does perhaps illustrate is the three ways out of the Dipple: the Casual Labor Center and temporary jobs, signing oneself away to off-world contract work, or joining the Thieves' Guild.

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