Norton started writing in the thirties, but really made a name for herself with her very competent, sometimes brilliant YA science fiction works she produced from the late forties through the early sixties, such as The Beast Master, Starman's Son, and The Last Planet (aka The Star Rangers). With this book, she took a giant step in a new direction, that of an adult fantasy, a book that spawned a veritable library of sequels and other stories set in the same universe, most written by her, but some written by others or as collaborators with her. Today it still stands as one of her best works.
Simon Tregarth is a man on the run from various shadowy ruffians, people he associated with because he was wrongly convicted of working the black market while in the military. Willing to try anything, he ends up passing through the Siege Perilous, a megalith which apparently is actually a gate to another world. There he immediately finds himself embroiled in a war between the Witches of Estcarp and the alien, technologically advanced Kolder, and somewhat in love with one of the Witches, even though she is bound to remain a virgin if she wishes to retain her powers.
The magic of this book lies not so much in the overt acts of magic that are performed as part of this war, nor even in Simon's growth into a hero with honor, but rather it is in the richness, the otherworldliness of this imagined world. From intimations of its past, highlighted by the Sulcarmen's possession of obvious high-technology devices, now totally forgotten by the rest of the world, to the realization that Estcarp is merely a small sliver of what once was a much larger nation with much greater magical powers, this world creeps into your subconscious, makes you feel its reality and uniqueness. As others have mentioned, this world really does seep into your dreams, makes you wish you could be there, have a part in its actions.
Along the way, there are questions raised about the proper roles of men and women, a theme that would recur throughout much of Norton's later works, as she consistently championed the (for its day) radical idea that people should be allowed to do whatever their capabilities fit them for, that society not only should not, but cannot force people into subservient or socially acceptable roles merely because of their gender. Determination, honesty, a sense of honor, and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds run right alongside this idea, at sharp variance with all too many `literary' books that seem to have mediocrity as their highest goal.
Perhaps this book doesn't have quite the power of Lord of the Rings, but at the same time it may be more accessible, more `believable' as a real world that you just might be able to go to - if you could only find a `gate' to take you there.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)