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Enchantress from the Stars
cover scanby Sylvia Louise Engdahl
foreword by Lois Lowry
illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

(Walker, $18.95, 288 pages, hardback; originally published 1970; this edition April 2001.)

Right at the outset this reviewer should confess to having had a long-term love affair with this novel.

In 1971 I was sent from the UK on a six-week business trip to the USA, going to various cities. As one does, I picked up fistfuls of disposable paperbacks along the way, most of which got left in anonymous hotel rooms after serving as forgettable mind-fodder. One of them that I picked up, assuming it would be just a way of passing a lonely evening and probably better than American television, was the Atheneum paperback of Enchantress from the Stars. I can still vividly remember my astonishment on discovering -- I think the view outside the hotel window was downtown Boston -- that this was much more than the standard crud. Rather, it was a beautifully written and beautifully conceived book, one of the best sf novels I'd ever read -- all the more remarkable, perhaps, in that it was obviously intended for older children rather than adults. It was one of the few books that travelled home with me to the UK, where I naively expected my peer group to be buzzing about it, on the everybody-else-already-knows-about-this-marvel-except-me principle.

Not at all. I was alone in my enthusiasm: no one else around me knew the book at all. Over the years and eventually decades I reread it a few times, and was richly rewarded when my daughter grew to be of an age that she could enjoy it as much as I repeatedly did. Obviously I looked around in UK bookshops for other Engdahl titles, but -- although I gather some others were indeed published in the UK -- I was never lucky.

It's perhaps a decade since last I read Enchantress from the Stars, so the news that it was being reissued in a redesigned, re-illustrated and re-edited edition was received with great delight. The delight intensified when the book itself arrived: this is an exquisitely lovely piece of design and production, a book made to be treasured forever, with extra copies bought to be given to special friends. The cover by the Dillons should be up for every relevant art award (their illustrations inside are fine, but not so exceptional); in addition, an award should be invented for the book's designer, Ellen Cipriano, whose work here is beyond even the Dillons'. This is one of those books you want to kiss from time to time when no one's looking, it's so beautifully made.

But what of the novel itself? I was naturally a bit nervous about actually reading it: what if nostalgia had coloured the text beyond its real worth?

I needn't have worried. This book is if anything even better than it was the last time I read it.

Young (perhaps aged 20) Elana belongs to a galactic culture called the Federation whose technology and psychology are so far advanced beyond our own that they obey the Clarke law that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". On an early page Engdahl spells out rather more explicitly her own, presumably independently derived, variant of this:

It is by now a well known fact that the human people of the universe have similar histories -- not that the specific details are similar, but the same patterns emerge on every home world. Each must pass through three stages: first childhood, when all is full of wonder, when man admits that much is unknown to him, calling it "supernatural", yet believing. Then adolescence, when man discards superstition and reveres science, feeling that he has charted its realms and has only to conquer them -- never dreaming that certain "supernatural" wonders should not be set aside, but understood. And at last maturity, when the discovery is made that what was termed "supernatural" has been perfectly natural all along, and is in reality a part of the very science that sought to reject it.

The folk of the Federation, in short, are completely familiar with their own technology -- Elana doesn't regard any of the marvels she can perform using it as in any way remarkable -- while at the same time they're empowered by various abilities that we, still in "adolescence", would regard as belonging to the credulous fringe, notably telepathy and psychokinesis. Yet the Federation people are not superhumans: as human beings they are as vulnerable as the rest of us ... and vulnerable not just physically but emotionally.

One of the duties the Federation has taken upon itself is the succouring of Youngling civilizations -- those still in the stages of "childhood" and "adolescence". This task it must perform completely unknown to the Youngling civilizations concerned, for it has been established that overt intervention -- and anything on a major scale -- is likely, however well intentioned, to deleteriously affect a civilization's continuing evolution towards the level the Federation enjoys.

Elana is the daughter of a Federation field agent whose responsibility it is to silently assist selected Youngling cultures. With him and her assigned fiancé Evrek she is on her way to a family gathering when their starship is diverted to the planet Andrecia. The feudalist ("childhood") culture there is not yet aware that its world has been invaded by the advance party sent by a technological ("adolescence") culture, the Empire, which is intent on establishing a beachhead on Andrecia preparatory to colonizing the planet, with its aboriginals to be herded off into reservations. Elana's father is instructed to send down a team onto Andrecia in the hope of subtly and secretly tweaking affairs so that the Empire is induced to withdraw from the planet and leave the aboriginals to follow their own cultural-evolutionary course. By hook and crook Elana becomes part of that team.

The Empire's military crew has come down in a remote forested area, where they are using a massive mechanism called the rockchewer to clear some terrain for the establishment of the first colony. Because of the rockchewer's long "neck", loud roars and habit of devouring everything in its path, the aboriginals believe that it is a dragon. The local king, who emerges as being as brutal as anything you could expect from a feudal society -- barbaric executions a speciality -- accepts the offers of self-styled heroes to go slay the Dragon of the Enchanted Forest and rid his kingdom of it; their rewards should they succeed (and so far none has ever come back) will be the traditional ones, ranging from half the kingdom through to his daughter's hand in marriage ... or even all the king's wisdom, which is the reward sought by Georyn, the youngest of four sons of a woodcutter who resolve to kill the dragon and acquire glory.

The Federation team of which Elana is part realizes that the weakness in the Empire's armour is its antipathy to "superstition"; if the Empire can be made to believe that at least some of the natives of Andrecia are capable of wielding magical forces then it will withdraw and hereafter regard the planet as fearful and taboo. Elana is therefore set to intercept Georyn and his brothers as they journey towards the king's court, and to find out if any of them have the aptitude to be given a rush course in the "supernatural" powers of the mind.

Georyn and one of his brothers prove to have this aptitude, but the brother is soon killed by an Empire psychopath, and so all hopes rest on Georyn's fortitude if the dragon is to be slayed and the Empire driven off...

What no one has reckoned on is that Elana and Georyn might fall in love, which they do despite the presence of Evrek as part of the Federation team. Their love, however, can never be allowed to reach fulfilment, for it would be as impossible for Elana to stay on Andrecia as it is for Georyn to be plucked out of his own culture and introduced into the Federation: the cultural gap is simply too large.

The tale of this inevitably frustrated romance is a large part of the appeal of Enchantress from the Stars (Elana is an enchantress in more than one sense), and of course the story of how Georyn in the end, through his own courage, eventually defeats the dragon is another.

But the book is very much more than this. Ringing through its pages is an extraordinarily appealing faith in humanity -- not in leaders or prophets, to be sure, but in common or garden human beings, whatever the level of the culture in which they happen to be fixed. Elana comes to learn that Georyn is in every way her moral and intellectual equal, despite the fact that he sees -- can only see -- his world in terms of enchantments and "supernatural" forces; and she learns that the same is true also of Jarel, a medic sent along as part of the Empire's expeditionary force: although his leaders believe in such retrogressive notions as conquest, he (and hence presumably countless other subjects of the Empire, who in a simplistic Star Wars-type scenario might be regarded as mere mindless clones, and thereby legitimate laser-fodder) believes that the act the Empire is preparing to commit is a deeply criminal one, and that the Empire's designation of the Andrecian aboriginals as "subhuman" is merely a trick of thinking designed to obscure the stark immorality of the Empire's plans. These (and much else there is no room to describe here) are deeper philosophical points than, alas, one is accustomed to encountering in sf.

Another matter of significant interest about Enchantress from the Stars is the way its story is told. Most of the narrative is related in the first person by Elana, but large parts are told in the form of the much later legend the Andrecians have derived concerning the actions of the quasi-historic hero Georyn, who with the aid of an otherworldly Enchantress once slew a Dragon. As a result of this dual mode of telling (triple, really, because there are a few sections told in the third person) the novel has sometimes been described as a science fantasy or just as a fantasy. The fact of the matter is that it is neither of these: one of its many great achievements is that it is without a doubt a science-fiction novel, yet one which has a massive amount to say about the emergence and evolution of fantasy and legend. Metafiction is, thus, a primary component of this book; and yet there is no sense that anything so pompous-seeming is being thrust upon the reader, for Enchantress from the Stars never stops being a riveting tale, and can be fully enjoyed on that level alone.

Enchantress from the Stars was originally published as a children's book, and thereby failed to gain the more widespread recognition it so manifestly deserved; it received a Newbery Honor in 1971 and the Phoenix Award in 1990, but has generally been ignored in sf/fantasy circles. The new and lovingly created reissue is likewise aimed at the children's market. This is a sensible decision from the commercial viewpoint, because it's likely to sell ten times as many copies that way; but this time round, hopefully, it will be recognized also as not just a novel for young adults but also one of the finest sf novels ever written -- a classic of the genre. The only possible complaint one can make is that, after finishing it, you will likely find yourself disinclined for a while to pick up anything else in the genre for fear it will, as it were, taste of ashes.

In sum, it is almost impossible to convey how good this book is. Please just read it.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 26 May 2001