I had a heckuva time finding this book. Like any kid from the tail end of Generation X, I had seen the Beastmaster movie countless times on cable as a kid. And I picked up at some point that the movie was (loosely) based on a book by Andre Norton. Andre Norton being one of the writers I wanted to highlight with Throwback SF Thursday, I knew I had to cover The Beast Master. There was just one problem. Every used bookstore I set foot into had roughly a shelfful of Norton (Adam Whitehead has her #10 on his SFF All-Time Sales List). The sequel, Lord of Thunder, was the first Norton I picked up, and one of the first vintage SF I picked up. But it took trips to close to a dozen used bookstores before I finally found a copy of The Beast Master. (Assuming you don’t already own the sequel, just go ahead and pick up the omnibus.)
It was well worth the hunt.
To call the movie loosely based on the book is generous, so set aside any preconceived notions you may have based on the movie. The protagonist has an animal team and the similarities end there. Where the movie was pure sword and sorcery, The Beast Master is half-Western and half-planetary romance. If you have any doubts about that combination, Norton fulfills its potential to the fullest. I don’t talk much about gameability, but I think it is very likely that Gary Gygax was thinking of this book specifically when he listed Andre Norton in Appendix N.
The Beast Master is the story of Hosteen Storm. Storm is a veteran of a galaxy-spanning war (the Beast Service serving as a kind of Special Forces) released from service after a final victory is won. But a victory that came at a terrible price—the enemy Xik struck the human homeland, leaving Earth “a deadly blue, radioactive cinder.” An earthman (Terran), Storm has no home to go back to. Given his choice of planets, he chooses Arzor, a bit of a colonial backwater, explaining he chose it because of a climate similar to his home and the employment prospects in ranching given his abilities as a Beast Master.
He left the war and leaves for Arzor team intact. A team similar to that from the movie. He has an eagle, Baku. Two meerkats, Ho and Hing, and Surra. Surra deserves a lengthy quote:
Generations before, her breed had been small, yellow-furred sprites in the sandy wastes of the big deserts. Shy cats, with hairy paws, which kept them from sinking into the soft sand of their hunting grounds, with pricked fox ears and fox-sharp faces, possessing the abnormal hearing that was their greatest gift, almost unknown to mankind, they had lived their hidden lives.
But when the Beast Service had been created—first to provide exploration teams for newly discovered worlds, where the instincts of once wild creatures were a greater aid to mankind than any machine of his own devising—Surra’s ancestors had been studied, crossbred with other types, developed into something far different than their desert roving kin. Surra’s color was still sand-yellow, her muzzle and ears foxlike, her paws fur sand-shoes. But she was four times the size of her remote forefathers, as large as a puma, and her intelligence was higher even than those who had bred her guessed.
On arrival in Arzor, Storm’s ability to break a stallion get him a job riding herd. The Arzor economy revolves around raising Frawns, a creature somewhere between a cow and a deer that produces the galaxy’s best meat and hide. The difficulties of operating on an underdeveloped planet mean that importing, raising, and breeding horses is the second biggest sector of the Arzorian economy. But it isn’t ranching that Storm has on his mind, it’s vengeance.
Storm is not just Terran, but Navajo. Lots of science fiction draws parallels with the frontier West, but Norton pulls off the neat trick of making it explicit, with each adding thematic weight to the other. The Terrans, like the Navajo, had their home taken from them. Terrans are now viewed as dangerous oddities. Beast Masters are ascribed by rumor powers beyond their ability (there is also likely a conscious parallel with the Navajo code talkers from WWII). The economy of Arzor is much like that of the frontier West. The native alien “Norbies” have the same tense but mutually beneficial relationship with the settlers as Amerindians had with American settlers in the West. Storm’s personal vengeance is paralleled by the species-level tragedy of Terra. Norton leaves all of this in the background, telling her story and just letting it seep in, but the final effect on the climax and denouement is remarkably powerful and turned what would have been a 4-star book into a 5-star one.
Storm is quickly pulled into a scouting/survey mission to explore ruins that suggest an earlier, much more technologically advanced race than the Norbies. Things go wrong, and things start to get very complicated. What follows is straight pulp adventure (one thing I noticed is that, unlike Burroughs, Norton doesn’t even attempt to explain the science behind anything).
If you are wondering how to run a planetary romance campaign, or how animal followers should work, The Beast Master is a wonderful resource. Pretty much any tech you can think of exists in-universe (much more of it shows up in the sequel), but you won’t see much of it. There is only a single (legal) spaceport and the cost of transporting and maintaining heavy machinery make it uneconomical. High-tech weapons are tightly controlled, with only stunners allowed. So most pieces of tech effectively become magical items. Rare, valuable, and probably irreplaceable. The tense colonial relationship means Norbies can be allies or enemies, and a very small “known” area leaves endless possibilities of what you might find in the unexplored corners of the planet.
I also really like the way Norton handles the team. The AD&D 2d Edition Complete Ranger’s Handbook names a kit “Beastmaster” and gives them to ability to see through the eyes of animal followers. Storm’s abilities are more limited. He can communicate with his team, but only in limited fashion, and only for limited distances. He can command them, but he must continually prove his leadership. At one point he thinks to himself that if he asked his team to attack a nemesis that they would lose respect for him, and he would lose his hold over them. He has to face his enemy one on one. And the bond isn’t easily created. He can break a stallion in seconds, but his control over the horse never rises above a roughly normal level through the first book.
The real value of his team isn’t in battle but in reconnaissance and sabotage. Between Surra and Baku, it is impossible to sneak up on Storm. In battle, Storm mainly uses Surra and Baku to distract and demoralize. Ho and Hing are equally valuable members of the team. Incorrigible thieves and diggers, they are masters at retrieval and sabotage.
Norton wrote a sequel titled Lord of Thunder. I am reading it now and will post a review in a couple weeks. There are also three more sequels, credited to Norton and Lyn McConchie. McConchie claims all Norton provided was an outline. The movie adaptation is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. I still love it, even after reading the very different book, and I will publish a post on the movie next week.
5 of 5 Stars.
Alan Brown on The Beast Master at Tor.com.
Jenni Scott on The Beast Master and Lord of Thunder (no spoilers) at sfmistressworks.
James Nicoll on The Beast Master at James Nicoll Reviews.
Judith Tarr on The Beast Master at Tor.com.
 Conveniently for my purposes, the book title turns “Beast Master” into “Beastmaster,” which I will rely on to differentiate the two from time to time.