Changelings on Distant Worlds – more of why I love sf/f

Cover of the 1980 paperback re-release of Dread Companion.

Cover of the 1980 paperback re-release of Dread Companion.

I can’t narrow it down more than to say that I found Andre Norton’s Dread Companion on a library shelf during middle school. The cover blurb told me it was a tale of a woman living on another planet far in the future who was hired to take care of two children who had an “imaginary” friend that was something far more sinister.

I didn’t expect that it would be about faeries in space.

The blurb was a fairly accurate description of the set-up: Kilda is a young woman trying to find her place in the world. Her father was a spacer who had no interest in settling down with the woman who got pregnant during their brief political marriage. And her mother didn’t want to be saddled with a child like Kilda who was more interested in exploring and learning science and so forth than she was in being pretty and having babies of her own…

I want to digress here for a second and note that at 14-ish when I first read it I don’t think I even noticed how sexist Kilda’s homeworld was. It was only during a re-reading in my twenties that I was annoyed that a society so far in the future that humanity’s descendants aren’t certain that Earth is anything more than a fable would still expect little girls to only be interested in dolls and playing dress-up.

Anyway, Kilda winds up being raised in that future society’s version of foster care, and when she ages out finds employment as, essentially, a nanny for a well-to-do family that is getting ready to move to another planet. Her charges are a pair of siblings, one boy and a girl. The girl has an imaginary friend who she blames for any bad or odd things that happen. Later, Kilda catches the little girl sneaking outside at night to dance and chant in a manner that Kilda finds disturbing. And then, the little girl tricks her brother into running off with her. Kilda tracks them, and follows their trail right through a portal to another world.

The alien dimension they wind up in follows most of the rules and tropes of fairy. And for the bulk of the book the obstacles Kilda must face to try to rescue the children from the companion (who is essentially an evil fairy queen) and get everyone home will be very familiar to any fantasy fans who have read stories of people being lured away by fairies. She meets up with a spacer named Jorth who has been marooned in the world for some time. Jorth helps Kilda find the children, and teaches her enough about the world and the ways of its inhabitants that she is able to defeat the dread companion and eventually get her charges back home. Though it isn’t really home because, of course, time has passed differently on each side of the portal.

The story was an interesting hybrid of fantasy and science fiction. The dimension Kilda traveled to is supposed to be the source of most human myths and legends about faeries; the idea being that humans have been stumbling through or been lured through similar portals by these aliens throughout history. I was particularly enamored with the idea that when humans do finally colonize the stars, they will still encounter magical creatures.

The story features several of Andre Norton’s favorite themes: the protagonist is essentially an orphan, the protagonist is a misfit or outcast within her society due to inherent traits, there are psychic bonds with animals, and a variant on the protagonist is more at home in the alien/foreign place. Unlike some of her other books, in this one it isn’t the protagonist, Kilda, who fits in so well in the other dimension, it is instead Jorth the marooned spacer who is more successful as a denizen of fairy than he was in his previous life.

Kilda still does come into her own in this story. She’s driven forward by a strong sense of responsibility to the children, embodying the “no one is left behind” idea throughout. Though she has help from Jorth, she’s still the person who puts the pieces together and achieves victory in the end.

This was another book that prompted me to write an alternate ending, because by the time I reached the end of the book I had more than a bit of a crush on Jorth, and wished that things had worked out a bit differently for him. I don’t think I got very far with that one, but I do know that many of my fantasy stories in the years since have small echoes of Norton’s version of the fairy land as described in this book.

Like many of Norton’s books, this one kindled my hope that like its misfit protagonist I would one day find my place in the world and maybe even be the hero. Though it also fanned the flames of fear that, like one of the characters in this story, I didn’t fit in precisely because I didn’t belong here. Still, I think that it helped me more than hindered me in my own process of self-discovery that would eventually lead me to coming out.

And it was a fun adventure that features both interstellar travel and fairies! Who could ask for anything more?


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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I used to publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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