Fletcher Pratt, The Blue Star (©1952, Ballantyne Books 1969)
These days I get my genre fiction – science fiction, fantasy, crime and romance – mainly on screens. I’ve learned that Lynda La Plante and Steven Bochco are for external application only (ie, as novelists they suck), and I prefer my J K Rowling that way as well. All the same, even though the number of books I’ll get to read before the lights go out is shrinking daily, I’m not prepared to give up the pleasures of reading genre just yet. The Blue Star predates The Lord of the Rings: it’s fantasy from an earlier era – no dwarfs, elves or Celtic myths, and what magic there is is only slightly less abstract than the sex. Actually, the 1969 edition I acquired via BookMooch is labelled adult fantasy, and one of the unexpected pleasures of the book is discovering just how chaste adult fantasy could be back then.
A prologue promises an alternative universe where magic occupies the place that science occupies in ours. If that promise creates an expectation of something like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, then the book will disappoint. In fact, the practitioners of magic are a tiny, proscribed minority. Our young hero starts out as an idealistic member of a revolutionary group in a land ruled by a queen (who remains an abstraction) and a repressive social order. Following orders from the Central Committee he seduces a young witch and promises fidelity in order to gain control of her Blue Star, an amulet that gives its wearer telepathic powers. There’s a love story, then, and a political story: will the seduction lead to true love? can a revolutionary movement with such a utilitarian attitude to young love really lead to freedom? The playing out of these questions is diverting enough, and the subversively anti-romantic politics are engaging, especially the section about the Amorosans, who talk the talk of everything being done in love, but in the place where they hold power they are just as repressive as their enemies. On the whole, though, this is not a landmark book. If you can imagine a Lord of the Rings where Bilbo decides that there are more important things than destroying the ring and that the Return of the King and the defeat of Sauron, for good or bad, will happen (or not) without his help, you have some idea of the impact.
A word of warning: skip Lin Carter’s spoilerish introduction, or at least save it for after you’ve read the rest of the book. You might also want to skip the prologue, which seems to be there to justify the fantasy mode, and doesn’t do it very well.