Used bookstores have certain sort of magic. It might be the smell of old pages filling the air like fairy dust, or the chance to stumble upon a hidden gem with a story lost to time. And no two stores are the same, each one giving us a new maze of bookshelves to explore.
There’s a used bookstore about thirty minutes from my house that’s extra awesome because it also sells comics. Its sci-fi/fantasy bookshelves are hidden in the back, and they’re a treasure trove packed full of more stories than I could read in a lifetime. Looking over the rows of spines to pick out my next purchase is always an adventure.
I bought this one mostly because it has a cat on the cover.
Okay, so it wasn’t just the cat. I knew Andre Norton was one of the founding authors of science fiction but had never read anything by her before. This seemed like a good chance to change that. It sat on my bookshelf for a few months until Vintage Science Fiction Month rolled around, and here we are.
The book’s blurb is as follows:
Murdoc Zern was on the run.
But then, as a gen trader practicing a dangerous trade, Murdoc has spent most of his life on the run in search of the truth about the mysterious ring stone of phenomenal powers in his pocket, a legacy from his father who’d been murdered for it. Now this stone, born of worlds long extinct, may involve him in the trade of his life as he is hunted through space by an unscrupulous religious order that has chosen him as its unlawful sacrifice.
Marooned on an alien planet with his feline companion, Eet, Murdoc faces danger from the predatory “sniffers,” arrest by the Patrol, silencing by the order of the Green Robes, and the crisping laser of the Underground Thieves Guild. Somewhere in this web of intrigue and deceit lies the answer to his only bargaining tool, the source of a power unimaginable known only as…
The Zero Stone.
That isn’t a lie about Murdoc being on the run, by the way. The book opens on him running for his life from an evil cult that just killed his mentor, and for most of the story, he’s pretty much…
To be fair, a lot of people try to kill him: cultists, space traders, aliens, thieves, space cops… The poor guy doesn’t even know why for most of the story, though he suspects it has to do with his father’s mysterious stone. The novel is written in first-person, so we don’t know either. We’re just along for the ride as Murdoc tries to survive.
Originally published in 1968, the book has an older style of language that took me a bit to get into the groove of, though the tense, action-packed plot is timeless. It definitely felt different than the current books I read and was a nice change of pace.
But Kristen, you ask, what about the cat on the cover?
You guys. You guys. It’s not just a cat. It’s a mutant, sentient, telepathic alien cat OF MYSTERY.
Eet the cat is the best part of the book, and the mystery behind him is just as intriguing as the the one behind the titular Zero Stone. I won’t go into much more because I don’t want to spoil things–and yes, this book came out fifty years ago, but if you’ve never read it, it’s new to you. And you should definitely give it a try if that blurb sounded at all interesting to you.
What I like most about this book is that, while there’s a fistfight and laser gun showdown here and there, Murdoc and Eet are mostly surviving by their wits. Their ability to think on their feet is what keeps them alive, and they get their final victory by tricking their enemy rather than punching him.
I like clever heroes, and I like clever cats, so this is good all-around. It’s also convinced me that I need to read more Andre Norton, so if you have a favorite novel of hers, let me know in the comments!
6 thoughts on “Vintage Sci-Fi Month: The Zero Stone by Andre Norton”
Oh I haven’t read Andre Norton in ages! I had some of her books from a used bookstore back in high school and really was into her Witch World books for a while. Anyway I’ve never read this one!
I’m a big fan of Star Man’s Son (Daybreak 2250 AD)- it’s post apocalyptic and was the first book of hers I read, so it’s probably nostalgia but I also think it has some great imagery.
And yes- used bookstores are the best!!
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I keep hearing good things about Witch World! Definitely need to add it to my to-read list. And I’ve been looking for a post apocalyptic read lately, too.
It’s hard to judge books sometimes when they have that nostalgia factor. 🙂
Twelve-year-old me would have picked up that book entirely because of the cat on the cover. I went through a random cat phase around that time…read all the Ursula K. LeGuin Catwings books, begged my parents to take me to the Christina Ricci version of That Darn Cat, inserted random cat facts into schoolyard conversations… it was a magical time.
I read Norton’s Key Out Of Time a few years ago, for equally middle-school-nostalgic reasons. Basically, it set off my Ocean Girl radar (a very sophisticated tool by which I measure how much a book reminds me of my favorite 90s Australian SciFi show). Ocean planet? Check! Woman who communicates telepathically with sea creatures? Check!
I think a lot of us go through a cat phase when we’re kids. 🙂
And Key Out of Time sounds awesome. I’ll have to check that out!
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I first read The Zero Stone as an eleven-year-old back in 1979, and I’ve revisited it every ten years or so since then. Despite the occasional eccentricities of Norton’s writing—her tendency to begin sentences with “too” roused in me a particular fury—it holds up astonishingly well… Other than the near total lack of female characters, obviously. Make Murdoc Jern female, add a plucky human sidekick, sort out a healthy CGI budget for Eet and this could be a solid Canadian-made TV SF delight.
It’s also worth mentioning that Norton wrote a sequel, Uncharted Stars, that wraps up the story. The two books are also sold as a single volume with the less than inspired title “Search for the Star Stones”.
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Great points! And I would totally watch that TV adaptation. 🙂
I’ll have to see if my local library carries the sequel.