Judgment on Janus by Andre Norton

Naill Renfro is a refugee who, out of desperation, sells himself into labour and winds up logging the forests of the planet Janus. Unfortunately the planet is run by a fanatic cult who treat their laborers like slaves or prisoners and ritualistically punish those who are found to have ‘sinned’.

Naill discovers a jewel in the forest – one of the ‘forbidden treasures’ that one must never touch – and hides it before the overseers can destroy it and punish him. But touching the jewels is it’s own punishment – he is transformed into one of the original denizens of Janus, the Iftin, and gains partial memories of being an indigene. He discovers the forest is a living, breathing, thinking entity and goes on an exodus to find his long lost people.

Right off the start this seems like a wildly original story. And it is. It could also be argued as being a fierce inspiration for James Cameron’s Avatar. Judgement on Janus is set thousands of years in the future. Janus is a forest planet (not unlike pandora) where the natives (Iftin) can communicate telepathically with animals and live in giant trees.

But we can’t in good faith compare Janus to Avatar. Norton’s masterpiece was written in 1963 – a good fifty-odd years before Cameron’s Avatar was filmed. I enjoyed the beginnings of the book, but felt the fanatical cult-planet idea could have been explored more and the ending seemed premature, (though the story picks up in the sequel, Victory on Janus.)fd0005293f68e4005711f8176a9bb278

I can however appreciate that part of Norton’s prowess was her courage to experiment with topic and theme, and to go beyond the standard or expected structure of a story. This is why her books are so memorable – she isn’t following some pre-established format – she is a frontier-writer, boldly writing into the unknown.

This book has so many interesting and original ideas, that despite the anti-climactic ending and often confusing narrative, I felt compelled to keep reading. I needed to know what the sentient force was that antagonized the heroes, and I needed to know why they were transformed.

As always, Norton has written well, mastering the English language – though I don’t feel this is one of her stronger works. Sometimes you can experiment too much and instead of being ground-breaking can come off as confusing or unfinished. I will definitely read Victory on Janus to see how this duology will conclude.

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