A decade-long war is finally over and the people who live on the planet of Beltane are relieved. During the war, Beltane, where many scientists lived, was recruited for the war effort and served, unwillingly, as an experimental lab. After the war, most of the scientists left the planet, creating a brain drain, and the people who remained were pacifists who looked forward to starting a new way of life without interference from the Confederation.
When a disfigured veteran named Griss Lugard is brought back home to Beltane, he warns the citizens that because the Confederacy has fallen, there is no law, and they shouldn’t trust people who want to come to Beltane because they might have bad intentions. While the citizens of Beltane are eager to accept and shelter refugees fleeing war-ravaged worlds, Lugard vehemently objects, arguing that some of the refugees could be pirates looking for government and military secrets left on the planet, including secrets that are in the brains of Beltane scientists. While the citizens think Lugard is a military man who sees everything as a threat, Lugard thinks they are all naïve.
A real threat eventually materializes while a group of children are visiting Lugard’s home (given to him by the government in exchange for his service) on an archaeological expedition. Lugard protects the kids, now separated from their parents, by hiding them in an underground cave. When Lugard dies of his injuries, the kids are trapped underground without adult help.
Can the children, led by Vere Collis, a boy who was training to be a ranger cadet (and the story’s narrator), get back to the planet’s surface? If they do, what will they find? Was Lugard right about the threat, or was he a madman? And what kind of research were the scientists of Beltane doing? Vere and his friends are about to find out…
As I’ve frequently said in my reviews of Andre Norton’s books, If I had read Dark Piper when I was a kid, I would have thought it intense and memorable. It’s for that reason that I think young readers are the best audience for her science fiction novels, even if that wasn’t Norton’s intent when she wrote them decades ago. This story, with the loss of parents and the trekking through underground tunnels, would be especially unforgettable.
As an adult, I found the pace uneven with some scenes, especially the initial ones in the caves, that go on for way too long. I also found the xenophobia and distrust of refugees uncomfortable to read about in today’s climate. I appreciated, though, the strong and smart female characters that Norton created for this story.
Dark Piper and another stand-alone novel, Dread Companion, have been published together by Baen Books in an omnibus edition called Dark Companion. Tantor Audio has recently released an audio version of Dark Companion. Dark Piper is narrated by Derek Shoales who does a very nice job interpreting Vere’s pleasant voice.
I agree with you. As a young reader I was riveted by her stories. They were full of intensity, with high stakes, and I didn’t notice that the plots were often pretty simplistic. Looking back, it’s clear that her worldbuilding, while not bad, was dated, and absorbed a lot of Cold War values.
That said, I might seek these two out and read them, because I can’t remember if I read them as a kid.
Marion, if you read these, let me know what you think.