In the far future, a young woman named Kilda thinks it’s unfortunate that she was born as a woman because she’s expected to do what every woman on her planet does – get married and have children. Kilda wants to travel and learn, so she appeals to her teacher, a mixed-race handicapped person who also lacks opportunity on this world. Her teacher suggests that Kilda take a job as a governess for a woman who is going off planet with her two children. Kilda takes that advice and travels with her employer and the kids, a boy and a girl, to an Earth-like planet called Dylan.
Almost immediately Kilda realizes that her employer’s daughter, Bartare, is strange. She knows about things before others do, she doesn’t act very childlike, she doesn’t seem emotionally attached to her family, she talks as if she’s being guided by someone that Kilda can’t see, and she seems relentlessly driven to some purpose on the new planet. Bartare’s brother seems to understand more than Kilda does and he is obviously worried about what Bartare will do. To protect the children, her employer, herself, and perhaps the entire planet of Dylan, Kilda needs to figure out who is directing Bartare and what their plans are.
Andre Norton’s Dread Companion (1970) is a rather dark stand-alone story that’s been paired with another stand-alone, Dark Piper, in an omnibus edition called Dark Companion which was published in print by Baen Books in 2004 and in audio by Tantor Audio in 2021. The narration by Gail Shalan is excellent. While many of Norton’s books seem most appropriate for a middle grade or young adult audience, I don’t think those age groups would find this one as fitting.
Though Kilda’s sexist and ableist society feels dated for a story set in the far future, Kilda herself sounds quite modern and I enjoyed her voice. At first, Dread Companion is a creepy and compelling read with some terrific writing, but once Kilda and the kids get trapped in a world that is clearly inspired by fae mythology, it starts to really drag.
The connection Norton makes with faery has so much potential but the long scenes involving illusions, geometric patterns, getting trapped by eating the food, and interminable walking and searching for each other in a strange land is, frankly, boring. I did, however, like the way it ended, though I suspect most readers won’t.
To summarize, I loved the beginning and liked the end of Dread Companion, but the long middle section, the part that should have been enlightening and exciting, was quite a slog. But it’s certainly possible that readers who love all things fae will disagree with me and get a lot more out of this novel than I did. If you think you might enjoy Dread Companion, I encourage you to try the wonderful audiobook.