Nik Colherne lives in the Dipple, a planet-side slum that serves as the opening setting for a few of Andre Norton’s novels. Nik survived a fiery crash that left him orphaned and with a disfigured face that others find abhorrent. Rejected and friendless, Nik is targeted by the Thieves’ Guild who promise him a new (and handsome) face if he’ll impersonate the hero of a young boy that they are trying to find. The boy, Vandy, is the son of a powerful warlord and the thinking is that if Nik poses as the boy’s hero, Vandy will trust him enough to come along with him. Nik is a little suspicious of the mission, but the guild makes everything sound legit, and cooperation is Nik’s only hope for a new face and a new life.
When Nik eventually finds the boy, the two of them end up imprisoned on a planet with a sun that emits only infrared rays after it experienced a severe flare. Since the sun’s rays are outside the range of humans’ photoreceptors’ ability to detect and transduce, the planet is completely dark unless infrared goggles are used. The planet is also inhabited by horrendous man-eating creatures that, of course, can’t be seen without those goggles. How will Nik and Vandy escape, especially when they can’t see, have no food, and have no idea if they can even trust each other?
As is true of many of Norton’s stories, the best part of Night of Masks (1964) is her world-building. I’m so intrigued by the Dipple (I’ve said it before in other reviews) and wish we could spend more time there. Likewise, I loved the infrared planet – it’s so imaginative and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. The beginning of the story, with the introduction of the characters and the set-up of the plot is also intriguing.
Once things get into full swing, though, the story has the same issues that many of Norton’s novels do. It’s simplistic and linear, focuses mostly on escaping and fighting scary predators, is male-centric (this story has one minor female character but, thankfully, she is smart and competent), and lacks any sort of complex characterization or narrative depth. Night of Masks just isn’t entertaining enough to overcome these deficits, though I did find the ending to be satisfying despite its abruptness.
Night of Masks has been packaged with Catseye (which also begins in the Dipple) in Tantor Audio’s new audio edition called Masks of the Outcasts (2021) which is beautifully performed by Eric Michael Summerer. The print version of this omnibus was previously published by Baen in 2004.