“To the spectator the ex-Commando might be standing impassively, the meerkats clinging to him, his hand resting lightly on Surra’s round skull, the eagle quiet on his shoulder. But an awareness, which was unuttered, unheard speech, linked him with animals and bird."
To start with, the novel's setting is a future in which mankind is spreading through the universe, and the Conan-like sword & sorcery setting of the movie has absolutely nothing to do with this. The story: Earth has been destroyed after a long war with the Xiks. Survivors flee to Terran colonies all through the universe to find a new home. One of them is Hosteen Storm, a Navajo Indian, ex-military and beast master - a commando who can communicate with and lead a team of genetically altered animals. He arrives on the planet Arzor, along with his team: an eagle, a giant cat and two meerkats. And he has a mission: Storm has made a vow to his grandfather to track down and kill a man named Quade, who was responsible for the death of his father. On Arzor, Storm meets members of the Norbies, the native inhabitants of the planet. They share quite a lot of traits with Storm's ancestral culture and they also seem to be undergoing the same fate. It's no wonder then, that Storm starts bonding with them.
In essence, "The Beast Master" is a western-in-space. It's basically what these days we would call a juvenile or YA book, with adventurous teenage boys as the prime target audience (do they still exist, these days?). You know the thing: it's all about honour, friendship, courage - certainly no room for girls and romance, let alone sex. The ideas about Native Americans are a bit naive (the "Tonto-speak" of the Norbies in particular is a bit annoying), but remember, this book was written in 1959, a time when Indians were still usually the bad guys in westerns, so the sympathetic portrayal of the Indian-like Norbies was pretty revisionist for its time.
Sure, the writing comes across as a little dated. That doesn't bother me, though. I really like delving into these no-nonsense adventure books - I read so many of them when I was growing up that they make me feel young again. Just for a while, anyway.
Author: Andre Norton
Title: The Beast Master
Publisher: Ace, New York
Number of pages: 247 p.