In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
I have always been fascinated by stories set on Mars, from tales of the old Mars of planetary romances to the marginally habitable Mars of the mid-20th century, up through the harsh Mars we now know exists in reality. There is something thoroughly compelling about the collective vision of Mars as it has been portrayed by science fiction writers in every period. Among the greatest writers of Martian adventures is Leigh Brackett, not only a noted science fiction author, but also a well-respected Hollywood screenwriter. Today, I’ll be looking at one of her best works, The Sword of Rhiannon
In writing this column, I mostly re-read old favorites, but I also occasionally run across books and stories that I wanted to read but was not able to find or otherwise missed in my younger days. A recent Tor.com column from Howard Andrew Jones and Todd McAulty, “Five Classic Sword-and-Planet Sagas,” mentioned The Sword of Rhiannon (called “The Sea Kings of Mars” in its original publication in Thrilling Wonder Stories). This jogged my memory, and I decided I was overdue to fill this gap in my reading history. I found a nicely bound paperback edition from an imprint called Planet Stories, one of a series of tales published by a gaming outfit called Paizo. This imprint has revived the name of the famous Planet Stories pulp science fiction magazine, which existed from 1939 to 1955 and frequently published stories by Leigh Brackett and other notable authors. One of the nice features of this edition is an introduction from writer Nicola Griffin that puts Brackett and her work in context.
About the Author
Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was a noted science fiction writer and screenwriter, most famous for her planetary adventure stories, her scripts for director Howard Hawks, and her final work, the first draft of the script for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
I have reviewed Brackett’s work before, looking at an omnibus edition including two Mars-based adventures of Eric John Stark, perhaps her best-known character. In that earlier review, you can find a more complete biography than I have included here.
There are a couple of works by Brackett that you can find and read for free on Project Gutenberg (although I warn you, her work is like potato chips—it’s hard to quit after just one or two).
The Allure of Mars
Humans have always been fascinated with Mars, especially once they realized that it is the planet in the solar system most like Earth. There is an excellent article on Wikipedia that catalogs fiction that deals with Mars (you can find it here), and another article in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction on the theme of Mars (which you can find here). I always found it easy to picture the arid environment of Mars, perhaps because in my imagination it echoed the dusty landscapes I had seen in so many Western movies during my youth. And the popular image of Mars, especially the Mars of the pulps, was very compelling: a dying planet filled with lost treasures, mysteries, opportunities and adventures.
You can witness my own fascination with Mars in the number of books I have reviewed for this column that feature the planet. In addition to Brackett’s work, these include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars and the anthology Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. And those are just the books set fully on Mars; there are a number of other books where Mars is visited during the course of the narrative: Sleeping Planet by William Burkett, Raiders from the Rings by Alan Nourse, The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum, Avengers of the Moon (a Captain Future adventure by Allen Steele), City by Clifford Simak, Northwest Smith by C. L. Moore, and the adventures of Buck Rogers by Philip Francis Nowlan and Dick Calkins.
Perusing those articles on Wikipedia and SFE reminded me of just how many of my favorite Mars books I still haven’t explored in this column. These include Red Planet, Podkayne of Mars and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein; The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke, Birth of Fire by Jerry Pournelle, Mars by Ben Bova, and The Forge of God and Moving Mars by Greg Bear, just to mention a few that I can easily find on my bookshelves…
The Sword of Rhiannon
As with many books of the period, the story starts off at a gallop—there is little time wasted on exposition and detailed descriptions. The prose is vigorous and colorful, and immediately sweeps you into the tale. Protagonist Matt Carse realizes that he is being followed as he leaves a local bar in the seedy Martian town of Jekkara, a former seaport that now borders a dry wasteland. He is an Earthling who has lived on Mars for most of his life, a former archaeologist and academic who now supports himself by thievery and treasure hunting. He has become a tough and bitter man in a tough and bitter environment. His Mars is the Mars of Brackett’s Eric John Stark and C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith: a dry, dusty, dying and decadent planet inhabited by human-like Martians, where colonialist Earthlings are encroaching on the older civilization. A local thief, Penkawr, shows him a beautiful sword: the Sword of Rhiannon, owned by a legendary god-like figure from Martian legend, a rebel whose name is cursed. Carse tells Penkawr he wants to be led to the Tomb of Rhiannon to find what other treasures await. Penkawr is evasive at first, but then admits he knows the location of the tomb. Carse tells Penkawr he will take a two-thirds share of whatever they earn from this undertaking. When Penkawr asks why Carse is getting the lion’s share, Carse replies, “Because I’m the lion.” That might seem callous, but you have to remember that Carse is the only person Penkawr trusted enough to approach with the sword, knowing Carse at least would not steal everything from him, and possibly leave him for dead. When they find the temple, however, it turns out that Penkawr is the one who can’t be trusted. They find a strange bubble of darkness in one chamber, and when Carse leans in to examine it, he finds himself pushed into the bubble.
Carse feels a mysterious presence as he struggles to escape from the bubble, and when he extricates himself, he finds the tomb full of devices that were not there before. When he emerges from the tomb, the Martian wastelands have been replaced by lush green hills and a blue sea. He has traveled far back in time. He sees the city of Jekkara in the distance—not the decaying city he knew, but a young and vibrant seaport. He takes the Sword of Rhiannon in hand and heads out to explore. He finds the inhabitants to be xenophobic and violent, and as an obvious foreigner, is attacked by locals who are soon reinforced by the Sark soldiers who rule the city. A large rogue named Boghaz Hoi of Valkis tries to help him, but the two of them are both captured and chained to the oar of a galley heading for Sark. Carse encounters other races of Martians, people of the sea and sky, who are also enslaved by the Sark. He has dark and confusing dreams about Rhiannon and suffers terribly in the harsh conditions of the galley. And then he sees the princess, Ywain, who owns the galley.
Here we encounter one of those love/hate relationships that were a frequent trope in the pulps of the day (I recently discussed another love/hate dynamic in “Doc” Smith’s book First Lensman, which I reviewed here, a prime example of the kind of relationship that the TV Tropes website calls “Belligerent Sexual Tension.”). To quote Brackett, in a passage that shows her writing at its lurid and evocative best:
She stood like a dark flame in a nimbus of sunset light. Her habit was that of a young warrior, a hauberk of black mail over a short purple tunic, with a jeweled dragon coiling on the curve of her mailed breast and a short sword at her side.
Her head was bare. She wore her black hair short, cut square above the eyes and falling to her shoulders. Under dark brows her eyes had smoldering fires in them. She stood with straight long legs braced slightly apart, peering out over the sea.
Carse felt the surge of a bitter admiration. This woman owned him and he hated her and all her race but he could not deny her burning beauty and her strength.
The rebellious Carse is viciously flogged, but his oppressor draws the sword taken from him, and Ywain recognizes it as the Sword of Rhiannon. She sees it as the key to finding the Tomb, which she knows might be filled with devices that can be used to help her people to dominate the planet. She brings Carse and Boghaz Hoi to a stateroom where an unseen serpent-like beast lurks. The Sark are allied with the Dhuvians, people who live in the dark city of Caer Dhu; the Dhuvians use devices from the days of Rhiannon to make attacks on their city impossible. Carse faces the unseen beast, and as it attempts to draw the secret of the tomb from him, he begins to hear a voice in his head that speaks of Rhiannon, and he finds the courage to slay the unseen beast. Carse and Boghaz Hoi capture Ywain, and then, having seized a tiger by the tale, lead an uprising of the slaves that takes the galley. They head toward Khondor, home of the Sea Kings who oppose the Sark and Dhuvians.
At this point, to avoid spoiling things, I will be less specific in my summary. Carse is not accepted with open arms by the Sea Kings, many of whom doubt his intentions. And he grapples with an increasingly present entity that haunts his dreams. When he passed through the black void that transported him through time, he brought another spirit with him—one which now rides in his body like a passenger. He and that spirit are caught up in a deadly struggle over control of the planet, a struggle where victory and defeat hang in the balance, where even death cannot prevent redemption, and war cannot prevent love from blooming. It is a fun ride that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, and I was glad to have finally found and read the book, because it truly ranks among the best stories Brackett ever wrote. The book is like an artist’s sketch, drawn with bold strokes and vivid colors, with strength in its simplicity.
The Sword of Rhiannon is a book that should be read by everyone who enjoys planetary adventure; indeed, by everyone who enjoys tales of adventure. Matthew Carse, the princess Ywain, and the amoral but entertaining Boghaz Hoi are characters who I will remember for a long time, and for all the economy of the prose, there are plenty of memorable secondary characters as well. It is the work of a master of the genre writing at the peak of her powers. Pulp fiction is a form not always given respect, but this is pulp fiction done right.
Now, it’s my turn to listen to you: Have you read The Sword of Rhiannon, and if so, what did you think of it? And what are your favorite stories of Mars, especially those that look at a world we once imagined as a place of dying cities and hard-bitten adventurers?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.