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Planet Stories 016 - 1974/2008 - illo by James Ryman

(slight spoilers, for those who didn’t finish The Ginger Star)

The Hounds of Skaith picks up after the conclusion of The Ginger Star. Eric John Stark has ventured across the dying planet of Skaith in search of his foster-father Simon, destroying the citadel of the ruling Wandsmen in the process. Now, he has to venture back across Skaith, to the planet’s single starport, before the Wandsmen close the planet off for good. For you see, Skaith is dying, and many of its citizens want to leave before its sun dies and the planet freezes, while the Wandsmen want to retain power and keep the status quo.

This volume is filled with action, and all the epic battles the previous book was a short on. Skaith is devolving into civil war, as more and more groups realize that Old Sun is indeed dying, and that they must escape before the long freeze. Stark continues his role as a pawn of prophecy neck-deep in Skaith’s politics, as he unifies these rebellious groups to fight the Wandsmen. And to make things more difficult, he knows he can’t trust some of them.

It only took a few chapters to remember why Leigh Brackett’s Ginger Star is one of my favorite Planet Stories books: it’s got a lot of the Barsoomian/swords-and-planets fare, yes, but when Brackett grabs the reins it transcends into something more. Most of the early Planet Stories line was filled with pure Barsoomian novels—Almuric, the Kane of Old Mars trilogy, and Otis Aldelbert Kline, the man who would be Burroughs. For my money, Brackett is on the top of the heap: she writes damn fine swords-and-planets without devolving into the same-old, same-old pastiche/homage to Barsoom. (Nothing wrong with riffing on Barsoom, that’s why I buy Planet Stories after all, but Brackett manages to add so much to the genre that I consider her writing the genre’s high-water mark.)

Brackett’s prose is top-notch, arguably some of the strongest writing in the early Planet Stories books. Her characters are flat compared to Ginger Star or The Sword of Rhiannon—Stark’s love interest, Gerrith the prophetess, barely shows up—but Brackett makes up for it with plenty of action and adventure. And Skaith is filled with all manner of wondrous alien life: telepathic northhouds, various humanoids created by induced mutations, the deadly carnivorous Runners who run within sandstorms and attack in the ensuing chaos, a xenophobic government struggling to keep order, cannibalistic doomsday cults, and farers, hippies who wander from city to city, living off the generosity of the government. Quite a lot of inspiration to be drawn from all that.

Afterword:

I don’t really have a lot more to say; the second two Skaith book reviews were pretty much just case studies for this blog. And while at this point I prefer Reavers to Hounds, it is a fulfilling middle volume of the trilogy. The obvious comparison would be to Empire Strikes Back: a lot more fast-paced development and action, glossing over the minutiae in order to get to the big ideas, epic fight scenes, and major revelations, while also retaining room for character and plot development. Though I don’t think it’s as successful as Empire Strikes Back, otherwise I wouldn’t prefer the amazing finale of Reavers. While I wouldn’t say it’s facile, it does skimp on development in favor of action compared to the first and last books in the trilogy.

Brackett was at her best when she was cribbing elements of film noir and westerns in her SF, and the Skaith books were the apex of that style. Given their original covers, I have to assume someone (Brackett, an editor, whoever) noted the rising trend in swords-and-barbarians stories in the early-mid ’70s and tried to capitalize on that. The Skaith Trilogy surpasses the average ’70s Conan clone by a wide margin: Stark is capable, but still only human, and the beginning of Reavers of Skaith shows he’s not all-powerful; Gerith is a strange and mysterious force in and of herself, not some screaming maiden to be rescued.

Though, I have to say, while James Ryman’s covers are good, switching artists in the middle of a series is a bad move. His style and tone is a lot different from Andrew Hou’s, and while I like his depictions of the runners and northhounds better, his art style just doesn’t do much for me.

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