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Planet Stories 018 - 1976/2009 - illo by James Ryman

(spoilers, if you haven’t read the two previous Skaith books)

Reavers of Skaith is the conclusion of Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. When we last saw our intrepid heroes, things were looking up: Eric John Stark managed to contact one of the last ships out of Skaith as the starport was closing. While Stark decided to stay behind, his foster-father Simon left on the ship with a small party, hoping to plead their case to the United Planets agency.

Things immediately take a drastic turn: the starship’s captain turns on his passengers, capturing Stark and Simon, and with two other starships embarks on some merry brigandry as they loot the dying planet. Stark has to reform his shattered band of allies… heck, he first has to escape from the traitorous starship captain and meet up with his friends. With the starships banished, and the planet’s sun quickly dying, things quickly break down. The Wandsmen still want to keep control, and are doing the best they can (in their narrow-minded, “how it’s always been” way), but find themselves hard-pressed with all the refugees abandoning their fields and heading to the Wandsmen for handouts.

The Skaith trilogy comes to its explosive, sweeping conclusion. As Stark heads south along the Sea of Skaith, we get to see a lot more of the planet’s civilizations, cannibalistic tribes worshiping the dying sun. Stark faces off against various mutants and pirates, and the titular starship reavers, intent on plundering the planet before it freezes over. Stark has to topple the Wandsmen, or at least have them to realize their errors, in order to evacuate the planet in time. And there’s a nice return to prophecy at the end, an interesting surprise.

Much like the last two books, Brackett has a strong pen and a lot of flair for this kind of thing. Reavers has less of the epic battles and action compared to the previous book, focused more on Stark traveling the world, but the final few showdowns are pretty slick. And seeing more of Skaith’s weird “dying earth gone medieval” culture is a plus. Despite being the longest in the trilogy, it feels short, rushed at points, and several plot points are hand-waved, have too-contrived explanations, or are oddly random. The opening twist, after the high-note ending of the last book, is one of them; it’s an interesting setup and great mechanic, but it could have used some more foreshadowing.

Even with those complaints, Reavers of Skaith is a good read. I’m torn between it and Hounds as my favorite in the trilogy, but I lean towards Reavers because it introduces a smidgen of science fiction tech into Skaith’s otherwise primitive world. And the idea behind it is awesome. It’s a worthy conclusion to a solid trilogy; the ending is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.

It’s even more bittersweet in that Reavers was the last thing Leigh Brackett published; two years later, shortly before dying of cancer, she submitted the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back. And while the movie was built around two other drafts, you can see a lot of Brackett in the film.

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. At any rate, I think I prefer Reavers to Hounds, for a few reasons. Not just adding in a sliver of technology, showing its extreme power in a land of myth and sword, but from the crescendo of finality: Skaith is collapsing. That feeling of finality is tangible in the varied plotlines. The sun is failing, the wandsmen can barely maintain order over the throng of starving hippies, winter encroaches and drives forth more refugees, rogue star-captains run rampant across the planet, looting what they expect to be a dead world. Brackett’s in fine form here, and her passing some two years later gives the novel’s finality a stronger emotional impact to me.

Though, I have to say, I much preferred Andrew Hou’s cover to The Ginger Star than to James Ryman’s covers; it’s too jarring to switch artists in the middle of a series like that, and while Ryman’s stuff is fine, it has such a different tone and style than I expected.

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