Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review of Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories by Leigh Brackett

As NASA’s Curiosity rover trundles about the surface of Mars today, another page turns on the glories of pulp science fiction.  Leigh Brackett’s vision of a land populated with humans and aliens, ancient cities and creatures, long-buried secrets and mysterious deserts fades a shade closer to pale as one desolate desert image after another is beamed back to Earth.  But there was a day when her works shone with the hope and possibility of life on the planets beyond Earth. Gollancz bringing together the best of these stories in one collection, Fantasy Masterwork’s Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is the imaginatively nostalgic look back to a time when the solar system held more possibilities.

The collection contains five novelettes, five novellas, one short story, and one novel.  Though organized chronologically by publishing date, little actually links the stories.  A few are set on Venus and a handful feature the character Eric John Stark, but the majority are the plights and travails, adventures and journeys of various men and women across the ancient Martian landscape.  All manner of the vividly fantastic and anachronistically technical emerging in their tales, the collection is by default science fantasy, but certainly the motifs and mindset of pulp fantasy fill the book’s cup.

As Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is Golden Age planetary adventure cum sword and sorcery, therefore Golden Age planetary adventure cum sword and sorcery it must be judged as.  Point blank: Brackett may have written the best of that bunch.  On balance, this includes the major figureheads of Burroughs and Howard.  Where Burroughs’ stories are continuously over-the-top in terms of rescues, escapes, and male fantasy uber-heroism, Brackett’s stories tell of more everyday heroes who have the most fantastic of events befall them—the plots escalating, but never as absurdly and certainly not as predictably.  The Sword of Rhiannon, despite having many opportunities to become an exaggerated hero’s story, prefers to focus on the fantastical elements as its hero bounces around an ancient Mars, for example. Where Robert E. Howard lost no opportunity to sexualize women in the most atrociously camp prose, Brackett takes a broader approach to gender, balancing physical qualities with personality.  Nearly every story features a woman of some confidence, and with their status is an awareness and confidence regarding action to be taken.  None among her women have the ‘Save me! Save me! I’m beautiful but helpless!’ quality Burroughs, and to lesser degree Howard, portrayed.  The Black Amazon of Mars”, for instance, portrays an iconoclast female role.  Further contrary ideas to the “genre masters” threading their way through Brackett’s stories are redemption not war, personal demons as dangerous as external ones, and an emphasis on the group over the individual. 

But the collection’s organization is key: the stories are ordered by publishing date.  The reader able to watch Brackett mature as a writer, the transition from 1942 to 1963 sees her honing in on a specific voice and adding layers to the stories.  What begin as pieces easily identifiable as Golden Age science fiction, slowly develop into deeper products.  Though still planetary adventure, the prose becomes broader in tone and the interweaving of gender, cultural, historical and otherwise human aspects is more subtle.  Comparing the flash and fun of “The Sorceror of Rhiannon”, the story which opens the collection, and all of its telepathy, mind control, and Martian desert adventure, to the more subdued, post-colonial concerns of “The Road to Sinharat,” the story which closes the collection, marks an interesting evolution. 

In the end, Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is an all star cast of Leigh Brackett’s best fantasy work.  A mix of lengths, novel to short story, the pieces collected are not the most ambitious in terms of thematic outlay; solid planetary adventure is the primary aim throughout.  But what Brackett is able to do with the material, particularly in comparison to the likes of her predecessors Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, is notable.  Strong female characters, a resolution that questions rather than concedes an inevitable return to barbarism, and a social view that consolidates rather than fragments race and culture, the stories at least move the pulp-era mentality forward a little.  But that Brackett is an equal in terms of imagination, imagery and storytelling is what puts her at the peak of pulp fiction.  Thus, be aware going in that the stories are not complex, rather the most complex of the mode.

The following are brief summaries of the twelve pieces selected:

“The Sorcerer of Rhiannon” - Max Brandon, an archeological opportunist (p.c. term for grave looter), roves the Martian desert searching for water.  An oasis revealing itself to be more tangible than he could hope, he gets a drink—and a whole lot more.  A bit much crammed into one story, it nevertheless crackles with energy.

“The Jewel of Bas” – A harpist and his wife camp innocently in the foothills of Mount Ben Bathea when a dark shadow sweeps over them  Strange aliens taking them captive, they are marched toward the mighty peak—androids, sleeping regents, a mighty metal tower, and the Stone of Destiny awaiting.

“Terror Out of Space” - A secret policeman is flying with a man deranged by a strange alien over Venusian seas when a storm hits.  All the passengers killed save himself in the crash, his resulting underwater journey and the creatures he discovers there go a longway toward unraveling the mystery of the deranged man. Featuring underwater societies, Jules Verne would have been proud.

“Lorelei of the Red Mist” (with Ray Bradbury) – Hugh Starke is a criminal on the run, and when his ship crashes in the Venusian mountains, he wakens to find a beautiful green woman promising him the world.  Waking again some time later, he finds a second surprise: a collar around his neck and people calling him Conan.

“The Moon that Vanished” – Heath, a man who returned from the fringes of Moonfire, has strange powers.  Haunting as much as empowering, he reluctantly takes another man on a journey to discover for himself what Moonfire really is.

Sea-Kings of Mars (more commonly known as The Sword of Rhiannon) - Matt Carse, a free loader, has the opportunity of a lifetime one night when presented the Sword of Rhiannon by a fellow shady character.  Greed getting the better of him, he’s cast backwards in time to a Martian era much different than his own.  Caught as an outsider and handed an oar in the king’s navy, it isn’t long before rebellion is in the wings.  The sword, however, weaves its interest, and before the tale is done, the great sorcerer Rhiannon himself has a say in how things turn out.  Great imagery and classic planetary adventure, plain and simple—the latter terms meant both figuratively and literally.

“Queen of the Martian Catacombs” caught escaping across the desert, Eric John Stark agrees to join forces with the police and go undercover rather than be taken to prison.  After infiltrating the target band of mercenaries, he witnesses what seems an amazing act: the mind of an old man is transferred into a boy’s body.  A mysterious woman waiting in the wings, it’s not long before all manner of intrigue regarding the psyche and corporal descend on Stark. 

“Enchantress of Venus” After getting into a disagreement with a ship captain, Stark leaps off into a strange, morose city.  The haze of Venus making matters more murky, gradually he finds himself entabgled in a strange slavery plot.

Black Amazon of Mars” – The last and best Eric John Stark in the collection, after bequeathed a strange talisman by a friend on his deathbed, Stark is picked up by a desert army led by a strange, masked man.  Dynamic, colorful, flowing—Stark’s haunted personality has no time to brood until the end is his fantastical adventure.

“The Last Days of Shandakor” – A story elven and liminal, it tells of a man stumbling across a hushed, phantom Martian Venice in the middle of the desert.  Imbuing the reader with a certain yearning for what the heart knows not, this is the best piece in the collection.

“The Tweener” – most unique story selected for the collection, a father takes a trip to Mars and brings home a cute little Martian pet as a gift to his wife and children. Somewhere between a rabbit and a monkey, the little guy has trouble adapting, and strangely enough, so too does the father.

“The Road to Sinharat” – a fugitive archeologist tries to protect an ancient Martian site from developers.  Looking at post-colonial issues in simple form, this may be the most contemporary story in the collection.

Table of contents:

“The Sorcerer of Rhiannon”
“The Jewel of Bas”
“Terror Out of Space”
“Lorelei of the Red Mist” (with Ray Bradbury)
“The Moon that Vanished”
Sea-Kings of Mars (aka The Sword of Rhiannon)
“Queen of the Martian Catacombs”
“Enchantress of Venus”
“The Last Days of Shandakor”
“The Tweener”
“The Road to Sinharat”

For more in depth reviews of the Venusian stories, see MPorcius’ blog post here.


  1. Excellent review Jesse. I just read a few of Brackett's novels that were expanded out of the novellas "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" and "Black Amazon of Mars" and have to agree that her social views, postcolonial elements, and strong female characters are a step above most pulp stories. And they are great dynamic adventures as well.

    1. I didn't know Brackett expanded those two novellas into novels. Did the titles remain the same? I'd be interested to read "Black Amazon of Mars" in longer form...

    2. "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" became The Secret of Sinharat and "Black Amazon of Mars" became The People of the Talisman. They make two halves of the same Ace Double, so they're still very short as novels (Talisman is the longer at around 120 pages, so a bit longer than "Black Amazon").

      I've already reviewed Sinharat; some of the minor details were changed but they retained the strong female characters and postcolonial elements. The other I've yet to begin, so it may have lost more elements of "Black Amazon of Mars"... I'll be looking for any major changes as I read, since I'm very fond of the novella version.

      Though, I heard her husband Ed Hamilton did the rewrites on her behalf. It would make some sense, as Brackett spent the 1960s writing more screenplays than she did SF.