Friday, June 23, 2017

The Book of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett

Today we look at The Book of Skaith, a collection of three novels featuring the hero Eric John Stark's adventures on the strange and deadly world of Skaith. EGG listed Leigh Brackett in Appendix N without further comment on her works; no recommendations are made for particular works or series. As even Wikipedia agrees that Stark is Brackett's most enduring character, I thought this would be a good representation of her storytelling and writing style.

The Book of Skaith comprises three 150-page novels: The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith. I'll be going over each of these individually first, then giving my overview on the story as a whole.

The Ginger Star opens with Stark debriefing himself on his upcoming assignment. His mentor and adoptive father, Simon Ashton, has gone missing after a peacekeeping mission to the backwater planet of Skaith. Skaith was recently discovered by the greater galactic people, and its thriving natural community work on a technological scale more or less equivalent to Earth's medieval period. Stark learns that the planets citizens are by and large held under the thumb of the Lords Protector, a shadowy entity that, in an attempt to provide sustenance for the poor and sick, holds nearly a third of the planet in forced servitude. Misguided charity aside, the world of Skaith is dangerous in many ways; half-human monsters lurk in rivers, murderous, drug-crazed Farers wander the highways, and hellhounds stalk the northern mountains. Stark soon finds himself embroiled in a prophecy that threatens to change the world of Skaith forever.

Frankly, I wasn't a fan of the first book, although my mood improved greatly over the subsequent two. Stark is certainly an interesting character, a sort of Tarzan/John Carter pastiche tempered by the heat of battle (and Mercury). In this story, however, he serves as little more than the window by which we view the much more interesting secondary characters. Despite two brief contacts with the aforementioned fish-monsters and hounds, Stark doesn't do very much in this first book; Gerrith, the wise-woman who prophesies his adventure, and Halk, the expert swordsman out to avenge the death of his wife, are much more intriguing and end up solving the majority of the problems.

This changes immediately at the onset of The Hounds of Skaith, as Stark finds himself the new master of a group of what I can only call dire wolves. The hounds have a pretty cool ability to instill fear into intelligent creatures from a distance, either causing them to fall to their knees and weep or killing them outright. That is a cool idea, and it's used to great effect as Stark tries to escort Ashton back to the only spaceport on the planet. Brackett's creativity really shines in this book, as Stark is pitted against cannibals that ride sandstorms like surfers ride waves and hybrid bird-men that whip up whirlwinds with the beating of their massive wings. It's one of the reasons I've always liked the Sword-and-Planets genre: while fantasy has all too often fallen into the generic trap of sticking to classic European mythology, sci-fi has the freedom to explore the very limits of human creativity.

Stark's mission comes to a full head in The Reavers of Skaith, as his army begins to retake the planet that has been trying its damndest to kill him. This book also contains an extended scene between Stark and Ashton that reveals more of their history and relationship. As Stark and Ashton continue their race towards the spaceport, they have their first encounter with alien species not from Skaith, in the form of a treacherous space pirate and his crew. The juxtaposition of laser cannons and half-naked savages is done well, and really serves to illustrate the plight of Skaith's inhabitants: trapped on a dying planet, hopelessly backwards in comparison to the galaxy around them but fiercely protective of their autonomy. Bracket does a good job making you empathize with her characters, even if her protagonist is a bit wooden.

Altogether, The Book of Skaith is a perfectly sound Swords-and-Planets series, and if you take it as a single book (as I did) it manages to tell an entertaining and convincing story in about 450 pages, which wouldn't have taken me as long as it did had not the first chapter been so difficult to start. I pride myself on being able to slog my way through most things (I've read the entire ASoIaF series to date, and even managed to hate-read War and Peace), but the first few pages of The Ginger Star were not engaging in the least. As I mentioned before, this falls mainly on the shoulders of our protagonist, who has pathos equivalent to most stones; Stark rarely shows fear, which is par for the course with fantasy novels, but his equal refusal to show love, anger, or emotion of any kind certainly doesn't win him over to the audience.

I would be doing Brackett a disservice to not mention that the bulk of the Eric John Stark stories were written in the late 40's-early 50's, while the books contained in this collection were all published in the mid 1970's. I won't deny the possibility that Skaith represents Stark (and by extension, the author) on the downswing, because I have nothing else to compare it to. All I can say is this: the inhabitants of Skaith, varied and multifaceted as they are, seem to come to life in a way Eric John Stark never does. It is as if Brackett's writing evolved, but the established character she had been basing her stories around for 20 years never did. When I think about the world of Skaith, I come to images of brutal telepathic wolves, sandstorm-riding psychopaths, four-armed warriors, and the bringing of the whirlwind. I am reminded of a villain who is anything but and a story where most characters are as morally gray as any great space opera. I am brought to a story that manages to tell a great tale in such a small place and time, but I can't help but leave feeling that "The Adventures of Eric John Stark" are anything but.

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