The Book of Skaith volume 1: The Ginger Star, Leight Brackett (1974)
Review by Ian Sales
Though Leigh Brackett did not invent the planetary romance, or swords & planet, genre – Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first of his Barsoom novels decades before Brackett’s first publication, ‘Martian Quest’ in 1940 – but Brackett certainly made the genre her own. Works such as The Sword of Rhiannon (1953), The Secret of Sinharat (1964), ‘Black Amazon of Mars’ (1950) are the dictionary definition of planetary romance. Among the many heroes she used and reused in such stories is Eric John Stark. He first appeared in ‘Queen on the Martian Catacombs’ in 1949, and his last appearance was in the 2005 novelette ‘Stark and the Star Kings’ co-written with Brackett’s husband, Edmond Hamilton (it was originally sold to The Last Dangerous Visions, hence its appearance nearly thirty years after the deaths of its authors).
Brackett wrote a number of stories featuring Stark during the 1950s, but did not return to him until 1974 and the first of the Skaith tales, The Ginger Star. This was originally serialised in two parts in the magazine Worlds of If, and published in paperback later that same year. No familiarity with Stark’s earlier adventures is required, as the first chapter of the book gives a quick précis of his background:
Born in a mining colony in Mercury’s Twilight Belt, he had fought to live on a planet that did not encourage life; his parents were dead, his foster-parents a tribe of sub-human aboriginals clawing a precarious existence out of the sun-stricken valleys. (p 2)
This may be harkening back to stories written two decades earlier, but it’s not a Mercury we might know. Aboriginals? Later, Brackett states the aboriginals have no language… yet they give Stark a name, N’Chaka, Man-Without-a-Tribe. But then planetary romance never set much store by actual science – cf Barsoom versus the Mars to which NASA and Roscosmos have sent various probes.
Stark was rescued as a child by Simon Ashton, an administrator for the Galactic Union. But now Ashton has vanished on Skaith, a newly discovered world “somewhere at the back of beyond, out in the Orion Spur”. No one at Galactic Center seems especially interested in doing something about Ashton’s disappearance, so Stark decides to go and rescue his mentor himself.
Skaith is an old and decadent world, peopled by humans (settled eons ago or a product of convergent evolution is never said), and orbiting a ginger star. Stars come in a variety of colours – astronomers, according to tradition, use blue, blue-white, white, yellow-white, yellow, orange and red. Ginger would fall somewhere outside that colour scheme. Stark lands at the main entry port, the city of Skeg, and immediately finds himself in trouble. It seems a wise woman in another city has made a prophecy about a “Dark Man”, and Stark appears to be him.
Skaith is ruled by a cabal of mysterious Lords Protector, who live in a secret citadel in the far north. Their will is enacted by a cadre of Wandsmen, who command hordes of Farers. These are not troops, but more like drugged-out hippie nudists who use violence to get their way. They are not well-liked. Though the Lords Protector claim to be benevolent, the reality is anything but. In fact, inhabitants of the city of Irnan, north of Skeg, want to be resettled on a new world. The Wandsmen refuse to let them. The Dark Man of the wise woman’s prophecy will destroy the Lords Protector and allow the Irnanese to leave.
The plot of The Ginger Star traces Stark’s route north to the secret citadel, battling various decadent races in ruined cities en route. The women are all fierce and proud, the men strong fighters and handy with a sword. There are hints of long histories, and races and nations millennia into slow declines. There’s not much that’s science fiction about The Ginger Star, other than the existence of the Galactic Union, mention of other stars and other worlds and spaceships to travel between them. What little technology exists on Skaith is either Dark Age, or near magical.
“Skaith-Mother encourages scholars. She gives us peace and plenty so that we may spend our whole lives at work. There are no so many of us as there used to be. Once there were a thousand at the study of music alone, thousands more at history, the ancient books, art and law.” (p 167)
Brackett’s earlier stories possess much charm. The Ginger Star sadly does not. It feels like a book out of time, a story harkening back to an earlier, more innocent time, when transplanting the Wild West onto an alien world, and replacing guns with swords, seemed like an ideal recipe for adventure. The Ginger Star feels like a tale written to an old formula, one that the passage of years has made less appealing than it once was. The Ginger Star is the first of a trilogy, followed by The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith, and there’s little in it to suggest they may be any better.