The Book of Skaith by Leigh Brackett
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 49, Dec 2008)
The Book of Skaith (The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith) by Leigh Brackett
Paizo Publishing, 220 pages, 200 pages, 160 pages, 2008-2009
The mid-to-late 1970s mark a turning point in the history of space opera. It is in this period, according to David C. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s The Space Opera Renaissance, where the term “space opera” begins to be used as a term of praise instead of opprobrium. This shift depended largely on the efforts of two people: the editor Lester Del Rey and the author Leigh Brackett.
Brackett (wife of another space-opera legend, Edmond Hamilton) got her start writing in the pulps of the 1940s and ’50s, writing adventure science fiction in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, works that at the time were called “science fantasy” or “planetary romance.” As such, she is a grand master of space opera. Her trilogy, The Book of Skaith, first published in the mid-’70s and currently being republished by Paizo Publishing, shows Brackett at the height of her powers.
The novel-in-trilogy stars a hero from Brackett’s pulp days, Eric John Stark. Stark is a cross between Burroughs’s Tarzan (the articulate beastman of the novels, not the monosyllabic troglodyte of the movies) and C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith. The Book of Skaith recounts Stark’s adventures as he attempts to rescue his friend and foster-father, Simon Ashton, from the planet Skaith. The three volumes of the trilogy are The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith.
In The Ginger Star, Stark arrives on the backwater planet of Skaith in search of Simon Ashton, who is a diplomat from the Galactic Union. Skaith is a dying world, its sun growing cold. It is ruled by a caste of priest-kings known as the Wandsmen and by their more-distant quasi-divine superiors, the Lords Protector. Neither the Wandsmen nor the Lords Protector takes kindly to the intrusions of offworlders onto what they consider their planet.
Stark’s search involves him in the resistance to the rule of the Wandsman on the part of the city-state Irnan. The prophetess of that city, Gerrith, identifies Stark as the Dark Man, who was foretold to lead the people of Irnan to the stars. With the help of the Irnanese, Stark makes his way to the Citadel of the Lords Protector, where he believes Ashton is being held.
The Hounds of Skaith, the second volume of the story, traces Stark’s journey from the Citadel in the far north of Skaith back to Irnan. The Wandsmen cannot allow Stark’s attack on the Citadel to go unpunished, so they raise forces against him. But Stark is not alone, having found allies among the mysterious Fallarin, among the wild men of the Barrens, and above all, in his Northhounds, the telepathic beasts who give this volume its title.
The Reavers of Skaith, the third and final volume, opens to find Stark abandoned by his allies and tortured by the star-captain who had agreed to take Stark and his companions to the Galactic Union but then betrayed him. Stark must find a way to escape, reunite his allies, and work his vengeance on the treacherous Wandsmen, or he will never leave Skaith.
This summary (brief and containing as few spoilers as possible) comes nowhere near conveying the rich texture of Brackett’s work. The communities and cultures Stark encounters on his journey are varied and highly imaginative, each reacting in a different way to the slow, inescapable dying of the planet. Brackett’s Skaith is a welcome antidote to the monocultures of too many science fictional planets (this is a desert planet, this is an ice planet, etc.)
For lovers of SF adventure on a planetary scale, Brackett’s Book of Skaith is not to be missed. Paizo is to be highly commended for reissuing these volumes in their Planet Stories series. The original Del Rey paperbacks are also not too difficult to obtain used. Unlike Stark, readers who visit Brackett’s Skaith will enjoy themselves immensely.
(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)