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The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

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The Sword of Rhiannon
By Leigh Brackett
Paizo Publishing, 2009 (originally published 1953), 170pp.

An archeologist turned thief lays hands on an ancient artifact. In tracking it down to its source, he finds the tomb of a cursed god and is hurled back in time to a Mars still green with vegetation and blue with seas. Here he is captured by a beautiful and haughty princess, finds allies among the Sea Kings, and must battle with the dark god who has taken up residence within his head.

The Sword of Rhiannon is a short novel from the pen of Leigh Brackett. The Mars of the novel is the same Mars of her Eric John Stark stories, but its hero is one Matthew Carse. Like Stark, Carse is an Earthman on an alien world. Also like Stark, he has been hardened by difficult circumstances. But unlike Stark, the circumstances that shaped Carse’s life seem largely of his own making. He is an archeologist turned thief, a member of the Martian underworld.

Into Carse’s life, as if by chance, comes the Sword of Rhiannon. Rhiannon was a member of the ancient Quiru race, beings so powerful they were thought gods by the ancient Martians. For teaching the lesser races the superior science of the Quiru, Rhiannon was condemned to be entombed alive. His sword thus would prove to be the key to the ancient wealth hidden in Rhiannon’s tomb.

Carse is betrayed by a Martian thief and is shoved into a black vortex within Rhiannon’s tomb. This vortex conveys Carse a million years back in time, when Mars was not a desert world, but lush and with great seas. He finds himself embroiled in a war between the empire of Sark and the rebellious Sea Kings. Even worse, in passing through the vortex Carse has picked up the mind of Rhiannon. The cursed god attempts repeatedly to wrest control of Carse’s body to use it for his own ends.

It is hard to avoid comparing The Sword of Rhiannon to Brackett’s Stark stories. While there is the same sense of high adventure in the Carse novel, it does not show the high skill of (say) the Book of Skaith trilogy. Carse is a much more passive protagonist than Stark. He is carried along by events greater than he is, striving merely to keep alive. It is only near the very end of the novel that he takes control of his own destiny. This is unlike Stark, who enjoys a barbarian freedom of will even when in chains.

Still, The Sword of Rhiannon is classic planetary romance from one of the great masters (or should that be mistresses?) of the subgenre. Leigh Brackett’s Mars is of a piece with the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Matthew Carse is not John Carter, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. And there is a richness of texture to Brackett’s prose that far surpasses Burrough’s.

The Sword of Rhiannon succeeds perfectly in what it sets out to do — tell an exciting story of planetary adventure. It’s a great read, and what more can one ask for in a novel?

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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