Today’s good read: The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

June 1, 2019

Brackett, wife to SF writer Emond Hamilton, wrote mainly screenplays in the later part of her career. During the 1940’s she made a name for herself writing lush and gaudy adventure stories set mostly on the planet Mars, like those earlier populised by Edgar Rice Burroughs – but much more decadent. These exotic romances, representing the wilder, more extravagant side of the SF imagination, are curiously nostalgic in tone, as though regretting their own implausibility in light of modern astronomical knowledge. Even so, they are magnificent escapist fantasies spiced with a hint of sad cynicism.

The Sword of Rhiannon was originally published as Sea Kings of Mars in 1949 in Thrilling Wonder Stories; Ace Books published the novel in paperback under its new author-approved title in 1953.

The action takes place on Mars – a dusky, dying world of canals and crumbling cities. Matthew Carse, is the Brackett hero. He is a powerful, imposing figure whose physical prowess is matched with a shady morality. Once an archaeologist, he is now a thief and a looter acquainted with the back-alleys of the city of Jekkara.

Engaged in looting an ancient Martian tomb, Carse is shoved by his accomplice into a ‘Great bubble of darkness. A big, brooding sphere of quivering blackness, through which shot little coruscating particles of brilliance like falling stars seen from another world.’

Long story short, Carse is transported way back in time via this bubble. He exits the tomb into a rich world of oceans and magnificent cities: a world of only rudimentary science, a world of sword-fighting sea-warriors whose galleys and kingdoms had clashed on long-lost oceans.’

Unfortunately, Carse did not go back in time alone. He has an unseen companion who is as tentative as a half-felt thought, but, oh, so very dangerous…

Michael Moorcock in his essay, Queen of the Martian Mysteries: an appreciation of Leigh Brackett, had this to say about the author:

‘Brackett has less in common with Mervyn Peake than she has with Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and other superior writers of popular fiction. Yet common to all these writers is the sense of yearning loss, as of innocence, a nobler, irredeemable past and an uncertain future. Her heroes are often deeply aware of some moral transgression which everyone forgives them for except themselves. At the time these stories were written we had seen our sense of our history, of our progress towards real civilisation, blasted to bits before our eyes. By the time these stories were appearing in the pulps, Germany’s Nazi armies seemed unchallenged in their conquest of Europe. All those idealistic aspirations for world peace and the rule of civil law had collapsed before the cheap rhetoric of a bad journalist like Mussolini or a mediocre painter of postcards like Hitler.’

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