Friday, December 1, 2017

Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon

Leigh Brackett’s sword-and-planet adventure The Sword of Rhiannon was published in book form in 1953. It had originally been serialised in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949, under the title Sea-Kings of Mars.

Planetary archaeologist Matt Carse is from Earth but has spent most of his life on Mars. Mars is now largely a desert planet but it had a glorious past and was once green and lush.

Carse encounters a thief (he has many friends among the thieves of Mars) who offers him an artifact of stupendous value. It is nothing less than the sword of Rhiannon. Rhiannon is a dim figure from the planet’s distant past, a member of a race known as Quiru. Rhiannon committed some grievous sin and was consigned to a lonely tomb, a tomb that has never been discovered. Although now it appears that a Martian thief has found the tomb.

Carse is excited by the archaeological significance of the find but he is equally excited by the prospect of making a very great deal of money out of the find. The tomb however conceals a terrifying secret and Carse finds himself transported back a million years in time, to a green and verdant Mars. It’s also a very dangerous Mars, for Matt Carse. He is mistaken for a Khond spy which is irritating since he doesn’t even know what a Khond is.  He is condemned to the galleys.

Even worse, he is in the power of the beautiful but deadly Queen of Sark, Ywain.

Something else happened when Carse entered Rhiannon’s tomb. Rhiannon had been imprisoned there for a million years, but Rhiannon is not dead. At least his mind is not dead.

Carse is caught up in the struggle between Sark and the sea kings. The outcome of the struggle hinges on certain terrifying weapons possessed by Sark but Rhiannon had even more formidable weapons and Carse believes he knows how to unlock the power of those weapons. His difficulty will lie in persuading the sea kings to trust him.

There’s action and there’s treachery and betrayal, there are dark secrets that perhaps should have remained secret, and there’s a strange love-hate relationship between Carse and Ywain. She is evil but he cannot bring himself to desire her death. Perhaps it is something else that he desires. She is cruel and ruthless but to some men that can make a woman strangely attractive.

The world of Mars in the distant past is a barbarian world, a world of oared galleys and swords and spears and battles, but mixed with some ultra-high technology that serves the role that magic serves in sword-and-sorcery tales. It’s not quite as interesting and exotic as the worlds Brackett created in some of her other tales of the 1940s. The Mars of her other stories is more interesting as a desert world littered with ruins of ancient civilisations. The Mars of The Sword of Rhiannon is a bit more of a generic heroic fantasy world.

Matt Carse is a slightly ambiguous hero, a man who has in the past been motivated by greed. Now he has found a cause but does he really believe in it or is it simply a matter of survival for him to throw in his lot with the sea kings? Ywain is pretty much your standard beautiful but evil queen (with perhaps just a shade more depth), a type of character that is to be found in countless adventure stories. The cynical and treacherous but clever and resourceful Boghaz, Carse’s reluctant ally, is a much more entertaining personality.

Brackett was a fine prose stylist and her plotting was always skilful. She builds the suspense slowly. We cannot be sure of Carse’s motives and we certain cannot be sure of the motives of Rhiannon.

The climax is fairly exciting as we discover the nature of Rhiannon’s super-weapons and his true motivations.

I reviewed some of Brackett’s excellent earlier sword-and-planet novellas (collected in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories) in an earlier post and Ive also reviewed her 1949 novella Enchantress of Venus.

The Sword of Rhiannon can certainly be unhesitatingly recommended to fans of the genre.

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