Friday, September 15, 2017

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

"In yourself you are alien and strange and for that alone I would fear you because I do not understand.  But for that alone I would not wish you dead.  But I say that Rhiannon watches through your eyes and speaks with your tongue, that in your hands are his sword and scepter.  And therefore I ask your death." 
It's a Dhuvian!
When I announced to the world via twitter (your source for all important news!) that I had acquired a water-damaged copy of the 1975 Ace paperback edition of Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon (original title The Sea-Kings of Mars), members of the classic science fiction community were quick to tell me how much they loved the book.  Fred Kiesche even commented on the terrific cover, which uses that font I love and matches my Ace copies of Alpha Centauri or Die! and The Coming of the Terrans.

Besides the fine cover, the creator of which isfdb does not know, this edition has a brief intro by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, in which he reminds us that Brackett was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, mentored by Henry Kuttner, worked with Bogey, and was obsessed with Celtic myth.

Enough preliminaries, let's get our asses to Mars and experience this "Incomparable Science-Fiction Classic!"  If you don't have a copy, the internet archive can hook you up with the magazine version from Thrilling Wonder's June 1949 issue.  Whoa, this issue's contents page is full of names classic SFfans will recognize, including people whose work has already been scrutinized here at the blog: Raymond F. Jones, John D. MacDonald, Murray Leinster, James Blish, and the aforementioned Henry Kuttner!  Nice!

Matt Carse is an educated Earthman, an archaeologist, who has lived thirty of his thirty-five years on Mars, and so he is accepted not only among college professors but also among the native underclass Martians of the crime-ridden Low Canal towns.  One of the greatest living experts on the million-year-long history of the people of Mars, when a Martian thief shows him the Sword of Rhiannon, the Fallen God of Martian myth, and claims he has found Rhiannon the Cursed One's tomb, Carse is quick to follow him there.  At the tomb the thief shows Carse a throbbing black sphere, something like a black hole, and when Carse is distracted the ne'er-do-well pushes the Earther into it!

When Carse comes out of the sphere he finds himself in the tomb again, but not on the arid dying Mars of his day--oh no, he now strides upon a green vibrant Mars of glittering oceans, dense forests and grassy hills, the Mars of a million years ago!

Carse's Earthly good looks get him in trouble almost immediately.  The local people, whose town is part of the empire of the Sarks, think he looks like a Khond, an enemy race, and he ends up captured and put to work as a galley slave, pulling an oar on the ship of the Sark princess.  The sight of this arrogant warrior maiden, Ywain of the eyes like "smoldering fires" who looks like a "dark flame in a nimbus of sunset light" has a peculiar effect on him:
Carse felt the surge of bitter admiration.  This woman owned him and he hated her and all her race but he could not deny her burning beauty and her strength....It would be good to tame this woman.  It would be good to break her utterly, to tear her pride out by the roots and stamp on it.

Desperate fight in Caer Dhu!
(You'll probably remember that one of the best Brackett stories we've read recently, "Enchantress of Venus," also had a rough sex vibe to it.)

When Ywain sees the sword that was confiscated from Carse when he was taken captive she realizes that he must know the secret location of the Tomb of Rhiannon. Because the Tomb purportedly is full of high tech gadgets, every Martian and his brother has been looking for the tomb for ages, so Ywain tries to torture its location out of our hero.  When that doesn't work she unleashes her Dhuvian buddy on Carse.  The Dhuvians are an ophidian race who themselves have access to high technology.  In fact, the reason Rhiannon was cursed so long ago was because he shared some of the super science of his people, the Quiru, with these evil snake bastards, and the reason the Sark are currently the dominant race on Mars is because Dhuvians lend them a hand with their weapons technology from time to time.  (While it's not at as rich and deep as Burroughs' Barsoom, Brackett, in the small space of this single 140-page novel, does a good job of creating an exciting Mars full of different human and nonhuman races and political units, each of them with its own special powers, sinister or tragic personality, and relationship with each of the other polities.)

Carse undergoing psychic examination
in the grotto of the Sea Kings
Carse is able to resist the Dhuvian snakeman's hypnosis device and then leads a mutiny of the galley slaves, taking over the ship and felling and then binding haughty Ywain.  The liberated vessel sails to Khondor, home of the Khonds and the Sea Kings, the last hold outs against the Sarks and Dhuvians.  Psykers there make obvious to everyone what has been hinted at numerous times already (and baldly spoiled on the back cover of my edition)--when he passed through that black sphere and between time periods the Earthborn archaeologist's brain was invaded by the soul of Rhiannon the Cursed One himself!  (Regular readers of MPorcius Fiction Log know I love it when different psyches inhabit the same brain, like in Robert Silverberg's 1971 The Second Trip and Ian Wallace's wild and crazy Croyd (1967) and A. E. van Vogt's 1943 Book of Ptath.)  In fear of the evil god who gave the nigh invincible Dhuvians their power, Carse is imprisoned and awaits a sentence of death while the voice of Rhiannon tries to convince him to surrender control of his body!

 A hapless Khond abases himself before
whom he thinks to be the evil god
Rhiannon--Ywain isn't quite so easily convinced
Playacting that Rhiannon has taken over his body so that everybody, in awe, will do whatever he says, Carse commandeers Ywain's galley, escaping Knondor and bringing Ywain along with him. They go straight to Sark, and then to the nearby city of the snake men, Caer Dhu.  Is Carse's ruse working on all these Sark and Dhuvian creeps, or are they just leading him into a trap?

In the crisis, Rhiannon, repenting of his ancient sin, really does take over Carse's body and uses the super weapons to exterminate every last Dhuvian.  Ywain's family is deposed, Sark is reduced to its original borders, and Carse/Rhiannon forces a peace onto the Martians.  Then, guided by Rhiannon, Carse and his new girlfriend Ywain travel to the future, back to Carse's time, while Rhiannon joins his brothers, the Quiru, who have forgiven him, in some other dimension.

"Sea-Kings of Mars" / Sword of Rhiannon has been printed again and again, in many countries and languages.  In fact, I own two copies myself, this now broken-spined Ace edition and a version with British punctuation in my copy of Gollancz's 2005 Fantasy Masterworks collection Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories.  Both of these editions are full of irritating typos, but they are different typos:

Typos aside, this is a very good adventure story.  Sure, we've seen all this stuff before from a host of people ranging from van Vogt (whose Ptath also features a god in a time traveler's brain) to Michael Moorcock (perhaps Brackett's most famous and outspoken fan, whose heroes are always bouncing between dimensions and getting involved in sword-swinging wars in which ancient super weapons and people switching sides play a part) but Brackett's writing is sharp, clear and vivid (whereas van Vogt is deliberately obtuse), her characters seem to bubble, on the brink of exploding, with raw animal emotion (whereas in my memory Moorcock's characters seem cold and detached, stark and inert mythic archetypes instead of passionate, flesh and blood people like Brackett's), and the plot here is compact and smooth, with diverse settings, a variety of types of scenes and a real velocity, and no unnecessary digressions or cumbersome subplots.  The Sword of Rhiannon is one of many sword and planet / planetary romance novels, but it is an above average specimen and has a unique and compelling feel; I recommend it to all the John Carter-, Conan-, and Elric-loving kids out there, as well as anyone interested in old-fashioned adventure-style SF.


  1. One of Brackett's best and a real pleasure to read.

  2. Love Sword of Rhiannon/Sea Kings of Mars, and Leigh Brackett in general. You do a great job outlining what makes her such a propulsively fun writer to read. Nice work!