The Sword of Rhiannon tells the story of Matthew Carse, an archeologist from Earth who’s spent 30 of his 35 years on the red planet, an arid, dying world that at one time was home to a vibrant environment and an advanced alien culture. One day a wealth-seeking Martian leads Carse to the tomb of Rhiannon, in which a cursed, godlike figure from Mars’ ancient past is rumored to lie in deathless sleep. Carse enters the tomb and is swept back via some form of wormhole into Mars’ ancient past, before its seas dried up and when all was green and beautiful. Carse takes with him the jeweled-hilted sword of Rhiannon as well as a dark sentience from the tomb. He soon finds himself emeshed in an ancient conflict between the militaristic nation of Sark and their evil serpent-like allies, the Caer Dhu, who are at war with the Martian free peoples under the Sea Kings.
Despite its fantasy trappings, The Sword of Rhiannon is firmly in the sword and planet genre. While the protagonist wields a sword and ancient Mars is decidedly low-tech (transportation is by sail or rowed ships; combat is with medieval-style weapons), Mars was once home to a race of advanced beings called the Quiru. The Quiru abandoned the planet but left behind relics of their advanced civilization, incredibly powerful technology that includes time-travel devices. There is no overt magic in the story, save perhaps for a form of telepathy. The Quiru’s artifacts are sufficiently advanced to seem like magic though Brackett does describe them as working according to scientific laws.
More than its fun story (which rigorously follows Burroughs’ sword and planet formula), The Sword of Rhiannon succeeds due to its style and atmosphere. Bracketts’ writing makes Mars feel, well, otherwordly. She succeeds in creating a vivid contrast between the arid waste of the new Mars and the beauty of the old, and we as the reader feel the pang of loss of a great civilization that once was. Here’s an example, a scene in which Carse, chained to the oars of a Sark ship, awakes at his post and looks upon a sunrise on the sea that makes him momentarily forget his enslavement, so different is it from the dry wastes of Mars that he previously knew:
Through the oar port he watched the sea change color with the sunrise. He had never seen anything so ironically beautiful. The water caught the pale tints of the first light and warmed them with its own phosphorescent fire—amethyst and pearl and rose and saffron. Then, as the sun rose higher, the sea changed to one sheet of burning gold.
Whenever I finish a book I typically scour the web to see what others think about it. In my travels I was pleased to find a nice essay on Brackett by Michael Moorcock, “Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett."
As readers of this blog may know I don’t have a lot of love for Mr. Moorcock for his harsh and rather personal criticisms of J.R.R. Tolkien. But I freely admit that Moorcock’s piece was a nice read, informative and infused with some illuminating personal anecdotes about Brackett the person and the writer. It also manages to steer entirely clear of the spite-filled tangents into which Moorcock’s criticisms frequently seem to veer. I was surprised to find that many of his observations of Brackett were the same as mine, formed during my limited exposure to Brackett (which consist of The Sword of Rhiannon only).
I must say however that some of Moorcock’s commentary caused me to do a positive double-take. In particular I was flummoxed to find that some of the very characteristics he finds most admirable in Brackett’s romanticism-infused science fiction are the selfsame qualities that imbue his most hated of books, The Lord of the Rings. From his essay:
Yet 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.Wow, where to start…at last check The Lord of the Rings is infused with a sense of “yearning loss, as of innocence.” It certainly draws the readers’ attention (even without benefit of The Silmarillion) to a “nobler, irredeemable past,” and transitions the reader with its heartbreaking, equivocal ending, to an “uncertain future.” When LOTR was written progress was being “blasted to bits” before Tolkien’s eyes, which he witnessed first-hand in the trenches of WWI and later in the rise of Nazi Germany. Yet Moorcock somehow finds these traits admirable in Brackett and execrable (no exaggeration on my part) in Tolkien. Is it because Tolkien’s hobbits are too British and countrified for his tastes, or perhaps because Tolkien offers the possibility (not the guarantee) of consolation/salvation?
Moorcock even comments that the hard science fiction in vogue during Brackett’s time (her stuff shares more in common with science fantasy) fails as lasting literature because of its lack of humanism and inability to portray technology as anything less than progressive. Writes Moorcock, "We were beginning to realise that controlling [the world] might not produce the effects we desired."
Hmm, sounds conspicuously like the point Tolkien made with that whole One Ring bit.
But enough Tolkien digression. In short, The Sword of Rhiannon=highly recommended.