1949’s Sea-Kings of Mars (also published under the title Sword of Rhiannon ) takes us the world most frequently featured in Brackett’s Solar System: the red planet of Mars. In this novel, Mars is an ancient, worn-out world, its peoples and cultures much reduced from their heyday a million years ago. The novel’s protagonist, Matthew Carse, is also much reduced, having fallen from the lofty status of archaeologist to that of criminal. As the book opens, he is merely one of the many disreputable characters lurking in the streets of the Martian city of Jekkara.
Carse is still enough of an archaeologist to be intrigued when fellow reprobate Penkawr claims to have found the legendary tomb of Rhiannon, the most reviled figure in Martian history. Carse bullies Penkawr into leading him to the tomb; Penkawr, resenting the bullying, pushes Carse into an ominous sphere of darkness they find inside the tomb. Carse disappears.
That is not the end for Carse. The ominous sphere of darkness is the prison in which Rhiannon is sealed in an eternal present. He cannot escape, not physically, but he can send Carse a million years into Mars’ past!
Old Mars is a green and rich world, but as Carse soon discovers, its population, (both humans and halflings ) aren’t a particularly friendly lot. It’s not long before Carse is pegged as an outsider, chased by a homicidal mob, and captured by the authorities. The authorities hand him over to Lady Ywain of Sark, who has a use for him: galley slave.
While in durance vile, Carse finally learns more about Rhiannon’s great crime. Rhiannon tried his hand at being the Prometheus of Mars, but he made the fatal error of teaching some of what he knew to the Dhuvians, a race of halfings descended from reptilian ancestors. Dhuvians are a naturally evil race, bent on gaining power. As soon as they had learned enough to conquer Mars, they turned on Rhiannon. Rhiannon was also rejected by his fellow Quiru, who were outraged at Rhiannon’s betrayal and what it had unleashed on Mars. The Quiru imprisoned Rhiannon in the sphere of darkness and left for another world.
By the time Carse arrives in old Mars, the Dhuvians have conquered most but not all of the planet. The main holdouts are the Sea-Kings of the title. Carse manages to provoke a mutiny on the ship where he is a galley slave. In the confusion, he flees to join the Sea-Kings.
He has two great assets to offer the Sea-Kings; first, he knows the location of Rhiannon’s tomb and all the powerful Quiru technology it contains. Secondly, while Rhiannon’s body is trapped in the tomb, Rhiannon’s mind managed to conceal itself within Carse’s mind; when Rhiannon sees fit, he can manifest and use Carse’s body as he will . With Quiru technology and Rhiannon’s great mind on their side, the Sea-Kings can turn the tide of war. The Dhuvians are doomed! Doomed!
Or they would have been, had the tomb not fallen into their hands before the Sea-Kings could reach it.…
This book verified something of which I was already pretty sure: in the Brackett Solar System, humans have evolved independently on all the habitable worlds, as have humanoid beings from non-primate lineages. I cannot help speculating: were the Quiru behind this universal orthogenesis? If they are masters of time travel, they could have simply intervened at various points in the past to ensure that humans and halflings developed in every inhabitable zone of the Solar System. Too bad I am not a Quiru and cannot go back in time to ask Brackett if she had some such notion.
The Martian city of Jekkara has been in existence for at least a million years. That’s… impressive.
This is yet another SF story with the moral “genocide makes it all better.” At least it’s not the protagonist who is bent on exterminating the congenitally evil Dhuvians, but a demi-god whose judgment is shown to be unreliable at best. On the plus side, the humans and halflings who were tricked and bullied into submission to the Dhuvian cause are not murdered out of hand. Some mercy is shown.
Brackett was doubtless influenced by the hugely popular Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels. However, her world is more nuanced than Burroughs’; while the Dhuvians are simply villains, their allies aren’t power-mad. They are only trying to survive as best they can. Ywain in particular has been dealt a bad hand, which makes her decisions later in the book quite reasonable.
The brevity of the book comes at a cost: the romance between Carse and Ywain is too compressed. The couple go from mistress and slave, to mutineer and prisoner, to loving couple faster than the wounds they deal each other can heal.
Despite being quite short by modern standards, the novel still manages to pack in a book’s worth of plot into a long novella’s worth of pages. Modern authors could learn from Brackett. Readers with a tolerance (or better, a taste) for old-style pulp adventure should enjoy this novel.
1: Brackett’s halfings are nothing to do with Tolkien’s. Halfings are humanoid races descended from non-primate lineages: birds, otter-like mammals, and the ophidians.
2: Needless to say, since what Rhiannon can do is potentially a story-breaking power, Brackett is careful to limit the number of times that Rhiannon comes out of hiding to shape events.