Old-timey planetary romance authors sure loved them some Mars. Not the Mars of science, but the slowly dying Mars of fiction: crisscrossed with ancient canals and full of strange relics and degenerate remnants of once-great civilizations. 1944’s Shadow Over Mars takes us to one of those Old Marses, where we join Earthman Rick Urquhart as he flees through the streets of Ruh, trying to escape the ruthless press gangs of the Terran Exploitations Company.
Fate takes a hand; a curious Martian opens his door just enough for Rick to spot the opening and force his way over the threshold. Once inside, he encounters a mysterious Martian crone, who prophesies that Rick will cast a shadow over Mars, if he lives. The Martian seer then tries to run Rick through with a knife, which suggests that the future she sees is a bad one (at least from her point of view).
Rick is fairly skeptical about the whole prophecy thing. Perhaps he should be, because he manages to get himself captured and enslaved by Company goons in surprisingly short order. His life might well have come to an end, deep down in the darkness of some wretched mine, if not for his capacity to stir up trouble. His fellow rioters suffer unhappy fates but the insurrection gives Rick the chance to flee from his captors.
Rick happens to flee in the same general direction as another Company fugitive, plucky girl spy Mayo McCall. She was digging up dirt on the Company, hoping that she could force Mars’ weak government to act against the slavers. She was exposed by a Company official who we later learn also happens to be a telepath. (It’s hard to outwit a guy who can read your mind.) Meeting while fleeing the bad guys is, of course, the meet-cute that is the staple of so many romances and sf romance plots.
By the time Rick makes his way back to civilization, the Martian grapevine has spread the word: Rick is fated to play an important role in freeing Mars from the Earthmen. The Martians do want to be free of the Terran boot, but a lot of them take a very dim view of the idea that their savior should himself be Terran. Rick, bright boy that he is, manages to work all this out while the Martians crucify him.
Even if Rick survives crucifixion, he still needs to convince the multiple factions of Mars to unify behind him (a task made that much more difficult by the fact that Rick sees himself more as a despised underdog than a leader). He also needs to figure out how to overcome the heavily armed goons of the Company. There is the additional complication that Jaffa Storm can pluck every detail of Rick’s plans out of Rick’s mind before Rick can even begin to put his plans into action!
I would just like to take a moment to say “Poor Kyra; it really sucks to be the pretty native girl who falls for the white hero after he has already met his one true love.” Or before. Either way, the odds of the romantic hypotenuse lasting to the final credits are pretty dismal.
I believe this was Brackett’s first novel (although she had already published some short fiction). We can cut her some slack for that, but … even so, this book is unusually rich in regrettable word choices on her part. For example, the subhuman anthropoids in the Company’s press gangs are generally referred to as “black boys” or similar epithets.
On a related note, the public relations department of the Terran Exploitations Company doesn’t deserve a Christmas bonus for coming up with the company name. Admittedly, Fallon, the Company boss, seems pretty up front about being a bad guy (although he doesn’t seem to grasp that it’s his supposed subordinate Jaffa, the telepath, who is the true villain of the book). Fallon’s attempt to buy some plausible deniability by funding do-gooder politician Hugh St. John seems a bit perfunctory.
For that matter, while Mayo is on the up and up, her ally Hugh St. John and his Martian ally, Eran Mak, are comfortable with some pretty underhanded tricks. Anything goes as long as they can convince themselves it’s for the greater good. Rick spends as much time struggling against his supposed allies as he does fighting against the Company.
This is a pretty quick read, but Brackett still manages to fit in a fair number of twists and turns; the early scenes involving Jaffa take on a different significance once Brackett reveals he can read minds. Rick cannot escape his role in Mars’ future but that’s not to say he understands exactly what that role is going to be or that he is guaranteed to live to the end of the book.