Leigh Brackett’s 1964 The Secret of Sinharat / People of the Talisman contains two short novels, which are (you guessed it!) The Secret of Sinharat (an expansion of 1949’s Queen of the Martian Catacombs), and People of the Talisman (an expansion of 1951’s Black Amazon of Mars ).
The Secret of Sinharat / People of the Talisman is an example of that once ubiquitous artefact, the Ace Double. (Other publishers have tried similar schemes but for reasons that escape me, none have been as successful as the Ace Doubles.) The novels are bound tête-bêche, so it’s anyone’s guess which comes first. I happened to read Sinharat before flipping the book over and starting on Talisman, but the stories can be read in either order. While they are linked, each can be read as a stand-alone. Moreover, having read one will not spoil the other.
Both novels are set in Brackett’s Solar System, one in which many civilizations have come and gone before ours. Humans reached the other worlds to find them both inhabitable and inhabited by humans and other entities1.
Protagonist Stark has skills both civilized and savage, as well as a surprising aptitude for stumbling into exciting adventures. Lucky he has plot armor, because otherwise he couldn’t have lived through all of them.
It’s not clear if his efforts on natives’ behalf accomplish more than adding to the chaos, but at least he has a cause he believes in.
Not surprisingly, given Brackett’s fondness for noir (she published noir detective stories as well as SFF), the stories are often rather gray. The Terrans figure as brutal exploiters. Nor are the various natives saints; they would act just like the Terrans if they had the same resources. Even stalwart hero Stark is often unsure that he will be able to resist every temptation placed before him.
Brackett’s writing chops, this background, and this lead character combine to produce vivid, if sometimes grim, adventure. If that’s your sort of thing, you might want to check out this older book.
Worst case: if it turns out it’s not your thing, the book is quite short. Best case: there’s lots of Brackett out there if you enjoy this one.
People of the Talisman / The Secret of Sinharat is available as Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Space probes made such Solar System settings implausible, so Brackett moved the sequels to Skaith, which is her old Mars with a new name and located in a different solar system.
The Secret of Sinharat
Orphaned on a surprising habitable Mercury, Eric John Stark was rescued and raised by Mercury’s savage natives. When his guardians were murdered by even more savage miners, Stark was orphaned once more. Simon Ashton of Earth Police Control intervened to save the boy from the miners.
Although Ashton raised the feral boy as a son, Stark has little sympathy with Terran colonialism. Stark favours Earth’s victims. Wherever a native tribe is threatened by Earth’s commercial and military interests, there Stark will be. Sixteen years of struggle have ended in fewer victories than he’d like; he’ll spend twenty years in prison if the authorities ever catch him. Now, that day appears to be at hand.
Very luckily for Stark, the EPC agents he faces are led by Ashton. Moreover, Ashton is struggling with a problem that threatens all Mars, a problem he believes Stark could help him solve. Ashton needs Stark to investigate a man named Delgaun on Ashton’s behalf. Stark agrees.
Old Mars may be smaller than Earth but its land area is as large as Earth’s (no large oceans). Finding one man could be tricky. Or perhaps not: before the EPC agents nabbed him, Stark had been on his way to Valkis to check out a job offer made to him by none other than Delgaun.
All Mars is indeed threatened — but not by Delgaun. The problem is one Kynon, who claims to have rediscovered the lost art of mind-transference. Martian barbarians who join his effort to conquer Mars could live forever in appropriated bodies. It’s a very tempting offer, but one based on a lie: Kynon does not have the ancient technology.
Stark has many positive qualities, all of which he needs to survive his one great flaw: he is good at pissing off people and inciting them to murder (him). Although Kynon’s associates do not know Stark is an informant, they would still prefer him dead. Stark narrowly survives several attempts on his life, only to end up marooned in the desert with a Martian woman named Berild.
Mars is an ancient world on which innumerable civilizations have risen and then fallen. Who knows what evils lurk under the Martian sands? Or indeed, in plain sight, walking next to Stark?
People of the Talisman
Stark is engaged in helping his dying friend Camar return to his home city of Kushat. It soon becomes evident that Camar is too ill to survive the trip. He will not see Kushat again.
Before he dies, Camar charges Stark with a sacred duty. Stark must return a talisman to Kushat. This artefact was stolen long ago by Camar. As long as it was in the city, Kushat was said to be invincible. Camar now regrets his theft and hopes to protect his old home.
Between Stark and Kushat: miles of desert filled with who knows what dangers. It speaks poorly for Stark’s skulking abilities that he is almost immediately captured by Ciaran’s bandits.
Mysterious masked Ciaran and Ciaran’s legion of bandits are also headed to Kushat. Ciaran believes the city is not invincible at all and Ciaran’s band of determined scallywags will be able to conquer it.
The bandits are well armed. Kushat’s only hope may be that stolen talisman … which is still hidden on Stark’s person. And Stark is a captive of the army now bearing down on Kushat.