Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett
While credit is certainly due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more. Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic. But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas. Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark — similar in name to John Carter — features in some of her SEA KINGS OF MARS stories. More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in a fantasized version of Mars containing more than just uber-heroism, Brackett’s 1951 novella Black Amazon of Mars is a good example of how the student may sometimes outshine the master.
Eric John Stark is accompanying the native Martian Camar the Thief to his home. The opening of Black Amazon of Mars finds the pair camped in the snow, getting ready for bed so they can hit the trail early the next day. But the injured Camar passes away that night. Before dying, he bequeaths to Stark the lost talisman of Kushat. Stark has to set out on the trail alone, and it’s not long before he is accosted by barbarians and taken prisoner. Thrust before their leader, the masked Ciaran, he is given a choice: join or die. Chaos unravels in the aftermath of his decision, and Stark is swept up in a whirlwind of sabotage, battles, and a journey that ultimately decides the fate of the talisman and Camar’s home.
Brackett writes an engaging tale. Her prose is practiced and consistent; the scenes are not under- or overwritten, and the pacing is perfect, smoothing over sections of largely empty content. Without getting caught up in gonzo plotting (Burroughs) or a barrage of juvenile adjectives (Howard), the reader can relax and just enjoy a good adventure that possesses some surprises despite the formulaic story synopsis above.
Brackett, a woman who wrote in a sea of men, incorporated notable women into her work. Fiery, decisive, self-aware, and possessing purpose beyond sex objects or damsels in distress, they are the opposite of what one sees in many other stories. Howard, for example, continually sexualized female characters for no other purpose than sensationalism — even the women he gave agency are still rendered as sex objects. Brackett, on the other hand, better balances the physical aspects with personality, resulting in women (and men) who become half-stereotypes and half-something edging toward, but never achieving, realism. Eric John Stark is as classic a male hero if ever there were one, but in the novella Brackett is able to at least scratch at what makes him male, and what makes the women around him human. The result is characters sketched in basic terms but who achieve more complexity than Conan or John Carter.
Black Amazon of Mars is pulp, but pulp done well — and able to be read today with less wincing. Brackett took Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars and Howard’s CONAN concept and had her own go with Eric John Stark, Earthman living as an outlaw in the wilds of the red planet. By including female agency, Brackett is better able to balance her characters — larger than life they remain, but they are presented in a more realistic way that allows for an easier suspension of disbelief compared to Howard or Burroughs’s creations. With Black Amazon of Mars, Brackett has exceeded those from which she received inspiration.