After a solid decade of no new fiction from the pen of Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” the author released, in 1974, the first volume of what would ultimately be called her SKAITH TRILOGY. But fortunately, her fans would only have to wait a mere matter of months before the sequel to the first book, The Ginger Star, was published. That second volume, The Hounds of Skaith, managed to accomplish what all great follow-up novels should: enlarge on the scope of the previous story, introduce new and fascinating characters, clarify and enlighten what had come before while at the same time weaving new plot threads, and leave the reader wanting still more. The book is a total success in that regard, and fans who had thrilled to Eric John Stark’s previous exploits should certainly be left more than happy here.
Book 2 picks up just hours after the first installment had concluded. In that initial work, Stark had come to the dying planet Skaith, in the distant Orion Spur, to locate his old friend and mentor, Simon Ashton, who had gone missing while on a diplomatic mission there. Stark, on his arrival, had found the planet to be in ferment, with the city-state Irnan in revolt against the planetary leaders — the Lords Protector and their underlings, the Wandsmen — in an effort to achieve the right to emigrate to other worlds. Stark had journeyed across many miles, accompanied by some Irnanese and the seeress Gerrith, before ultimately rescuing Ashton from the Citadel, beyond the Plain of Worldheart, and becoming the leader of the ferocious Northhounds. But Gerrith and Halk, the only surviving fighting man from Irnan, were in the hands of the Wandsmen, and the planet was still in chaos. (By the way, the events of Book 1 ARE sufficiently explained by Brackett in Book 2’s opening chapters to allow for easy comprehension by newcomers, but a reading of that earlier work is, of course, recommended for a greater enjoyment here.) In The Hounds of Skaith, we follow Stark and Ashton as they first rescue Gerrith and Halk, and later, unite the various desert tribes and assorted mutant races into an efficient army with which to capture one Skaith city after another, ultimately going on to assist the besieged city of Irnan.
Brackett throws at least six major set pieces into her story, nicely interspersed throughout. In the first, Stark and his small band must flee not only from the desert-dwelling Ochar tribesmen, but also from the cannibalistic, fleet-footed Runners AND a killer desert storm. But this storm is of a different nature to the one Stark encountered on Mars in 1964’s The Secret of Sinharat; this one also creates a rolling tsunami of sand! In the second set piece, Stark and his allies — six desert tribes, the winged mutations known as Fallarin (who are capable of controlling the winds), and their servants, the four-armed Tarf — do battle with the Ochar and the Runners, and it is a marvel how Brackett manages to maintain control of this chaotic, multisided battle and clearly describe all the movements and formations therein; my main man, H. Rider Haggard, who always excelled in such martial descriptions, would have smiled here with approbation, I feel. Brackett delivers a one-two punch by quickly following this massive battle with another, as Stark and his ever-growing legions move on to capture the Wandsmen stronghold of Yurunna, utilizing spears, swords, battering ram and other archaic weaponry. (As in Book 1, this sci-fi tale almost reads like a Conanesque sword-and-sorcery epic at times, what with the medieval-like setting and crude inhabitants.) Stark’s Northhounds — humongous canines who not only kill with claw and fang, but by also telepathically engendering fear — are invaluable in this battle. In the fourth major set piece, Stark and his army fight against the Farers (mobs of wanton revelers, akin to Earth’s flower children but more vicious and deadly) outside the gates of Tregad. Next, Stark, alone, infiltrates the heavily guarded pilgrim city of Ged Darod. And finally, Brackett treats us to still another epic battle outside the gates of beleaguered Irnan. The book is tremendously fast moving, more so even than Book 1; more action packed, and with even more unusual characters. As I said, it is a tremendous sequel.
Brackett, I should perhaps add, was a wonderful writer, more so even than her husband, the great Edmond Hamilton, whose pulpier style I also love. But Hamilton would never have thrown a sentence such as “Her eyes were the color of a winter sea where the sun strikes it” into one of his books, as Brackett does here. As in Book 1, she utilizes archaic language at times (“…not one man of the Lesser Hearths dight himself for war”; “ there was no more wood wherewith to burn them”) to reinforce the notion of a primitive society on the decline. Imaginative as always, she peppers her story with any number of pleasing, throwaway grace touches, such as the severed fingers ceremony that the Skaith-Children submit to, and the bizarre group of pilgrims at Ged Darod, and the perfumed, luminous butterfly creatures to be found in the Pleasure Gardens there. And yet, Brackett often forces the reader to use his/her imagination, as well; her descriptions of the beasts that Stark and the desert men ride, as well as of the four-armed Tarf and the amphibian creature Morn, are vague, at best. As for Stark himself, he again comes off like a kind of Conan of the spaceways, but here, the author makes him seem something of a Tarzan type also, what with his alpha-dog command of the savage Northhounds. And as he gathers one desert tribe after another to his side, Stark almost comes off like a kind of interstellar Lawrence of Arabia… not that “El Aurens ever fought against such odds as Stark does here!”
I should also mention that The Ginger Star came with a nicely detailed map to assist the reader in visualizing Stark’s winding journey north, and happily, Book 2 provides the same service, with another helpful map delineating the character’s epic march south. The Hounds of Skaith offers a bit more closure than had the first volume, but matters are still very much up in the air as regards Skaith’s ultimate fate vis-à-vis the Galactic Union by the time the reader turns that final page. I suppose that I will just have to proceed on now to Book 3, The Reavers of Skaith, to see what happens next…