First released in 1976, The Reavers of Skaith serves as both the wonderful finale of author Leigh Brackett’s SKAITH TRILOGY AND a fitting coda to her 36-year career. Reavers, as it turned out, would be Brackett’s final piece of published fiction before her death, at age 62, in 1978. Of course, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera” was not completely idle during her final years — she kept busy by writing the initial draft for a little picture to be later known as The Empire Strikes Back — but Reavers would serve as the finale of her wonderful authorial career. Fortunately, Brackett went out with a bang, and fans of the first two books in this particular trilogy — The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith — should be left happily grinning by the exploits of Brackett’s most famous character, Eric John Stark, here. The third installment is at least as colorful, fast-moving and thrill-packed as the first two had been, and ties up all loose ends very pleasingly, indeed.
In The Ginger Star, Stark had traveled to the planet Skaith, in the Orion Spur, to rescue his friend and mentor Simon Ashton from the planetary rulers, the Lords Protector, and their underlings, the Wandsmen. Skaith was a planet in ferment, a dying world orbiting a dying sun, with one of its city-states, Irnan, petitioning the Galactic Union for the right to emigrate, and the Lords Protector doing everything to maintain the status quo. In Hounds, Stark and Ashton had gathered together a motley assemblage of desert tribesmen and had gone on to conquer one Skaithian city after another. By the end of Book 2, it had seemed as if the Irnanese had indeed won their right to emigrate, as a delegation of them — along with the seeress Gerrith, the Iubarian queen Sanghalain, the amphibian Morn of the Ssussminh people, Alderyk of the winged Fallarin, Stark and Ashton, the sympathetic turncoat Wandsman Pedrallon, and several others — were being taken to the G.U. capital world of Pax to discuss the situation. In Reavers, however, we learn that all had not gone as planned. Rather than bringing the delegates to Pax, the greedy Antarean Penkawr-Che, the starship captain, had kidnapped the lot, ransomed them to their respective peoples, and made plans to plunder and sack the entire planet! As Book 3 opens, Stark and Ashton are being tortured by the piratical captain, and this final volume in the trilogy details their escape and subsequent flight into the southern half of the planet, all the while recruiting allies again to retake the Wandsmen stronghold at Ged Darod…
As in the previous two books, Brackett throws any number of exciting set pieces into her story, including Stark and Ashton’s thrilling escape from Penkawr-Che’s clutches atop an inhospitable heath; another escape from the mutated Children-of-the-Sea’s sacrificial ceremony; a raid that Stark and his followers, including the telepathic Northhounds, make on one of Penkawr-Che’s ships; Stark’s initial meeting with the Four Kings of the White Isles (a people of the polar south who live on drifting ice floes); and the final gigantic battle at Ged Darod. Again, Brackett displays a formidable talent in the depiction of crowded, multisided and complicated martial scenes. It is a marvel how she can make the reader clearly envision the fighting between the Wandsmen and their mercenaries on one side, and Stark, his hounds, the Fallarin, the four-armed Tarf, the Ssussminh, the six desert tribes, the Iubarians, Pedrallon’s people from Andapell, and the Four Kings’ barbarians on the other. And there are any number of wonderful lesser scenes, too, such as the raid that Gerrith and her band make on a harbor town to steal a sailing ship; Stark’s solo mission to rescue Pedrallon from his own castle in Andapell, where he is being held prisoner; and the marvelous sequence in which Penkawr-Che and his men break into the mountain stronghold/treasure repository of the mutated Children-of-Skaith-Mother, resulting in a battle between laser blasters and more primitive poison darts. Ever imaginative, Brackett adorns her book with pleasing touches at every turn; I love those hibernating worshippers of the Cold Goddess, the Nithi, as well as those carnivorous trees, sentient flowers and vicious, yellow birds.
Unlike the first two books in the series, Stark himself is not present in every single scene. Rather, we get sections depicting what is going on with the various nations we had previously encountered, and wonderfully well-done chapters amongst the Lords Protector and the Wandsmen. The net effect is to portray an entire planet in turmoil, as winter sets in, the harvests fail, and the peoples begin to grow restive. I would have to say, thus, that The Reavers of Skaith is the most fully fleshed out, most well rounded and detailed of the three books in the trilogy. Indeed, so much is going on by the time the reader is 20 pages short of completion that it seems doubtful that the author will be able to wrap things up satisfactorily; remarkably enough, she does.
I have said this before, but Brackett really was one helluva writer. In her violent battle segments, she could depict with the red-blooded gusto of a Robert E. Howard, and in her quieter moments, she could compose a line of almost poetic beauty; e.g., “Her voice rang, clear and strong, with a haunting melancholy, a bell heard across hills when the wind is blowing.” As in the first two books, she often employs archaic language here to reinforce the notion of a primitive people on the decline (“Get you to the rowing benches. We are foredone…”), and has her hero, Stark, come off as a kind of Conan/Tarzan of the spaceways (never more apparent than when Stark kills a furry jungle animal, breaks it in half, and eats it raw!). But we also get to see another side of Stark’s character here, and his reaction to Gerrith’s ultimate fate is a touching one, indeed.
In all, The Reavers of Skaith is a sweeping finale to a wonder-filled trilogy. As was The Lord of the Rings, this trilogy is really meant to be taken in as one long book, and has been published as such in the past, under the title The Book of Skaith. It is a terrific feat of world building, and at the end of nearly 600 pages, the reader feels that he/she knows the various cultures, religions, politics, geography and history of this particular planet very well. It is a pleasing combination of space opera and sword & sorcery-type fantasy, those fantastic elements including the Corn King’s ability to summon the Cold Goddess to freeze his foes; the prophesies of Gerrith the seeress; the Eye of the Mother jewel that can foresee future events; and the ability of the Fallarin to talk to (!) and control the winds.
Books 1 and 2 of the trilogy had each featured detailed maps depicting Stark’s epic journeys north and south, and happily, Book 3 performs the same useful service. But this new map is the most complex one yet, showing us Stark and Ashton’s journey AND Gerrith and her band’s journey, their eventual uniting and wending down farther into the polar south, and then north again into the tropics and the Fertile Belt. Hats off to the artist who executed these three wonderful drawings, as they greatly assist the reader in visualizing Stark’s lengthy wanderings. Book 3 also includes a preface describing the background, places and peoples of the previous two novels, but of course, this is hardly a substitute for having read those books in full.
I mentioned earlier that this novel was Brackett’s swan song as an author, but that is not entirely true. In recent years, a posthumous short story has been released by Haffner Press, entitled “Stark and the Star Kings.” The only collaboration between Brackett and her husband, pulpmaster Edmond Hamilton, this story would seem a must for yours truly to seek out. And speaking of Haffner Press, its upcoming release The Book of Stark, which will include the SKAITH TRILOGY as well as three Stark novellas from 1948 – ’51, will also include “Brackett’s working notes for the abandoned fourth Stark novel from 1977”! The mere thought of a fourth Stark, possibly Skaith, novel is a fascinating one. What a tremendous loss to the world was the passing of “The Queen of Space Opera”!