The Secret of Sinharat & People of the Talisman by Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” would have turned 100 years old on 12/7/2015, and to celebrate her recent centennial in my own way, I have resolved to read five novels featuring her most well-known character: Eric John Stark. Brackett, of course, was already something of a well-known commodity before her first Stark story appeared in 1949; she had already placed no fewer than 32 short stories and novelettes, beginning in 1940, in the various pulp publications of the day, thereby establishing herself as the most important female sci-fi author of the Golden Age (other than C.L. Moore, of course). Her Stark tales, all three of them, originally appeared in the pages of Planet Stories magazine: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” in the Summer ’49 issue, “Enchantress of Venus” (which I have discussed earlier here at FanLit) in Fall ’49, and “Black Amazon of Mars” in March ’51. “Enchantress,” a wonderful tale, has been oft anthologized, but the first and third stories that bracket(t) it have been extremely difficult to find. (The upcoming Haffner Press release, The Book of Stark, will happily bring those lost tales back into print.) Fortunately for me, Brackett later reworked these tales, revising and expanding them to novel length, with the respective titles The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman, released in 1964 as one of those cute little “Ace doubles” — M-101, for all you collectors out there — with a hefty cover price of… 45 cents. I recently laid my hands on this collectible item, and thus was finally able to read these two wonderful sci-fi/adventure novels.
The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman serve as perfect introductions to Eric John Stark, the product of Earthling parents living on Mercury. Stark’s parents were tragically killed in a mining accident on the blazing-hot planet, and the young boy was later raised by barbarous aborigines and renamed N’Chaka. By the time he has grown to manhood, Stark’s skin has been burned almost black (no illustrator has ever gotten this trait right!), and though he comes off as an intelligent, civilized adult, that barbarous upbringing of his is never far beneath the surface. Indeed, Stark often strikes the reader as a Conan of the spaceways, what with his immense strength, superb fighting skills and superhuman climbing abilities. The Martian and Venusian backdrops in these first three Stark outings might almost be Cimmeria or Hyperborea, in fact, so primitive are the natives and their weapons; only the planetary settings and some alien supergizmos nudge the stories into the realm of sci-fi. Brackett was supposedly heavily influenced by the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs in her creation of Stark’s environs, and Golden Age great Henry Kuttner served as a mentor of sorts to her, but it is assuredly Robert E. Howard who comes most forcefully to mind here. Brackett even writes like Howard on occasion, especially during her gory battle sequences and when detailing nudity, wining and wenching, but she is also more than capable of beautiful descriptive prose to flesh out her stunning imagination. Secret and People are both compulsively readable page-turners, sweeping the reader irresistibly along on their wild and violent rides.
As for the story lines, in The Secret of Sinharat, Stark, to evade getting tossed into prison for a 20-year stretch for gunrunning, agrees to assist his old mentor, Simon Ashton. Stark will act as a mercenary in the employ of the barbarian chieftain Kynon, who is marshaling the various tribes of the Martian Drylands, as well as the evil town of Valkis on the Low-Canal, to thus form an invincible army and attack the Martian City-States. Stark’s mission is to find out as much intelligence as he can and, hopefully, break up the brewing war. Thus, Stark encounters Kynon and a gaggle of his thoroughly unpleasant lieutenants, sets out on a desert trek with them, is seduced by Kynon’s woman, the redheaded Berild, and ultimately encamps with the others at the ancient Martian city of Sinharat before discovering the true nature of the rebellion and the legend that gives the abandoned city such an evil reputation. Brackett throws in all sorts of imaginative touches (for example, one of Stark’s enemies here is an addict of “shanga” radiation, which causes a temporary atavism back to beasthood!) and memorable set pieces into her tale. In one grueling sequence, Stark and Berild are deliberately separated from the others during a monster sandstorm, and their resultant desert crossing rivals even the one that H. Rider Haggard depicted so memorably in King Solomon’s Mines.
In People of the Talisman, Stark is back on Mars, this time near the north polar regions. He has agreed here to bring back the lenslike talisman of the title to the walled city of Kushat. His dying friend, Camar, had stolen it many years before, thus depriving the city of its legendary protection. Kushat, according to myth, guards a mountain pass that leads to… nobody quite knows where. And so, Stark takes the mystic thingamabob to Kushat, narrowly escaping from the clutches of the Lord Ciaran and his barbarous Mekh tribesmen en route. (“Ciaran” is a name that Brackett evidently liked, as it was also the name of one of her characters in the 1944 story “The Jewel of Bas.”) In the book’s gripping central set piece, Stark helps defend Kushat when Ciaran’s hordes attack, and again, the use of swords, spears and battering ram is more reminiscent of a Conan story than of a futuristic Martian outing.
And later, Stark and a desperate band of city survivors attempt to climb through that nearby mountain pass, talisman in hand, and uncover its grim secret. Brackett, in this novel, offers up a twist ending that nobody should foresee, as well as presenting us with an alien race that truly is alien as regards looks, clothing, mentation and conduct. The author peoples her tale with many interesting side characters, as well, including one of the military commanders of Kushat, Lord Rogain; sadly, Brackett does not tell us precisely how much hair this man sports! The author or her Ace editors were guilty of one serious slip in this tale, sadly… when Stark refers to Ciaran’s aged advisor, Otar, by name, even though he had not had a chance to learn that name yet; an error, no doubt, that was introduced when the original short story was reworked in 1964. Other than this slip, however, People is a wonderful short novel. I devoured this one while I was home sick over a few days and found it perfect company, indeed.
Revising and expanding these Golden Age tales for more modern times evidently began to warm Brackett to Eric John Stark again, for just 10 years later, she released the first of three new novels featuring the character: the opening salvo of the so-called SKAITH TRILOGY. The first book in that trilogy, 1974’s The Ginger Star, is where this reader will be heading next…