Monday, September 14, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sea Kings of Mars

I've talked about Leigh Brackett's interplanetary tales in previous installments of Pulp Fantasy Library. Despite their relatively late publication dates, they're all very much in the sword-and-planet tradition established by Edgar Rice Burroughs in A Princess of Mars. Even at the time, these stories had something of a retro quality to them. Tastes were changing and, as we gained more knowledge of what the solar system was actually like, there was little of an audience for stories in this style.

However, in June 1949, when Sea Kings of Mars appeared in the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, there was still an appetite for tales of derring-do on the Red Planet. Unlike her other novels, Sea Kings of Mars features not mercenary Eric John Stark but a new character, Matthew Carse. Carse was "ex-fellow of the Interplanetary Society of Archaeologists, ex-assistant to the chair of Martian Antiquities at Kahora, [and] dweller on Mars for thirty of his thirty-five years." Now, though, he was a thief, using the skills he'd acquired as an archeologist to acquire – and sell – Martian relics to the highest bidder. Imagine if Indiana Jones take a couple of steps toward becoming René Belloq.

While in the city of Jekkara, a Martian named Penkawr of Barrakesh seeks him out, offering him a "most rare and valuable gift." He takes him to a crumbling palace, inside of which is something that astounds Carse.
After a long while he [Carse] reached out and took the thing into his hands. The beautiful and deadly slimness of it, the length and perfect balance, the black hilt and guard that fitted perfectly his large hand, the single smoky jewel that seemed to watch him with a living wisdom, the name etched in most rare and most ancient symbols upon the blade. He spoke, and his voice was no more than a whisper.

"The sword of Rhiannon!"
Rhiannon, called the Cursed One and the Fallen One, was a rebel Martian hero-god who defied the others by sharing their secrets with others; for his defiance, his fellows had been imprisoned him within a tomb, along with his mighty blade. Carse is amazed that the sword is real and that he is now holding it in his hands. Penkawr believes no such thing, only that the ancient blade is worth an immense amount of money. He believes that Carse possesses the ability to smuggle the relic out of Jekkara to Kahora or some other city where it can be sold "to some Earthman for a fortune." 

Carse then presses Penkawr to take him to Rhiannon's tomb where he undoubtedly found the blade, believing that there must be other equally valuable artifacts within. The Martian is initially reluctant to acquiesce to Carse's request, be he eventually gives in. Inside the tomb, Carse a "weird bubble of throbbing darkness" that brings a "scholar's ecstasy upon, the ecstasy of discovery that is akin to madness." 
This brooding bubble of darkness–it was strangely like the darkness of those blank black spots far out in the galaxy which some scientists have dreamed are holes in the continuum itself, windows into the infinite outside of our universe!

Carse's conjecture is not far from the truth, as it turns out. Angered by the high-handed way that he has treated him – and the larger share of the profits he demanded – Penkawr pushes Carse into the bubble of darkness with the words, "Go share Rhiannon's doom, Earthman!" Carse plunges through an abyss before finding himself millions of years in the past, in the days when Mars was still lush and its canals were filled with water. It's here that the story of Sea Kings of Mars truly begins.

The novel is fun, if not necessarily Brackett's best work. As I mentioned above, it's very much a throwback to Burroughs, an early 20th century planetary romance filled with all the usual elements one expects in that genre, including a haughty Martian princess. What distinguishes it from Burroughs – and elevates the story – is its mournful, melancholy tone. As a man familiar with the future of Mars, when it is a dying, decadent world, Carse looks with wonder on its ancient past. More so than anyone, he can appreciate what the planet will lose in time and his sadness at this is what raises Sea Kings of Mars above similar fare.

The novel was revised in 1953 and released as one part of an Ace double under the title The Sword of Rhiannon. The novel on the reverse side was Robert E. Howard's "The Hour of the Dragon," under the name of Conan the Conqueror. 

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