Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! This time, we’re looking at an author who seems little talked about (in my circles at least) which seems utterly baffling when we look at her body of work and fans. Still, that’s how history goes, isn’t it? So please give it up for screenplay writer and genre writer extraordinaire, Leigh Brackett, and her Sci-Fantasy work The Sword of Rhiannon
It is now time for my traditional attempt at poetical plot summation
There was a scientist named Carse
Whose trip to a tomb became farce
He travelled through time
And was accused of such crimes
He fought and lied endlessly just to reach impasse
This one might need an edit, if only because I didn’t use the word arse when it was so clearly begging to be used.
What’s it all about?
Matthew Carse is a scientist and rogue who has ended up exiled to Mars. When a follow criminal offers to take him to the legendary Tomb of Rhiannon, Carse strongarms a good share out of him – and is locked in in retaliation. This leads to him coming around in Mars’ past with a legendary sword, no clue as to what’s going on, and a whole host of incipient enemies. Every adventurer’s dream really.
How readable is it?
It rattles along like a shopping trolley pushed down a steep hill. It has the occasional spot of omniscient headhopping, and leans a little heavier into exposition at the start than the current fashion is for, but it is fundamentally very readable.
Is it any good though?
Oh my gosh.
I had my doubts about this book at the start as it felt a bit over stale and lacking in verve. How wrong I was. A slightly slow start aside, it is a riveting adventure with a tightly woven plot. The characterisation isn’t the stuff of literary dreams, but it’s very fun. Carse is (un)fortunate enough to meet a cheerfully amoral rogue named Boghaz who serves as his guide, sidekick, and occasional adversary. He makes several attempts to make off with Carse’s valuables with a happy ‘can’t blame a man for trying’ air, and does make off with many of the book’s best lines. Also intriguing is Yvain, the tough as teak daughter of Sark’s king – an undoubted tyrant, but not as evil as many around her seem to think. She and Carse have a smouldering romance with occasional ugly thoughts that doesn’t always convince me, but does in general entertain me.
In short, The Sword of Rhiannon is a great example of pulpy Sci-Fantasy once it gets going, and I loved it.
How Important is this book?
I don’t think this book is important, per se, so much as it’s an example of Brackett’s importance. Michael Moorcock has been one of her more voluble fans and very firm on her influence, as can be seen here and the list of authors who cite her/obviously have her as an influence is huge – Ray Bradbury, Samuel Delany, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Roger Zelzany, John M. Harrison… it’s a who’s who of influential authors from around the 70s. Come to think of it, there’s enough aspects of this that are similar to Feist’s Riftwar in background I’d like to rummage through his library. She was also named in the famous Appendix N of Gygax’s influences.
In general, I’d agree with Moorcock that she seemed to bring an urban, noir-ish sensibility to speculative fiction that has gone on to be huge but is hard to track before Brackett; some of his claims (first series about people and dragons) I can’t verify, but Brackett’s style and preoccupations seem coded into modern fantasy’s DNA.
What about the author?
Have you perhaps heard of a movie called The Big Sleep? The Long Goodbye? Old, but not without their fame. Screenwriter – Leigh Brackett. No wonder she brought some pulp to her work. Somehow I’d never heard of her work on Star Wars until I started writing this piece which seems absolutely shocking, but she wrote the original script to The Empire Strikes Back and while there seems to be some controversy over how much of her work was in the final draft, I believe the skeleton at least was there – it’s online so we can all judge for ourselves.
She was born out in California and worked as a swimming instructor in her early days. She’d go on to marry fellow Sci-Fi writer Edmond Hamilton. But really, the most interesting thing about her life that I can find is the writing.
I feel a bit gutted it’s taken me this long to find Leigh Brackett. She’s the most entertaining writer I’ve put an entry in for with this project so far, and I’ll be looking for more of her books.