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Leigh Brackett, The Ginger Star

The Ginger Star by Steranko I think this was the first Leigh Brackett novel that I read, when it was first published in 1974 or maybe shortly thereafter. I remember liking the Jim Steranko cover even then. In those days I was a huge fan of sword and sworcery stories, especially Conan, so I would have picked this up looking for more of that. My memory is that I didn't think much of it, and I'm not sure I read the second book in the series, The Hounds of Skaith, which came out that same year.

This is an Eric John Stark novel, but because the old pulp solar system of an inhabited Mars and Venus was no longer acceptable by 1974, Brackett transplants Stark to a planet called Skaith. Stark is looking for his mentor, Simon Ashton, who raised him after he was found as a boy living with the aborigines of Mercury. (This much of the old backstory is still there for the incredulous readers of 1974.) Skaith is a planet where an advanced civilization has fallen into a kind of dark age, ruled by a tyrannical group called the Lords Protector. The ruling elite is resistant to the space-faring culture that has now discovered the planet, and they've kidnapped Ashton in an attempt to stop the alien invasion. Stark lands in the one spaceport allowed, and then treks northward with various companions and companionable antagonists along the way.

This is a very well-written book that doesn't have much dramatic tension. Although Brackett peoples Skaith with a wide variety of people and gives it a fairly deep history, it doesn't have the pulp-mythic resonance of her Mars or Venus stories, which were in dialogue with earlier writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and C.L. Moore. Because Skaith is entirely Brackett's own invention, it feels paradoxically less original.

It also feels a lot less hard-boiled than her stories of the late '40s and early '50s, which were incredibly downbeat. Stark is just as much the passive vehicle of other people's traumas as he ever was, but he doesn't seem to have anything at stake at all. He wanders across the strange landscape stirring conflict between native groups, and after a while he feels like a device to advance the picaresque plot.

Brackett said in interviews that when she started her writing career she never knew where a story was going while she worked on it, unlike her husband, Edmond Hamilton, who worked his plots out before he sat down at the typewriter. Eventually she learned how to plot out her stories ahead of time as well, and The Ginger Star feels like it was carefully planned as a series of encounters with one culture after another, playing one off the next in an almost dialectical fashion. What the book lacks is the mood and atmosphere that made Brackett's greatest work sing. There seems to be a consensus that The Hounds of Skaith is better, so I'm going to read it too, but then again nobody really seems to hold up the Skaith series as the best of Brackett. The Ginger Star is amiable enough, and it remains in print, but that's probably as much because of its famous protagonist as anything.

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