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Leigh Brackett, The Hounds of Skaith

hounds of skaith by steranko Okay, so I guess I'd agree that this is a better novel than the first one in the series, The Ginger Star. They both came out in 1974, so I wonder if Brackett wrote them back-to-back. The third and final book of the series came out in 1976, but Brackett said in an interview that she was planning further adventures for Eric John Stark and was looking forward to getting him off Skaith and onto another planet. In any event, what makes The Hounds of Skaith more interesting than The Ginger Star is both that the world of Skaith is that much richer with increasing familiarity and that Stark is less passive and actually drives the story.

Skaith is a dying planet, like the Mars of the earlier Stark stories, but it's dying in a different way than Mars. Essentially the sun -- the ginger star -- is dying, and the planet is slowly cooling down from the poles toward the equator. As the population was pushed toward the equator, a despotic government formed to control the remaining fertile territory. In the frozen wastelands of the north (and presumably the south) people have evolved into mindless animals or lawless bands of thugs. In earlier days when the planet's civilization was at its height, some humans chose to be genetically modified into other forms. For example, in this second book we meet a race of genetically modified bird people, but the catch is that the modification failed to actually give them full flight ability. On the other hand, they have a mysterious ability to control the wind that is pure super science wizardry.

Stark is a mercenary, and his skill is war. The despots of Skaith want to prevent people from leaving the planet, because they live off the people. Stark's goal is to break the power of the despots so that people can choose to emigrate off-world if they want to. The Hounds of Skaith is about his efforts to organize the oppressed groups to rise up against the despots. The real attraction of these books, I think -- aside from the interesting parts of the world-building -- is Brackett's tough-mindedness. She doesn't dwell on battle, but her writing about strategy and fighting is very compelling. It's unsentimental, focused, and brutal.

That said, I still find these books lacking in depth. While Brackett does a good job -- better in the second book -- of describing the political stakes, I find it hard to care much. It's possible that it's just not my cup of tea. The stories of hers I prefer are the downbeat ones full of wild, inexpressible feelings and tragic loss. These Skaith novels don't feel as though anything is at stake, although at the same time Brackett displays an admirable ability to see all sides. Even the despots get a chance to argue their cause, which is stability. Even those who fight for freedom are also afraid of change.

Well, now that I've read the second book, I'm tempted to read the third just for completion's sake. Next up, however, is her award-winning Western, Follow the Free Wind, which is about James Beckwourth, who was born into slavery in Virginia in 1798 but became a mountain man and trapper.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 28th, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
Cool Steranko cover!
Aug. 28th, 2012 03:43 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's a wrap around, and I really should have looked for the full thing to use here. I've been trying to remember if I knew Steranko's comics work by 1974, when this book was published. Probably, but I can't be sure.
Aug. 28th, 2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
My friend David was a huge Steranko fan, and turned me on to his work, which I hunted down in S.H.I.E.L.D. and other titles. One time when I was at his house, he showed me that he'd gotten Jaunty Jim's phone number somehow, and let me listen on the extension while he called him up. Years later, Dave did some covers for Mediascene.
Aug. 28th, 2012 05:37 pm (UTC)
So was Steranko all, "You kids get off my phone!"?
Aug. 28th, 2012 05:56 pm (UTC)
He was pretty patient with Dave, and he didn't know I was there. I don't remember, but I think Dave was pronouncing his name correctly by then.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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