There used to be a Hollywood genre called swords and sandals, that is heroic B-movies set in ancient Rome or Greece: muscular men in tunics fighting monsters or evil rulers. Those movies are mainly of my age, i.e. from the fifties or early sixties. And very few of them are enjoyable nowadays, perhaps only the A-quality ones like Spartacus and Ben Hur.
Anyhow, to the point. One of Leigh Brackett’s most well-known Mars stories is a novel called either Sword of Rhiannon or Sea-kings of Mars, depending on edition. She wrote it in the early 1950s, when the swords-and-sandals genre was flowering, and that shows.
In this tale she leaves her 22nd-century Red Planet for a jaunt into its past, a million years ago or so. The basic plot is simple: corrupt archeologist Matt Carse has been expelled from academia because of his misdeeds and now ekes out a living in the lawless city of Jekkara.
Matt Carse knew he was being followed almost as soon as he left Madam Kan’s. The laughter of the little dark women was still in his ears and the fumes of thil lay like a hot sweet haze across his vision — but they did not obscure from him the whisper of sandaled feet close behind him in the chill Martian night. Carse quietly loosened his proton-gun in its holster but he did not attempt to lose his pursuer. He did not slow nor quicken his pace as he went through Jekkara.
“The Old Town,” he thought. “That will be the best place. Too many people about here.”
Jekkara was not sleeping despite the lateness of the hour. The Low Canal towns never sleep, for they lie outside the law and time means nothing to them. In Jekkara and Valkis and Barrakesh night is only a darker day.
Carse gets a clue where he could find the lost tomb of a legendary Martian called Rhiannon the Accursed. However, instead of plundering that grave, he is catapulted into Mars’s distant past, when it was a verdant world with oceans and strange intelligent beings.
Despite the occasional appearance of super-science gadgets, this is a fantasy tale placed in a SF context. Most likely, the fantasy tropes we are so familiar with were not established then and Brackett’s readers would not have accepted them. So on ancient Mars we find slave-crewed galleys, pirates, winged humans, “tritons”, seers, and a cool warrior princess — all appropriate for the swords-and-sandals fans.
The sun sank slowly toward the horizon. As Carse topped the last ridge above the city and started down he walked under a vault of flame. The sea burned as the white phosphorescence took color from the clouds. With dazed wonder Carse saw the gold and crimson and purple splash down the long curve of the sky and run out over the water. He could look down upon the harbor. The docks of marble that he had known so well, worn and cracked by ages and whelmed by desert sand, lying lonely beneath the moons. The same docks, and yet now, mirage-like, the sea filled the basin of the harbor.
Round-hulled trading ships lay against the quays and the shouts of stevedores and sweating slaves rose up to him on the evening air. Shallops came and went amid the ships and out beyond the breakwater he saw the fishing fleet of Jekkara coming home with sails of cinnabar dark against the west. By the palace quays […] a long lean dark war-gallery with a brazen ram crouched like a sullen black panther. Beyond it were other galleys. And above them, tall and proud, the white towers of the palace rose.
This story was my introduction to Leigh Brackett’s fantastic solar system. I read it in a Swedish translation in the late 1970s during a five-hour train ride between Gothenburg and Stockholm. The memories are still vivid, which shows what impact the story had on my teen-age self.
I will not speak much of the plot, because that would entail spoilers, but I can assure you that the story-telling is great: Brackett portrays a place which she must have loved. The pacing is quick, the protagonists hard-boiled and unscrupulous, and their adversaries malevolent. The mood frequently evokes an American version of heroic-era Greece. Carse must be both shrewd and brutal to survive and find a way back. Also, Brackett introduces two tough women, which were rare in adventure stories from that era: Ywain the Amazon (a Xena-esque princess) and Emer the Seer, a power-playing “court sorceress” in the pirate lords’ fortress.
[Ywain] stood like a dark flame in a nimbus of sunset light. Her habit was that of a young warrior, a hauberk of black mail over a short purple tunic, with a jeweled dragon coiling on the curve of her mailed breast and a short sword at her side. Her head was bare. She wore her black hair short, cut square above the eyes and falling to her shoulders. Under dark brows her eyes had smoldering fires in them. She stood with straight long legs braced slightly apart, peering out over the sea. Carse felt the surge of bitter admiration. This woman owned him and he hated her and all her race but he could not deny her burning beauty and her strength.
[Emer’s] eyes were gray and sad, but her mouth was gentle and shaped for laughter. Her body had the same quick grace he had noticed in the Halflings and yet it was a very humanly lovely body. She had pride, too — pride to match Ywain’s own though they were so different. Ywain was all brilliance and fire and passion, a rose with blood-red petals. Carse understood her. He could play her own game and beat her at it. But he knew that he would never understand Emer. She was part of all the things he had left behind him long ago. She was the lost music and the forgotten dreams, the pity and the tenderness, the whole shadowy world he had glimpsed in childhood but never since.
The main characters are people that one hardly would like to have as friends: Ywain is haughty and Matt is greedy, both self-centered in the pursuit of wealth, glory, and power. But still, the reader comes to care for what happens to them. The story ends by tying all threads together, but I would have loved to read what happened to Matt and Ywain later, because, being the people they are, they must have experienced many other Martian adventures together.
I give this story five red planets of five possible. But my taste is unusual, so be warned: other readers may judge it otherwise.