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The Ginger Star (The Book of Skaith) (v. 1) Paperback – July 8, 2008
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In "The Ginger Star," Stark undertakes a mission on his own, with no support from the Galactic Union. His old mentor and savior, Simon Ashton, had disappeared on the planet Skaith while conducting a diplomatic mission. Skaith was a planet that had only recently been contacted. A world in decline, it consisted of various city-states whose populations--as Brackett describes their cultures, architecture, weaponry and the like--would seem to correspond to those of the Europe of Earth's Middle Ages. Now, residents of the city-state of Irnan have made a request to the G.U. to emigrate from their old world, which request has caused the rulers of Skaith--the Lords Protector and their subservient Wandsmen--to shut down the G.U. consulate. Stark is immediately embroiled in trouble upon his arrival, and is ultimately forced to make a journey of many hundreds of miles to locate his old friend, falling in with any number of diverse folk en route. His goal: the mysterious locale known as the Citadel, far in the frozen north, where the Lords Protector supposedly reside. But to reach there, he must first pass through the hostile city of Izvand, the treacherous Darklands, the masked people of the Towers, the paganlike Outdwellers, the metalworkers of Thyra, and the gene-altered, mountain-dwelling Children of Skaith, before finally crossing the Plain of Worldheart and facing the legendary Northhounds. Fortunately for him, he acquires some allies during his lengthy quest: a band of Irnanese fighting for their freedom to emigrate, and Gerrith, a beautiful prophetess, with whom he enters into a sort of passionate affair....
Endlessly inventive, colorful and action packed, "The Ginger Star" is a bravura return for both Eric John Stark and his creator. Brackett, who had spent much of the preceding decade writing scripts for such films as "Hatari!," "El Dorado" and "Rio Lobo" (all directed by Howard Hawks and all starring John Wayne), as well as the Robert Altman-directed neo-noir "The Long Goodbye" (and who would shortly commence work on a little something called "The Empire Strikes Back"), demonstrates in her first novel in 10 years that she had lost not one iota of her authorial prowess. It is a triumphant return to form for the so-called "Queen of Space Opera." Brackett adds many ingenious little touches to her story, such as the genetically modified Children of the Sea, who have elected to return to the oceans to live; the "pod masters," who are in charge of bands of folks undergoing a radical form of group therapy; the "love-weed," which induces instant randiness in its consumers; and the haglike Sun Worshippers of Izvand, naked except for the black bags over their heads.
The author bracket(t)s her novel with two exciting set pieces: In the first, Stark battles one of those monstrous Children of the Sea in the creature's watery domain; in the second, Stark goes up against Flay, the telepathic leader of the Northhounds. "The Ginger Star" is peopled with a large cast of characters, and there is simply no way for the reader to discern which of these characters will be sticking around and which will be summarily dispatched. George R.R. Martin, it would appear, was hardly the first fantasist to shockingly do away with seemingly major characters in his fictions! Brackett employs archaic language on occasion ("We go there somewhiles to trade for tools and weapons") to reinforce the notion of a medieval culture, and indeed, similar to the earlier Stark tales, if it were not for the planetary setting, the genetic sports and those telepathic canines, this could almost be a Conan tale as told by Robert E. Howard. As in "People of the Talisman," one of the book's central mysteries revolves around what lies beyond a high mountain pass; a pass that is guarded by an ancient city. In both instances, the answer is nothing that the reader could ever hope to imagine. The novel in question, I might add, is peripatetic if it is anything, and this reader was more than happy that--as is the case with many of the finest epic fantasies--a detailed map has been included in the book's opening pages. It wasn't absolutely necessary, but it certainly did help me envisage Stark's winding journey.
"The Ginger Star," it should be noted, does not wrap up neatly. By the novel's end, Stark HAS achieved his primary objective of finding his mentor, Ashton, but many plot threads remain unresolved. The plight of the rebellious Irnanese, and the question of Skaith's isolation from or welcoming of the Galactic Union, remain. In addition, by the book's conclusion, Stark's ally, the Irnanese fighting man Halk, as well as the seeress Gerrith, are in the clutches of the tyrannical Wandsmen. Guess I'm going to have to dive into book #2 now, "The Hounds of Skaith," to see what happens next....
(By the way, this review originally appeared on the Fantasy Literature website...a most excellent destination for all fans of Leigh Brackett....)
This book is an epic science fiction tale. The hero Eric John Stark travels to the planet of Skaith, a terrible place at the edge of the known universe, in an effort to save Simon Ashton, his foster father. Stark's biological parents were killed when he was very young, and he was then raised for a number of years by aborigines before coming under the influence of Ashton. All of these influences turned him into the warrior he is in this story.
The basic plot of Ms Brackett's book is that Simon Ashton goes missing on Skaith and Stark goes after him in the face of overwhelming odds. When Stark arrives on Skaith, he learns that he apparently is the key figure in a mysterious prophecy about the Dark Man. This does not simplify his mission. In his search for Ashton, Stark is accompanied by a small band of heroes that he picks up along the way. He runs into extremely memorable evil characters and manages to survive a number of perilous situations.
The characters in the book will grab your attention. The descriptions of the land through which he passes are memorable, and the action is excellent. I found the book to be one that I did not want to put down. I am very pleased that there are further books to read in the Stark series. I also want to give full credit to Paizo for publishing their Planet Stories books. Their objective is to introduce classic or possibly overlooked science fiction books to a new audience, and I think they will be successful. The books are in a nice trade paperback format with slightly lurid covers. (Note: The correct cover for the book is the one shown in the customer image on Amazon.) I look forward to reading about Stark's next adventure.
Those of us whose introduction to the world of pulp fantasy/sci-fi came even after its silver age, and is therefore spotty at best, owe an ongoing debt of gratitude to Erik Mona for his salvage and rescue operation. He has recovered gems of the past I otherwise would have likely never enjoyed, and Brackett shines among them.
There is an option to buying the three paperbacks: The Book of Skaith (Doubleday 1978) was an SF Book Club edition containing all three of the novels and is available as a used book for as little as $1 plus shipping.
Either way you go, these are a fun read. Recommended!
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