“The man who doesn’t fear, doesn’t live long. I fear everything.” (p.32)
‘Mercury-born Earthman’ Eric John Stark is back! I last encountered him in Brackett’s 1951 short story “Black Amazon of Mars.” That was a very entertaining pulpy space-fantasy adventure which surprised me with its quality of writing and depiction of characters, especially for a short story. (You can read my review here.)
The Ginger Star is the first part of the ‘Book of Skaith’ series. It is followed by The Hounds of Skaith (1974) and The Reavers of Skaith (1976). The story opens with Stark arriving on the planet Skaith, “a lawless sphere at the edge of the known universe.” He is searching for his friend and mentor, Simon Ashton, who was last heard of visiting Skaith on a diplomatic mission for the Galactic Union. Stark is determined not to rest until he finds him.
Skaith is an old planet which used to house a thriving culture, but generations of exploitation have left it a dying shadow of its former glory. Its sun, the Ginger Star of the title, is also dying. Stark begins his search in the market city of Skeg, a dangerous place filled with a plethora of unfriendly and distrustful beings.
‘He let the city flow around him, absorbing it through all the senses. He was aware of the lights, the colors, the mingled smells, the strange musics made by unnamable instruments and alien voices, the bright banners that hung above the sin-shops, the movements of people; underneath it all he sensed a rich, ripe stink of decay. Skaith was dying.’ (p.7)
It doesn’t take long for Stark’s enquiries to bring him unwanted attention from those behind the disappearance of Ashton, exposing Stark to ever greater dangers that threaten to end his quest.
After the opening world-building which introduces us to Stark, his mission, and the planet Skaith, the story gathers speed taking us from one perilous encounter to the next. Brackett’s imagination shines through as she describes Stark’s thrilling journey across the wild lands. He faces seemingly impossible odds in his encounters with some of the planet’s weird and wonderful creatures.
One such encounter is with the ‘Children of the Sea’. They are a race of mermen and women who, many years ago, underwent gene therapy to adapt themselves to life in the sea. They are powerful warriors who have a taste for human flesh. Stark finds himself in a desperate fight to the death with one of these creatures and begins to fear he has made a terrible mistake.
‘Stark grappled with it and it shot upward from the water like a tarpon, breaking his grip. He saw it briefly above him in the cluster-light, outstretched arms shaking diamond drops, body girdled with foam.’ (p.16)
The action scenes are always well written and exciting, even though you know Stark will prevail. Brackett’s descriptions of Skaith are fascinating and she doesn’t go overboard on the details, leaving it up to the reader to complete the picture in their mind. Characterization is brief and to the point, yet each one has their own mannerisms and voice.
The Ginger Star may feel a little dated today, but it is still worthy of our attention. Read it for what it is: exciting space-fantasy mixed with sword and sorcery. There is no deep, hidden message behind this story; it was written to entertain. Discover Leigh Brackett’s fine tale of adventure on an alien world and enjoy a welcome escape from the cold, hard reality of life in 2018.