Thursday, September 21, 2017

People Of The Talisman and Black Amazon Of Mars

The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman, by Leigh Brackett
No date stated (November, 1971)  Ace Books
(Original Ace Double edition, 1964)
(Also published as Eric John Stark: Outlaw Of Mars, by Ballantine Books, September 1982)

As mentioned in my review of The Secret Of Sinharat, People Of The Talisman also started life in the pulps, as “Black Amazon Of Mars,” before it too was expanded in 1964 as the flipside of this Ace Double. I’ve reviewed the original novella below.

Whereas The Secret Of Sinharat mostly stayed true to its original incarnation, with only a few changes here and there – though not all of them to the story’s benefit, I’d argue – People Of The Talisman is almost a straight-up rewrite, save for the opening pages. It’s also a little longer; Sinharat came in at a mere 94 pages, whereas Talisman runs to 124.

“Black Amazon Of Mars” was the last Eric John Stark adventure Leigh Brackett published until 1974 (The Ginger Star, being the first volume of the Book Of Skaith trilogy), though it appears to occur before the 1949 Stark novella “Enchantress Of Venus” (review forthcoming), and also before the unpublished-until-2005 novella “Stark And The Star Kings,” which was written in 1973 (review also forthcoming). This is mostly because Stark is still on Mars in the story, which is where we left him at the end of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs”/The Secret Of Sinharat. He’s made his way from the deserts of the Drylands up into the snowy expanses of the Norlands. There’s no pickup from the previous story, but we’re informed that Stark has been carrying on guerrilla warfare with some of the Dryland barbarian tribes featured in the previous story, and a few times he mentions he’s been to Valkis – whereas it was made clear in Sinharat that it was his first time visiting that Martian city. 

When we meet up with Stark this time he’s in the rugged, snowy expanses of north Mars, on his way to the sequestered kingdom of Kushat along with a Martian friend named Camar. But Camar is dying, presumably from wounds in the guerrilla fighting. Camar is from Kushat, and apparently only a few people have ever left the city. Camar actually fled, having stolen the sacred Talisman of Ban Cruach, a Martian who saved Kushat around a million years ago, taking some sort of power from the Gates of Death, ie the unexplored, hellish region which looms beyond Kushat, the titular “Gates” being a pass through the black mountains outside the city. The talisman is a lens in a leather boss that Camar has hidden on his belt; Stark vows to take the talisman on to Kushat, as a favor to his dying friend.

But there’s more to the talisman than meets the eye; when Stark exploringly puts it on his forehead, he sees visions that appear to come from Ban Cruach’s actual experiences, all those millennia ago. The talisman is the fabled protector of Kushat; whatever it was that Ban Cruach found out there, the promise was that if ever Kushat was in trouble, the talisman would provide its people with the means of overcoming it. Given this, Kushat has never been conquered, and the superstitious Martians have given it wide birth. Now, without its protective talisman, the city is unprotected. 

Posthaste Stark is captured by “the riders of Mekh,” a barbarian tribe that roams the wilds outside Kushat. They take his few belongings – a recurring bit is that Stark is basically penniless everytime we meet him – but leave the cheap belt which was once Camar’s, and now rests on Stark’s waist, because it looks so worn and worthless. The barbarians take Stark to their leader, a badass warrior in black armor, who wields a black war axe and wears a black mask that appears to be inspired by samurai armor:

His head and face were covered by a thing that Stark had seen before only in very old paintings – the ancient war-mask of the inland Kings of Mars. Wrought of black and gleaming steel, it presented an unhuman visage of slitted eyeholes and a barred slot for breathing. Behind, it sprang out in a thin, soaring sweep, like a dark wing edge-on in flight.

This is the Lord Ciaran, ruler of the riders of Mekh, on his way to sack Kushat – something that’s never been attempted at this time of year, where it seems to be a gentleman’s agreement that no battles will be waged in the dead of winter. The expansion features a big gaffe of omission – sitting by Ciaran is an old pile of rags named Otar, a crazed old runaway from Kushat, and he is not introduced in the expansion as he is in the novella. Yet Stark abruptly refers to him by name. Clearly Brackett (or was it her husband Edmond Hamilton who did the ghostwriting for the expansion?) overlooked the fact that she’d edited out his intro from the novella. Not that it matters; Otar eventually disappears from both the novel and the novella.

One thing fixed up in the expansion is that here no one promptly assumes Stark has the talisman, as they do in the novella – they just demand to know if Stark knows where it is. He’s strung up on a rack and whipped, but breaks free thanks to his Tarzan-like abilities, getting the jump on some riders who think he’s passed out. He takes up a spear and lays into his captors – “He killed, and was happy.” Stark escapes on one of those lizardlike “mounts” which Brackett has yet to describe, and gradually loses the Mekh riders, ending up in Kushat.

This is another of those fallen Martian cities, though not so depraved as Valkis was in the earlier story. No one believes Stark’s story that barbarian riders are about to storm the wall that surrounds Kushat, and he also soon discovers that the rulers of Kushat are lying to their people that the Talisman of Ban Cruach is still here. A waif-like girl from the Thieves’s Quarter named Thanis argues with young soldier Lugh and company compander Lord Rogain(!) that she be given responsibility for Stark, as they plan to throw him in prison for his “lies.” Thanis takes Stark back to her apartment in the Quarter, which she shares with her brother Balin.

I mentioned in my review of The Secret Of Sinharat that some of Stark’s bad-assery had been whittled out, in the transition from novella to novel. The same thing happens here; to put it plainly, Stark gets laid in “Black Amazon Of Mars,” but he doesn’t in People Of The Talisman. This is due to the character revision Thanis experiences; in the novella she’s a sultry vixen who promptly throws herself on Stark, referring to him lovingly as “animal” afterwards, yet in the novel she is much more naïve and innocent, and has what amounts to a big brother sort of love for Stark.

The novel also features this incredibly goofy bit of coincidence in which Balin announces that he’s discovered Stark has the talisman, because not only did Balin know Camar, but he also recognized Camar’s belt!! We get a lot of insight into Kushat and the myth of Ban Cruach, perhaps a bit too much. There’s a massive statue of him in the city square and Lugh lies to Stark that the talisman is there. Stark’s story of impending invasion is only half-heartedly listened to, so soldiers man the wall. The siege of course happens a few days later, with Ciaran in his black armor marshalling his forces. Stark is crazed with vengeance, and gets in a brief swordfight with Ciaran.

Here comes the big shock – ruined of course by the title of the original novella – Ciaran is actually a she. Stark knocks off that ancient Martian helmet and is surprised when he finds himself looking into the face of a beautiful woman with black hair (she had “red-gold” hair in the novella, by the way). There’s a moment where it looks like her barbarians will abandon her, having discovered they’ve been following a woman, but Ciaran leaps into the fray and thus becomes a “goddess” to them. Stark meanwhile bands together some Kushatians, knowing the city is doomed, and leads them on a long escape through the tunnels beneath Kushat – this novel is very heavy on the atmospherics, lacking much of the action of the source novella.

Determined to help save Kushat, and also get his vengeance on Ciaran, woman or not, Stark leads his group into the Gates of Death, to find whatever power Ban Cruach found there. He ends up cutting off a pursuing Ciaran and capturing her, and succeeds in keeping his group of survivors from killing her – they can use her to barter for their safe passage. Meanwhile they explore the ghostly ruins in the Gates of Death. They are soon confronted by aliens who look much like the one depicted on the cover, and these aliens predate the human-stock “Martians” who now run the planet.

The talisman allows conversation with these stalking aliens, and Stark detects that there is something untrustworthy about them, despite their apparent kindness. They vow to help Kushat, as Ban Cruach made the same promise to them, so long ago – these aliens want to live alone in their own kingdowm, and Kushat was like a barrier between them and the rest of Mars. In a stupid moment they happily hand over all their weapons to the band of survivors, and off they rush to reclaim Kushat from the riders of Mekh – it’s all very rushed and sort of goofy.

But it turns out to be a “game;” the aliens have tricked the Kushatians, and the lights in the eerie city go out so the aliens can now hunt the survivors for sport. The talisman is revealed to be worthless, and one of the aliens smashes it. Eventually Stark runs into Ciaran, and the aliens have contrived it so these two could fight to the death; instead, they take up their swords, stand back to back, and commence to hacking and slashing. They escape, along with Thanis and Balin and a few other survivors, and Ciaran promptly vows to leave Kushat, taking her barbarians with her…as long as Stark helps her fight to reclaim her birth kingdom of Narissa; Ciaran, daughter of the now-dead king, was ridiculed by her people for being a girl who wanted to rule, but now she will return to Narissa and claim it for her own.

And here People Of The Talisman comes to its unsatisfying, rushed end. Having read the novella first, it occurred to me as I read this expansion that what appears to have happened was that Brackett, for whatever reason, toned down the pulpy fun of the source material and attempted to make it all more “straight” and “serious.” Gone is the fast-moving action of the novella, replaced with lots of scene-setting and needless tours of Kushat. It’s my understanding that Brackett’s sci-fi gradually lost this pulpish vibe as the ‘50s went into the ‘60s, so maybe these expansions were just reflections of that.

As with The Secret Of Sinharat, I read the 1971 reprint shown above. Here is the cover of the original 1964 paperback; it’s interesting that ’71 reprint cover artist Enrique “Enrich” Torres basically just redrew it, same as he did for his Sinharat cover:

On to the original pulp version – as with “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” I found “Black Amazon of Mars” to be vastly superior to the expansion. “Black Amazon Of Mars” appeared in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories, and you can find a scan of it for free download at The Internet Archive. Not only does the novella move faster – which would be a given as it’s shorter than the expansion – but the character motivations and climax are all superior, and Stark comes off as a stronger character. It’s also in even more of a Robert E. Howard mold than “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” filled with warriors in armor battling it out with swords and axes. Here’s the cover:

As with my rundown of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” I’ll mostly go over differences here, so spoilers will run rampant. The novella starts off basically identical to People Of The Talisman, up to the point where Stark arrives in Kushat. As mentioned above, Stark gets lucky with Thanis, who is much more sultry here, less the innocent waif. There’s also none of the business of Balin having known Camar and recognizing Camar’s belt. But the novella does suffer from a strange tendency of various characters abruptly assuming, apropos of nothing, that Stark has the talisman of Ban Cruach and is hiding it from them.

But the main thrust of the story proceeds the same; Stark warns of the approaching hordes of Ciaran, and his story is doubted. He gets involved in the fighting during the eventual siege, and unmasks Ciaran as in the novel, but here she has red hair. Also in the novella it’s revealed that Ciaran is really “Ciara,” something not addressed in the novel. Despite her unmasking Ciara still leads her riders to a conquest of Kushat. In panic Balin flees through the Gates of Death, to find whatever power Ban Cruach left there. Alerted to this by a shrieking Thanis, Stark goes off in pursuit – and he himself is chased by Ciara and several of her barbarians.

The Gates of Death are guarded by a mummified figure in armor, holding a massive sword: Ban Cruach himself. Rushing past this figure, Stark encounters “the ice-folk,” the faceless, looming creatures of ice who live in this hellish, frozen area. They scare off Ciara’s men, and she proceeds alone after Stark. The duo fight the creatures but are captured, taken to an ice palace. Speaking telepathically, the ice-folk reveal that they were the original rulers of Mars, but Ban Cruach fought them back a million years ago, segregating them in this frozen section of the north – when they ruled Mars, the entire planet was covered with their ice castles, but Ban Cruach defeated them and gave the world to the current human-like Martians.

Ban Cruach did this, somehow, with his sword, the radioactive properties of which still in some mysterious way prevent the ice-folk from leaving their ghetto. They force Stark to get the sword, figure out how it works, and use it to free them so they can once again take control of Mars. This is the exact opposite of the goal of the aliens in People Of The Talisman. Stark refuses until the ice-folk threaten to freeze Ciara and Balin to death. Stark complies, and puts on the talisman, still hidden in his belt. With it he is granted the knowledge of how to use the sword.

The finale is a weird burst of near-psychedelic action as Stark waves the magical sword around, melting ice-folk and structures alike. The sword has a sort of microwave beam that wipes out anything in its path, and also protects Stark from the black light beams the ice-folk shoot at him. He also uses it to melt the ice that has nearly killed Ciara and Balin, and the three escape after Stark destroys the entire palace. The finale sees them emerging back into normal Mars, and here, unlike the clunky finale of the novel, Ciara does not vow to leave Kushat – indeed, it’s specified that she will remain there as ruler. There’s none of the business of her seeking to reclaim the throne of her father, either. She does though extend the same sort of offer to Stark – she asks him to stay with her, and Stark figures he will, at least for a while.

This was the last Eric John Stark story Brackett published until 1974, with The Ginger Star, being the first volume of the Book of Skaith trilogy – that is, if you aren’t counting the expanded versions of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon Of Mars” from 1964. However it would appear that Brackett, like her inspiration Robert E. Howard, didn’t write her Stark stories in chronological order, so that the second-published Stark yarn, “Enchantress Of Venus” (Planet Stories, Fall 1949), actually would follow after “Black Amazon Of Mars,” which was published two years later. I’ll be reading that one next, as well as the other stories collected in the 2008 Baen eBook Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories.


Steve Carroll said...

I just finished reading the novella version of this one last night. What a rush! I have no interest in retreading them as longer watered down versions though; thanks for the heads up on those expanded versions. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on by Burroughs and Howard (heck, I even own both Balzan of the Cat People paperbacks!), so these Brackett novellas with Stark have been a real revelation. Thanks again for turning me on to them! Great stuff!

Unknown said...

Nice to see you reviewing some Sword & Planet stuff. Great review(s)!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! Steve, let me know if you read Enchantress Of Venus...that one was my favorite of the four Stark novellas. It's a shame Brackett's material isn't as well-known as Burroughs' or Howard's. Now as for Balzan of the Cat People...I just finished volume 2, and well, there's a good reason why "Wallace Moore" isn't known at all! There are 3 of those books, so here's hoping the last one is better.

Unknown, glad you enjoy these reviews -- I'll have more S&P reviews coming up, as well as some straight-up fantasy novels. Not sure how I got on this kick, but I'm enjoying it!