The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett
Ballantine Books, 1974
Price I paid: 90¢
WHERE WAS SIMON ASHTON?
Ashton had disappeared somewhere—somehow—on Skaith, and Stark had come to find him, no matter what the cost. Everyone on this exotic planet had heard of the strange Dark Man from another world, but no one was talking. Not the Farers. Not the Wandsmen. Not even the Irnanese. All clues led to the mysterious North—stronghold of the tyrannical Lords Protector. Stark was on his way, despite the price on his head…
Alas, today I am disappointed.
This isn’t my first Leigh Brackett novel. My second ever review was her Starmen of Llyrdis, which I remember liking.
And she’s a woman deserving of respect, to be sure. Her Hollywood writing credits include Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep. And The Empire Strikes Back, which is just crazy. You can find people online who note the differences between her script and the film. Perhaps the best part is that Luke does still have a sister, but it’s not Leia. She’s on the other side of the galaxy, having some adventures of her own. By the time Luke finds her, she’s as close to being a Jedi as he is, and they team up.
That sounds so rad.
What’s not rad, though, is the book I read this weekend. It hurts me too. I was hoping for something a lot more amazing than what I got. Plenty of people have said that Brackett’s Eric John Stark is the top of her game. Heck, the back of this book has Ray freakin’ Bradbury saying that. But the book left me cold, and not just because it has a lot of snow in it.
As characters go, Stark is pretty cool. He’s got a cool back story anyway. He’s a human from Earth, but as a child went to Mercury with his family. Something bad happened and killed all the other humans, leaving baby Stark alone. Some native Mercurians took him in and raised him. Everybody calls the Mercurians “subhuman,” but that seems unfair. They have a language, for one thing. That seems pretty human to me. Brackett doesn’t give them a lot of physical detail, but they come across as doglike, which makes some sense. Eric John Stark is space Mowgli.
The Mercurians give him a name, N’Chaka, and teach him their ways. Some humans come back to Mercury and kill off the tribe and capture Stark. They put him in a cage as a hilarious curiosity. Later, he’s saved by a guy named Simon Ashton. Ashton takes the feral Stark home and teaches him humanity. Or tries to. The book makes it clear that it didn’t take all that well.
That’s all in the background. Ashton is important, though, because he’s the macguffin for this book.
Ashton came to the planet Skaith a few months before the book started. I forget why. There was a lot going on in this book, and most of it wasn’t necessary or pertinent to the plot. This was a meandering book, the kind I tend to like least.
The book begins with Stark coming to Skaith to look for Ashton. Ashton has disappeared and Stark owes him that much. Skaith has a lot going on. It’s crazy all over. There are these people. And the people do things.
Ugh, let me flip the thing open and see if it jogs my memory.
Okay so there are Wandsmen. They work for the Lords Protector. The Lords Protector run the planet from a northern spot called the Citadel.
There are also people called farers, who just wander around. They are under the protection of the Lords Protector for some reason.
Okay, it helps that there was a map at the beginning of this book. Yes, Stark visits every named point on that map. And he almost gets killed at every point on the map. This is what grew tiresome.
He starts in Skeg and starts working his way north. At every stop there is somebody who looks like they’ll be helpful and then they’re not.
He just rolls in, sits down to take his shoes off and eat some bread and drink some beer–
Why do people drink so much alcohol in fantasy novels? Especially the hero? If anybody needs his or her wits about them, it’s the hero. Yet at every inn along the journey, there are copious amounts of ale. You might counter with, “But Thomas, the hero never gets drunk, so it doesn’t matter.” I will retort with asking what the point is, then. Especially when you get things like “He took a swig of the local ale. It was awful, but he drank it anyway.”
I guess it has something to do with ale being safer than water in pre-industrial societies. The alcohol kills the germs. Okay, I’ll allow it, then. For now. Even if we are already considering a world where there is magic and stuff, so why can’t we imagine that there’s clean water too. Or soda.
This has been Pet Peeve Theatre. I’m your host, Thomas Anderson.
I can hear some of you going, “Wait, isn’t this book science fiction? Why did you just call out fantasy?”
Well, I guess all I can say is that this book toes the line. It’s Sword and Planet, so there are space ships and there is also magic. I think some of the magic turns out to be psychic powers, but at one point we get wizards making a snowstorm. This is a thing that happened. I don’t mind it all that much, not when the narrative has some other, more serious, problems.
So Stark wanders north. Here and there he meets some people who try to kill him. I think I’ve covered this already. It bears repeating.
There’s a guy named Gelmar. Or was it Gelnar?
Okay I was right the first time. It’s Gelmar.
He’s a Wandsman and he’s out to kill Stark. It seems that recently a prophetess predicted that a “Dark Man” would arrive and shake the very foundations of the world. Standard prophecy material.
The prophetess was a woman named Gerrith. We don’t meet her. Instead we meet her daughter, Gerrith.
BOOK YOU’RE NOT HELPING THINGS
Stark meets Gerrith II in a town named Irnan. It’s also where he meets Gelmar. Gelmar captures them both and tries to turn the townspeople against them. Instead the folks turn against Gelmar, and the heroes escape.
Gerrith explains what her mother’s prophecy was all about. Skaith is a dying world. Its sun is burning out, its minerals are almost gone, its soil is kind of crappy. What the prophecy said, and what the Wandsmen are afraid of, is space travel. They’re afraid that Stark will provide everybody with the means to get the heck off this craphole planet. The Wandsmen rely on everybody else doing the work for them, so if everybody leaves things won’t be so nice.
Okay so more wandering.
Blah blah wandering
At some point there’s a bridge, and even though Stark and company pay the toll they get jumped anyway. Somebody rescues them. Then that somebody betrays them.
Then there’s a group of snow wizards or something. They take Stark and company in and then betray them.
At some point in there Stark has sex with Gerrith. It was actually pretty tasteful.
Is anybody seeing the pattern here? Besides the obvious one, I mean. The one I keep harping on about. There’s another pattern.
Eric John Stark
Son of Mercury
HALF BEAST MAN
DOESN’T DO ANYTHING EVER
Nobody else is all that much better. The villains have more agency than the heroes because they’re the ones that do all the stuff. Stark is nominally heading north to the Citadel
but really he’s being pushed there by all the antagonists who don’t want him to get there in the first place.
The snow wizards take Stark and Gerrith to this cave full of women. They’re witches or something. There’s a bit of interrogation and they decide that Stark and his supposed prophecy aren’t of any concern to them, but might as well kill him anyway.
There was a bit where the ladies forced him to stare into some kind of crystal. Stark is all “Oh yeah psychic crystals I know all about this stuff.” He’s able to give them the information they think they need while withholding some of his more private thoughts. It doesn’t help, so they decide to kill him. Instead, he escapes and sets the place on fire.
He plunges deeper into the cave. At last, now that he’s the only person around, it seems that maybe Stark will start doing stuff. And he does. Actually the last couple of pages of the book are pretty badass.
He finds an old man and threatens to break his guitar (it’s a priceless ancient relic) unless the old man leads him out of the cave. The old man does so and then betrays him at the last second.
Still, after some brutality Stark gets out. There are about fifteen pages left in the book, and we have the long-rumored Northhounds to worry about.
I went back and checked. They were actually mentioned a few other times.
Stark encounters these fabled guardians of the Citadel
and they turn out to be pretty cool. They’re big dogs, yeah, but they don’t actually maim and kill and rend and tear like you’d expect of some big dogs. They’re psychics too, and all they do is make you so pants-crappingly afraid that you die. And then they do all that stuff.
This is the most badass scene in the book.
At first Stark is held still by the terror-gaze of these hell-beasts. Then his own inner beast starts to come out. He is no longer Eric John Stark. He is once again N’Chaka. And he starts fighting.
The psychic dogs go from “Feeeeeaaaarrr uuuuussss” to “OH GOD WHAT THE CRAP WHAT THE CRAP OH NO OH GOD PLEASE NOT TODAY”
He takes down the leader of the pack (vroooom). This makes the rest of the pack treat him as their leader. He is king of the Northhounds, and he leads them to the Citadel.
(okay I’m done with that reference now)
There’s violence and bloodshed and lots of dogs doing happy puppy good boy things.
It turns out that the Lords Protector are just regular old dudes. Stark even feels a bit sorry for them. Also Simon Ashton is there, just standing around. Stark is all “Sorry dudes, but I’m gonna knock your citadel down.” They’re all “You can’t do that I mean OH NO BAD DOGS”
And Stark and Ashton leave. It’s a long journey back to Skeg, but that’s why we have sequels.
If that last bit had been the whole book, I would have been satisfied. From what I understand, Brackett started the Eric John Stark character in short stories. I haven’t read any of them, but based on this book I get the feeling that the shorts might have been a better place for him. He just didn’t come across as that awesome in the context of a novel. There was too much nothing going on to explore his potential.
And that’s pretty interesting. Sometimes, perhaps, short and punchy is what is needed to make a character shine.
I’ve read that this book was Brackett’s return to science fiction after a decade-long hiatus. That might also have something to do with it. Maybe the follow-up books were better, after she’d shaken some of the rust off.
But all I can say about The Ginger Star is that it was a slog to read. I had trouble concentrating and it felt like nothing mattered. There wasn’t a strong voice to carry me through, the setting was bland, and none of the characters, even the great Eric John Stark, felt like more than cardboard.
I wouldn’t be this mad if I didn’t know that Brackett was a good writer. I know she can do better than this. I’ve read her doing better than this.
I’m going to see if I can’t find a good short story compilation and get back to you. And rewatch Rio Bravo.