The Sword of Rhiannon

Leigh Brackett
The Sword of Rhiannon Cover

The Sword of Rhiannon


Finally, I've reached the end of the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge I signed up for back in May! I'm a little late, but I'm done!

For the last book in the challenge, I chose Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon. It turned out to be a fun way to finish up. The Sword of Rhiannon is one of many stories Brackett wrote in the 1940s and 1950s that take place on Mars. This one was originally published in 1949 under the title of Sea-Kings of Mars. It was published again in 1953 in one of the first Ace double novels along with Conan the Conqueror by Robert E. Howard.

The Sword of Rhiannon is a rollicking planetary romance that is everything you'd hope for from a pulp sf novel of long ago. Our hero, Matthew Carse, is a big, brawny archaeologist turned looter (Lucas couldn't come up with anything original, could he?) who has lived on Mars since he was five, coming to the planet from Earth. Mars of his time is a desert, the remains of an ancient seabed and ancient architecture evoking a sad longing for a more lush past long gone.

Thanks to a run-in with another thief, Carse is cast back to that lush past where he's captured and held as a galley slave of a beautiful warrior princess (of course) and has to fight his way out with the help of an ancient sword and a cursed god in his head.

This book is so much fun! (Is that my new catch phrase? Perhaps.) Lighthearted, well-written popcorn. Brackett isn't going for anything deep here–the men are manly (with Carse the manliest, don'tcha know), the women aren't, and the pages are meant to be turned at a good clip. Brackett's prose adds to the fun.

[Penkwar] turned and fixed Carse with a sulky yellow stare. "I found it," he repeated. "I still don't see why I should give you the lion's share."

"Because I'm the lion," said Carse cheerfully.

That Brackett chose to point out that Carse was cheerful about being a lion makes me giggle. Here's another one I like.

Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as casts except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

I just want to hug that sentence.

I was a little worried about that warrior princess, how she'd be portrayed, how she'd be treated, due to the age of the story. That part ended up not being too bad. Ywain is ill-treated once Carse turns the tables on her, but she gives as good as she gets and is pretty badass in her own right. The relationship that comes out of their meeting isn't as unbelievable as some I've read in other books like this either. *cough*Edgar Rice Burroughs*cough*

The Sword of Rhiannon is an improvement over A World Is Born, Brackett's novella that I read earlier last year. She stepped up her game in the intervening eight years. I found it interesting that she tried to make this sword & sorcery tale a sword & science tale instead. The science is, again, kind of thin, but I like that excuse for the power of the ancient "cursed god" better than magic would have been. I also continue to love the imagery she creates and the world-building she does. Just picturing a lush, green Mars filled with all kinds of people: I like that. The Sword of Rhiannon is definitely worth a read if you're in the mood for an old-fashioned pulpy kind of story. 4/5