For a while now I’ve been meaning to review Paizo’s new(ish) line of science-fiction and fantasy novels. Borrowing its name from the classic pulp Planet Stories, Paizo’s goal with the series is to put long-unpublished classic fiction of the ’50s through the ’80s back in print. So far, they’re doing a pretty good job of it; most of the titles have my attention from the back-page descriptions alone. And at $13 per, how can you go wrong?
There’s a distinct theme here. Most of the books are inspired by either Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard, falling into the “swords and planets” and “swords and sorcery” genres primarily, though there’s plenty of variety in the titles list. There’s some early Moorcock, and a lot of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, and the novels written by Gary Gygax about an “aegyptian detective priest,” among others. So far, I’ve only read two of the novels I purchased, Robert E. Howard’s stand-alone “Almuric,” and the first book in Leigh Brackett’s Skaith trilogy, “The Ginger Star.”
Paizo’s production values are top-notch. For some reason I was worried that they’d retain the poor binding and cheap paper of their pulp magazine forbearer, but they seem sturdy enough. I’m impressed with the slick new covers done in the pulp tradition, and the minimalistic layout with a lot of white space. I’ve heard some people complain about the size of the books; frankly I don’t care, but I am kind of glad they’re not mass-market paperbacks. What bothers me more is that they’ve got this single-column layout—seriously, people!—though I’ve heard that recent additions added in a two-column format to further the magazine feel.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, and others. What I ended up with was a brief swords-and-barbarians romp involving a human transported to an alien world, very much in the style of Burroughs. It’s not exactly high literature, and the plot’s pretty basic, but it’s entertaining as hell. I hate to spoil the entire genre by saying it involves a lot of swordfights and brawls, an epic, climactic battle, and the hero getting the girl in the end. Don’t expect too much from this story and it will be pretty rewarding as a brief flight of fancy.
Howard didn’t write many novels—I think the lengthy Conan tale “The Hour of the Dragon” is the only other consideration—and it shows. “Almuric” has the definite feel of a short-story writing trying desperately to expand into longer works. There’s not really anything in the realm of character development, though the ending hints toward it, and the world’s setting and scenery seems rushed by at points. The plot and pacing are very reminiscent of other Howard works, with a lot of similarities, much like an overly long short story (though with only a few slow chapters).
But, for all these flaws, it’s an entertaining work, and if not one of Howard’s best, it’s certainly a good example of Howard’s craft. All the staples of Howard’s work and the genre are there, and while they’re not as well polished as they could be, they still manage to gleam. Honestly I’ve read better Conan and Kane stories, but if “Almuric” works to get people reading those, it’s done a good job.
Brackett, on the other hand, manages to come up with a strong and innovative idea for a novel. The world of Almuric feels a bit generic at points, like any other far-flung planet filled with terrifying beasts and barbarian warriors, but Skaith has a distinctive feel to it which hooked me immediately. The plot is, again, pretty “swords and planets” stable trope fare, it’s got the interesting twist that the planet’s medieval technology and society are contained through its ruling classes’ xenophobia and desire to stay in control, in an era of space ships and ray guns. By limiting the flow of off-worlders to a single city, the ruling feudal lords retain control over a largely agrarian society. Thus, our hero Eric John Stark, raised in the slave-mines of Mercury, is forced to cope by the planet’s low-tech rules in order to find his friend, a diplomat for some vague United Nations Planets agency.
Pretty interesting concept, no? Definitely a good setting idea to play around with for a game of something. (As a matter of fact, I was pushing one of my friends in this direction when he said he wanted to run a Dark Heresy game using a medieval world, but couldn’t understand how it would work.)
Anyways, our man of steel grits his teeth, girds his loins, and buckles on a dagger as he slogs his way across planet to free his friend from the clutches of the ruling Wandsmen. In his travels, he comes across a variety of tropes, including the damsel in distress, the unlikely ally in the form of a band of revolutionaries, the oracle/warlock here called a “corn king,” and the major beast threat from massive psychic guard dogs. Crazy stuff, but it works.
Brackett manages to pull it off with only a few hitches, and it works pretty well for having the uber-simplistic plot description of “revenge story.” Again, not much in the way of character development, and the plot is only partially concluded (there’s still two more sequels to be read!), but the setting is at least gorgeous and fascinating in its originality.
After going through these, I’m looking forward to reading further Planet Stories selections. The Paizo team has a good grasp on what they’re looking for, as evident from so many of the selections coming from specific authors or series, so hopefully they’ll pull more not-in-print books out of the woodwork.