Planet Stories – Sword of Rhiannon and Ship of Ishtar

Trying to catch up on my Planet Stories backlog, I picked up Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon and A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar, first real starts on my summer reading progress. Paizo is continuing to do a fantastic job on its Planet Stories reprint line, and I’m pleased to see it branch out some more as the line is heavily dominated by a handful of authors. In any event, the choices have been top-notch so far, and the line continues with Hugh Cook’s The Walrus and the Warwolf as the most recent release.

As an interesting note, both of the Planet Stories books I read and review had the protagonist captured and enslaved as a galley rower… pulp tropes indeed.

Planet Stories 020 - Sword of Rhiannon - Leigh Brackett - 1953

For me, Leigh Brackett is one of the best—if not the best—pulp science fiction writers. Her worlds are beautifully imaginative, vibrantly creative, and written in some of the best prose around. Her strengths outweigh the formulaic, trope-driven downsides of the genre, making her works great page-turning entertainment. This one is no different. I originally read the first three chapters of The Sword of Rhiannon in a old short story collection with the creatively dull but descriptive title of Space Opera. Finding out I’d just been hooked by the beginning of the work with no forthcoming conclusion was pretty irritating, so Sword of Rhiannon ended up pretty high on my wish list. It was worth tracking down; I ended up plowing through the book on a Saturday afternoon since I couldn’t put it down.

Matthew Carse, archeologist turned looter, is tipped off about the location of a secret tomb of the dark god Rhiannon, whose name is legend across the deserts of Mars. As proof, the informant hands him the sword of Rhiannon; Carse forces him to reveal the location of the tomb, and the two investigate the place. However, Carse pushes his informant too far, demanding for the lion’s share of the profits, so the man turns on Carse and shoves him into some kind of ancient time vortex. He ends up in the far-flung past, on a Mars rich with life and water, and becomes captured by the beautiful princess of an evil empire. Now, Carse must ally with the Sea Kings of Mars and their psychic allies while holding off the influence of Rhiannon within him.

Originally published as “The Sea Kings of Mars” in a 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, the story is still a thrilling tale even today. The plot is formulaic, and the tropes are bursting at the seams: a dark god, a dark empire, a deadly beauty, a rogue-turned-sidekick, psychics, barbarians… er, pirates… well, a combination thereof. But the story doesn’t suffer from any of it; the swashbuckling action, of which there is plenty, makes the book a real page-turner, and the writing is vivid and memorable. Brackett’s prose is filled with wonderful imagery and a strong vocabulary, making her writing pop off the page and really shine; her writing sings and soars miles above other authors, even many modern ones.

Planet Stories 022 - The Ship of Ishtar - A. Merritt - 1924

By contrast, we have A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar. Merritt was another pulp legend, editing and writing “weird tales” and proto-science fiction during the 1910’s and the ’30s on the pages of Argosy, All-Story, and in the case of The Ship of Ishtar, in the magazine which combined the previous two, Argosy All-Story Weekly. He even managed to have his name on his own pulp magazine for a short time before the pulp market died out. To add even more pulp street cred, the interior art pieces are the original illustrations by pulp artist grandmaster Virgil Finlay. Paizo really outdid themselves this time.

The story focuses on John Kenton, wounded and disillusioned World War I vet, who starts off by receiving a package from an archaeological expedition he’d sponsored. Inside is a large block of stone, and inside that is a bejeweled toy ship. Soon enough, Kenton is sucked through both time and space to enter the ship itself, a golden Babylonian vessel upon which clergy of the black god of death Nergal and beautiful goddess of love Ishtar war eternally. It turns out Kenton is exempt from their rules, and could potentially break the stalemate between the priest and priestess, ending the feud forever. Kenton is enslaved as a galley rower, and must break free to claim the ship (and the beautiful priestess) as his prize.

The Ship of Ishtar was written in 1924, right in the middle of the swashbuckling Errol Flynn era. There’s plenty of that in here, amazing swordplay and bloody battles, adventure with an epic backdrop. But it also has this odd reflection of the “lost generation,” in that its protagonist just couldn’t exist in the post-World War society, almost like he was looking for a way out. He certainly doesn’t question the fantasy realm into which he is thrown with the ship, never worrying about his sanity or questioning reality. Some of the other sensibilities are very 1920’s as well, namely the treatment of women: there are warrior maids, after all, but Sharane, priestess of Ishtar, is horribly objectified, just another thing for Kenton to acquire, with a definite “the woman’s place…” attitude. It’s a bit hard to fight off the “misogyny” label when you also factor the Finlay art, which includes a lot of (semi-)nude women with the important parts obscured by carefully placed locks of hair, smoke, sheets, dark shadows, butterflies, and the like. It’s pretty tastefully done, certainly not X-rated, but everyone has their own opinion on what exactly “smut” is. Though, outside the pubescent 13-year-old-boy market, I don’t think anyone’s really going to be that interested.

While the first third of the book crawls along, it’s really just building up steam; soon enough, the blood flows in buckets, and the book really leaps into a stunning crescendo of swashbuckling action adventure. Merritt had a good handle on creating tension, and doesn’t just draw the reader in, but grabs the reader by the shirt and throws you at the action. Merritt uses (perhaps overuses) dashes, question marks and exclamation points to get this through, but it’s all part of the pulp charm.  I should also note that while the prose is antiquated (again, 1924) and may be off-putting to some, it’s not as dry and antiquated as, say, Lovecraft, so if you can get through that you can read Merritt with ease. (Compared to E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, or William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland and The Night Land, this book was smooth as glass.) Certainly, it’s not on the same par as Brackett, with her spunky and snappy prose, but The Ship of Ishtar is a surprisingly smooth and pleasant read.

While reading these two books, I got a good chance to reflect on the formatting changes between the Planet Stories line. And I have to say, the “new” format of Planet Stories compared to the “old” format is just amazing. The choice for interior art was a great one, which really brings back the “pulp” feel, as does the two-column layout (which I wholeheartedly endorse). The fonts feel old (especially the Intrepid/Century Gothic style one), and the binding is a lot less tight, which was one of my problems with the original format. Changing the layout and format of the books was a brilliant move, and I can’t support it enough; now I just need to get out and buy more Planet Stories books.

As a side note, some of the images for the new Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide have been… fascinating. Take this one, for example; my newest desktop. It screams Barsoom and Dejah Thoris. The other image preview collection included a space vixen, a steam dwarf, and a striking young fellow we nicknamed “Spiky McStabby Sword.”

I like the idea to include other settings in the guide, especially the Planet Stories kind, but I’m curious as to how much material there’ll be in a book with many other focuses. Anyone can make a decent Barsoom game after reading a half-dozen Planet Stories novels, but they won’t have the level of detail or grandeur that Paizo put to the Inner Sea/Golarion world. What makes a Pathfinder book pop is the lush but broad strokes Paizo is great at in creating a living world, so while I’m interested in the Gamemastery Guide simply because of the genre/setting shifts, I’m still waiting for the day when I can preorder the Red Planet Campaign Setting or Green Planet World Guide.

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