Friday, March 19, 2010

The Hounds of Skaith

I ended up reading The Hounds of Skaith more quickly than I thought I would, and I finished it last night. Not that it was difficult to read; the text isn't impenetrable by any means, and there's only 182 pages of it. Now that it's over, I've immediately picked up The Reavers of Skaith, although I haven't yet actually started it. As before, I'm using the new Paizo covers to illustrate, because they're the best covers ever for these novels, but the copies I have are the much older Steranko covers. Although my copy is not a first printing; the novel was first released in the mid-70s, but my copy is recent enough to refer to Brackett as having died already as well as having penned the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. I believe the date on the inside cover is 1981.

I talked a bit about Leigh Brackett and the Skaith series in my earlier entry for The Ginger Star, and I don't want to repeat that here. Hounds improves on Star in at least one major aspect; the protagonist, Erick John Stark, is actually much more in control of his destiny this time around than he is in Star, where he spends most of the book a prisoner being dragged travelogue style across the landscape.

He still ranges all over the landscape, from the Citadel of the Lords Protector far in the north to the city of Ged Darod in the tropics. Along the way, he encounters many of the cliches of a sword & planet story (not that all these are unique to that subgenre.) Let me name a few of them.

1) He's the best at everything. Nobody on Skaith can compete with Stark. Because he was born on another planet, he has abilities and attributes that literally no one else around him does.

2) Everywhere he goes, he's made the chief, king or at least takes a natural leadership role, usually just half a dozen pages or so in from being introduced to the group that he becomes the leader of. For example: a) The Northounds. b) the tribes of the Lesser Hearths, c) the city of Tregad. d) The city of Irnan.

3) He can't seem to stay in one place for more than a few days before needing to go traveloguing across the planet again.

4) Women fall for him very easily. Actually, this is somewhat downplayed in Eric John Stark's case. At least on Skaith. He's had a few girlfriends on Mars and Venus, but only Gerrith, the Wise Woman of Irnan really hits it off with him here.

5) He picks up a collection of friendships with alien rulers and drags them along with him.

Despite the fact that in many ways, Hounds is a typical story of this type, as I said with The Ginger Star, in many other ways it isn't. Stark traveled to Skaith by spaceship, and he's not necessarily stranded on Skaith. In fact, later in the book, he flies around in a gunship of some kind, and sends a bunch of his friends off world as passengers of the Antarean Penkawr-Che.

While Barsoom may be a dying world, that's really just for fluff; in actuality, it's a vibrant world ripe with adventure. Skaith's dying, though, infuses the entire tale with a great sense of melancholy, of inevitability, of darkness. Brackett really writes with a much different tone than any of the other authors in this particular subgenre.

Hounds has some notable battle scenes, although they are also alien battle scenes, utilizing tactics that wouldn't be possible in the real world. In many cases, though, everything seems a little too easy for Stark. Why exactly is he this brooding melancholy individual when everything goes his way so relatively easily? I'm not sure.

Anyway, now that I'm done with Hounds, I get to move into territory that's genuinely new for me. I've read the first two Skaith books before, several years ago, but I've never read the third one. It's virgin wilderness for me. It's also a little bit longer than the others, but not much. It still just breaches 200 pages. With any luck, I'll be done by early next week. At that point, I may need to decide if I'm going to wait for the library to process one of the two books that they've ordered for me, or launch on ahead into another one of my books first.

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