the Little Red Reviewer

The Book of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett

Posted on: April 18, 2012

The Book of Skaith by Leigh Brackett

Published in 1976

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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On the edges of explored space lies the dying planet of Skaith. Orbiting a dying ginger star, the cooling habitable areas of Skaith grow smaller and smaller, crushing her tribal populations ever closer to a boiling point. Minimal interaction with the Galactic Union has brought much needed resources along with one last hope of emigration. When the Galactic Union’s emissary, Simon Ashton, goes mission on Skaith, his adopted son Eric John Stark frantically plans a rescue mission.

Much of Skaith is ruled by the theocratic Lords Protector.  As with most religious leaders, once upon a time they had the best of intentions: feed the hungry, house the homeless, help the needy.  Many generations later, a large portion of the population has become “Farers”, homeless, hungry and resourceless, they demand food and shelter from the farmers and herders who have been virtually enslaved by the Lords Protector.  Every year there are more Farers and less food to feed them, and fewer farmers to grow the food.

Stark arrives on Skaith with a little money and the clothes on his back, and it’s not long before he gets a lead on Ashton’s location.  But it will take more than offworlder smarts to outwit Mother Skaith and her bounty of genetically modified tribal populations. Once upon a time, when the ginger star was younger, Skaith had knowledge and technology and many of her peoples chose to force genetic mutations, some to be able to live under water, others to fly, others to have telepathic abilities. In Dying Earth fashion the knowledge behind the mutations has been lost.

Skaith was ripe for revolt before Simon Ashton or Eric John Stark arrived.  To survive, Stark will need to call on the darker tendencies of his savage youth. Stark isn’t interested in being the savior the people of Skaith so desperately need. He isn’t interested in becoming the new leader for the tragically telepathic Northhounds. But we don’t always get what we want, do we?

The Book of Skaith contains three short novels, The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith.  Categorized as Sci-fantasy, or Sword and Planet, (a sci-fantasy take on Sword and sorcery), I got a decidedly political space opera vibe as well. The Lords Protector are so desperate to keep their power and fearful of change that they forbid anyone from ever emigrating off Skaith, and manipulatively preach than offworlders are evil. But there are southern populations fighting for control as well. Not to mention the hordes of starving Farers and other freakishly not-human hunters and brigands.  The different populations of Skaith have one thing in common: denial.

Brackett’s writing is crisp and clear, describing the tribes of Skaith and their different belief sets. Many secondary characters get a few minutes here and there of their points of view, which also helps to reader to sympathize with the “bad guys” who have their own tragic back story. Brackett was doing anti-heroes and greyer than grey before it was cool.  Even Stark isn’t the perfect good guy everyone wants him to be. His goal is to find Ashton, get back to the small spaceport and get the hell off the planet and back to civilization. Frustrated by the lack of technology, Stark will bargain with just about anyone to get safe passage across mountains and plains.  No amount of prophecies, tribal civil wars, starving children, or beautiful women will change his mind. Or will they?

If this had been written today, Stark would have come in guns a’blazing, and technobabble a-screaming, the technology of the Galactic Union overrunning the savage and frozen beauty of Skaith.  I’m so happy this was written in the mid 1970’s. Old school sci-fantasy is wonderful like that – you’ve got a character who comes from the galactic center (think Corusant or Trantor), and they are dumped on a backwater and have to survive.  No i-phone, no wifi, no bargaining chips, no nothing. Just their own brains.

I’ll admit it, it took me a little while to get into The Ginger Star.  Writing styles have changed over the years, and my brain had to switch gears a little to get back into the writing style of the 1970’s (anyone doing a dissertation on genre writing style changes of the last fifty years? seriously, find me, I want to read your dissertation!), and once I did, I couldn’t put this down.  The Book of Skaith truly does have a little bit of everything, and Brackett blends it seamlessly together in an unforgettable story.

A little about Leigh Brackett – (1915-1978)  She published her first science fiction short stories while she was in her 20s, and published heavily in the 1940’s. Her mystery novels got the attention of film makers, and soon she was working on screenplays as well. After her marriage to fellow science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton in 1946, she focused on screenwriting and adventure science fiction short stories, focusing more and more on Hollywood screenwriting in the 1950s as the scifi short story magazines began to fold. Later in her life she returned to science fiction and sci-fantasy.  She worked on one of the original screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back, but would not live to see the movie produced. To this day it is a closely held secret which parts of her original screenplay made it to the final film.

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15 Responses to "The Book of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett"

This sounds a really interesting setting (and I’m tired of sci/fantasy novels ending with: ‘and it was Earth all along!’, it’s not even a surprise any more! :P ) – and I have to agree with you regarding technological assistance, and so on. It’s more interesting to see a character’s success (or failure) rely on their own wits rather than technology – or in fantasy, magic.

I’m not a big old school SF reader – sometimes it’s difficult to get into the style – but this one sounds fun. I’ll check if the library has it next time I’m in!

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oh this is totally not a “it was Earth all along” kind of story. and yes, the style of some of this older stuff does take some getting used to. but it’s worth it! if your library doesn’t have anything by her, see if you can get it through interlibrary loan.

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Great suggestion – I’ll have an ask around the local library. ;) Generally they’ve got a very good selection, so I’m hopeful.

‘It was Earth all along’ isn’t the worst ‘twist’ ending, but it’s pretty well-done. Mind you, every time I say that about a trope, something brilliant turns up to prove me wrong – so I’m hopeful!

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Glad to hear you liked it! I loved this series. As you point out, a lot of unique ideas and some political depth on a good old-fashioned savage planet. That’s also dying. Good stuff.

Brackett wrote a number of other Stark stories—Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman were reprinted together a few years ago—but the Skaith stories are head-and-shoulders the best of them.

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I did see some recently re-printed stuff on Amazon the other day, which made me a happy camper.

The Dying planet thing gave all the Skaith-ians? skaith-ites? this so very nihilistic attitude, actually not all that different from some of the post apocalyptic and dark/epic fantasy stuff that’s been floating around recently. everything old is new again?

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It’s nice that you’re using the label “sci-fantasy” for this, I guess, but it was written as straight SF and that’s what the author called it at the time.

I have this volume, and it’s a favorite. I must admit, I might not have recognized it as the one you describe, your emphasis on the politics is lopsided over the fun element and the adventure, which is what stands out for me. I especially love the psionic dog-cats.

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all, those darn subgenre labels, getting me into trouble again! ;)

Oh, I LOVED the Northhounds! they have a limited vocabulary, but Stark’s conversations with them are some of the most emotional I saw. as much as I love fun and action, I do really respond to space opera and political stories. And I got this whole religious/political thing out of the power struggles and emigration hopes.

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This looks like a fun book!

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i’m not sure if it’s been reprinted or is available as an e-book, so your best bet is probably library or interlibrary loan.

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I’m not quite sold on this particular book, but if you haven’t read Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow you should get on that. I read it a couple of years ago and just loved her writing.

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I want to read all her stuff!

i got like 800 books I want to read right now. How do I download them into my brain, all Matrix style?

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If you find out how, let me know! :D

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Oh, man, seriously.

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This was one of the first adult series I read in my formative teenage years. I remember picking the PBs up because of the ultra-coolio Steranko covers. I will have to check these out again. Thanks for another great nostalgia trip! Scott

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anytime Scott! I’m having a blast going back and forth from old stuff to new stuff and back again. :D

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