It is a hard, harsh and corrupt universe that Earl Dumarest inhabits. He's woken up from "cold sleep" three days early with good news and bad news. The good news is that he survived - yet again - the one in eight mortality rate associated with "riding low" along with the farm animals and other people too poor to travel in space awake. The bad news is that the space ship is re-routed to the armpit of the galaxy - a world named Gath, which is a poor place with no jobs, little food, no way off and only one reason people travel to Gath, to experience the haunting psychosis inducing music generated by an oddly-formed mountain range when the "winds of Gath" start blowing.
Dumarest is ejected to the planet and runs into his friend, Megan, so maybe it's not such a big universe after all. Dumarest fails at fishing, because the fishes are apparently more interested in eating the Travellers on their flimsy raft than being served up for dinner. Starving and desparate, Dumarest fights a battle to the death with the trained fighter of the Prince of Emmened. Dumarest wins, which is fortunate or we wouldn't have the next 34 books, and then he's sucked into the high politics of the tiny world of Gath.
Dumarest is introduced to the Matriarch of Kundar, who is visiting Gath with her ward, the Lady Seena, who may be her heir apparent. The Matriarch is served by a Cyclan - a human being trained and surgically altered to be emotionless and a cog of a great scheming organization. The Prince of Emmened may hold a grudge against Dumarest, but he definitely has his eyes on the Lady Seena. The Factor of Gath is not above turning men into beasts for a few bucks. In the middle of this, the Brotherhood arrives on Gath, bringing their commitment to charity and humanity as a rare, rare bit of kindness to this brutal reality.
In "The Winds of Gath," E.C. Tubb introduces the main cliches that will dominate and drive Dumarest through the next 34 books. Dumarest wants to return to his lost homeworld, a world that everyone denies exists, called "Earth." The Cyclan seem to be hostile to Dumarest for no immediately apparent reason. The Brotherhood is there to provide support.
In addition, Tubb is beginning to sketch the sociology of his universe. Tubb's sociology remains very simplistic throughout the series. There are always the very wealthy, corrupt, rich movers and shakers, and there is a grasping, greedy mercantile class, and below it all are the poor, including the transient Travellers, who move from star to star as the whim takes them. No matter the world, no matter what interesting spice Tubb tosses in, be it a matriarchy or some other strange social system, power and oppression is the reality that Dumarest experiences.
Finally, there is Earl Dumarest. It occurred to me on re-reading that Dumarest seems to be most akin to Raymond Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe. Like Marlowe, Dumarest lives in a corrupt world where it would be most comfortable to become a craven toady to some corrupt, bestial, powerful imbecile. But, again, like Marlowe, Dumarest won't compromise, as he threads his way through barely seen game of shadows played by some very obscure rules.
What was interesting about this first Dumarest novel was how inexperienced Dumarest was. I remember him from the later books when he'd seen it all and done it all as "uber-competent." In this book, he doesn't seem to have the rules down. Dumarest chief power - apart from his near mutant reflexes and ability to absorb pain - is his luck. In this book, in particular it seemed that he was really, really lucky in ways that had nothing to do with his being prepared to exploit the breaks that came his way.
All in all, it was a quick read and fairly satisfying. For someone not acquainted with the series, it probably will seem like a "bleh" experience, but it passes the time, and if you're looking for an existential hero in a book with fairly predictable pacing this is a good book to kill some time with.