Leigh Brackett was a pulp writer and hollywood scriptwriter both, and Sword of Rhiannon (an expanded version of Sea Kings of Mars) is one of her all too rare novels. Matthew Carse is an Indiana Jones type archeologist on Mars - a Mars of aging, decadent civilisation slowly drowning in dust - who is thrown back in time when he tries to rob one ancient grave too many. The opening vision of the new world he finds himself in is beautifully juxtaposed with the same scene on "modern" Mars: what are "now" old stone quays jutting into dust far away from the low-canals are vibrant and alive to a pounding Martian white surf.
From there a rousing tale follows - a mixture of magic and technology, of winged men and fearsome monsters, and a femme who is most definitely fatale. This is old-time planetary romance, with swords and beam weapons and slave-driven galleys coursing across a glittering sea. In the background is Rhiannon, a being (god?) of fearsome power who has a definate interest in Carse. Whether Rhiannon is friend or foe is unclear - and actually, who are friends and foes in this distant past is always murky.
This is Brackett, so there is keen dialogue with a witty sidekick, stunning cinematic scenery, and a gritty edge to everything. Its easy to see how this could be adapted to the big screen, and to an extent I am surprised no one tried.
As an adventure yarn this exquisite novelette is very original. The old clichè from Ashton smith and Howard of the robberof an ancient tomb with treasures, traps and monsters has an unexpected denouement, as the "trap" will plunge the protagonist, Carse, in the far past, where Mars was green. As for Rhiannon, he appears to be a cousin of Prometheus, Shemyaza the fallen angel of Enoch's book: he gave forbidden, superior knowledge to the unworthy and was damned for this. Carse, finding himself holding his sword, will be force to play a part in his destiny-and in the destiny of ancient Mars. Fascinating tale, with the unique Leigh Brackett touch. A female Clark Ashton Smith withouth the gloom and with much zest and joy of living.
This story has had a lot of hype over the years which it doesn't really live up to, especially when compared to the first 3 "Barsoom " stories. On the face of it they are very similar in time, locale, dress, and weaponry,but there it all diverges.The ERB offerings written decades earlier, swash their buckles in a much more vehement way, whilst weaving some deceptively complicated plot twists into the mix, together with a plethora of new critters and races, factions and gadgets. This story and possibly the following ones based loosely on its' basic ideas ( though I haven't read any yet), provide the proverbial good read, but not as good as I'd been led to expect. It's quite fast paced and full of good stuff, but not really 5 star. The book is strangely shifted in time. You could imagine Mr Boroughs reading this and thinking there were some damned good ideas in it to develop into a successor to the Tarzan stories, but not the other way round. Miss Brackett seems to have avoided a charge of outright plagiarism by an act of literary devolution.True, it's all a bit more polished, and well written than typical Boroughs fare (for a given value of "well", it depends on taste I suppose), but nothing in it is as vivid or entertaining as ERB. If like me you're an SF fan from the days of "Forbidden Planet" and "Astounding Science Fiction" that somehow missed reading this the first time around, and wonder what all the fuss was about, get it. You'll probably enjoy it despite what I've said. If you're a newbie to the genre, this is as good a place to start as any.