This is a planetary romance book which has two novellas: “The Secret of Sinharat” and “People of the Talisman”.

Publication year: 1964 for the stories, 1982 for the book
Format: Audio
Running time: 8 hours and 31 minutes
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne
Publisher: Del Rey

Dying Mars! This Mars has both Earth humans and aboriginal humans, just like Venus and Mercury. Terrans have apparently often come to exploit the other planets, and their peoples. The aboriginals on Mars seem to be barbarian tribes which wander in the deserts looking for water and loot.

This has two quite straight forward adventure stories: Stark is a loner type, a hardened fighter who still has his own honor code. He was raised by aborigines in Mercury and others consider him a barbarian. But he’s very loyal to his friends and once he gives his word, he’ll keep it. He’s also very practical. But he knows what it’s like to be the underdog and at the start of the first story he’s running from a prison sentence which he earned by smuggling guns to Venusian aborigines who use them against a mining company run by Earth humans.

In the first story Stark agrees to spy on Delgon who is apparently raising a large army of Martians. In exchange, the Earth Police Control will forget his crimes. Stark arrives to the city where many tribes of Martians have gathered. Unfortunately, one of his old enemies, Luhar, is also there and wanting Stark’s blood. Delgon agrees to take Stark on as a mercenary but on the condition that he fights only with Delgon’s enemies. Luhar and Stark aren’t happy about it but agree – for now.

Then Kynon appears. He’s a young man but already a leader. Stark is amazed when he speaks: Kynon claims to know the secret of the Ramas and is willing to share it with his followers. The Ramas were a legendary, ancient race of Martians who had discovered a means of immortality: they can put their own consciousness to others, younger bodies. Kynon has two circlets and a rod. He puts one circlet on a young man and the other on an old man. Their personalities seem to change bodies. But Stark isn’t convinced; he thinks it’s just a trick. But the alternative troubles him.

Stark tries to spy on Kynon but finds out more than he would have thought possible. Also, Kynon has a beautiful mistress who pleases Stark’s eye – and so does her maid servant.

In the second story, Stark is traveling to the city of Kushat with Camar the thief. Camar is badly wounded and wants to return to his home and Stark has promised to take him there. However, Camar realizes that his death is near and takes out a talisman which he has stolen. It’s supposed to keep the city of Kushat safe. Camar makes Stark promise to take it back. Stark sees strange visions through it but he agrees. Soon, he’s captured by riders of Mekh, a barbarian tribe which lives near the city. Their leader Cianan questions Stark and reveals that he intends to conquer Kushat. He tortures Stark but Stark manages to escape to Kushat.

Unfortunately, the city’s leaders don’t believe that the tribe will attack; instead the commander of the city even threatens to jail Stark. They boast that the holy talisman of Ban Cruach will protect them. Stark realizes that if he reveals that he has the talisman, they will kill him, so he says nothing. But he has to stay and wait for the attack even though he knows that the city can’t hold.

Both stories have wonderful, vivid atmosphere of the dying Mars and the people on it, trying to carve out their own existence and fighting each other. Apparently, Brackett was doing a pastiche of Burroughs, and she does it very well. The tribes are full of fighting men and have rigid gender roles. And yet, the women in these stories don’t feel just ornaments, even though the society around them clearly wants them to be so.

I enjoyed these stories a lot.