The second book in the Eric John Stark sword and planet trilogy.
Publication year: 1974
Page count: 184
Publisher: Ballantine Books
In the first book, the Ginger Star, former mercenary Eric John Stark followed his adopted father Simon Ashton to the planet Skaith which is at the fringes of the Galactic Union. The people on the planet don’t allow advanced technology, indeed many of them don’t believe that other planets exist, and so Stark couldn’t bring any with him. The local rulers, who don’t want new people coming to Skaith and giving the local oppressed people any ideas, kidnapped Ashton, and Stark had to fight his way to the Citadel where Ashton was held captive. Along the way, Stark made many enemies and a few allies. Now, Stark has reached Ashton and destroyed the Citadel, but the local rules, called the Lords Protector, have fled and taken some of Stark’s allies captive: the wise woman Gerrith and a wounded warrior Halk. Stark still has the nine huge Northhounds and with them and Ashton he follows the Lords Protector to the sandy but cold desert.
Skaith has ruins of old, fallen civilizations and among them live many unhappy groups of humans. The planet also has near-humans who are apparently the results of genetic engineering long ago. The Wandsmen are the minions of the Lords Protector and rule over everyone. They also want to keep their power and so are enemies of Stark. The Hooded Men are in turn the Wandsmen’s minions intent on keeping their own power. The planet has also winged humans who control the winds, a group of people who live underground, and a couple of people who live in the sea. It also has Runners, people who are mostly skin and bones and apparently nearly mindless, just wanting to hunt and kill.
The book has many big battles. Stark is grim and relentless in chasing his goals. At first, he wants to free his two friends but soon it becomes clear that he will have to plan big if he intends to keep all of them alive. So he does what he must.
Even though the story is set on a planet and the first book had some planetary travel, Stark had to give up all of his advanced tech and the fighting is done hand-to-hand with swords. This gives a very archaic or fantasy feeling to the book.
The fights are written very clearly, and now and then Brackett uses quite poetical language. But this a very harsh book; no humor at all and lot of violence.
My favorite things in the book were the hounds. They live like wolf packs, led by the strongest hound. But they also obey the Wandsmen and can’t hurt them. Stark defeated the previous pack leader and now leads them like a hound. If he is wounded, the next strongest will challenge him. The hounds can send fear telepathically and then bring down their pray, no matter if it’s a man or an animal. Stark survived the fear sent to him because he’s not a civilized man; he was able to reach inside for strength to endure it. The hounds can also communicate with him and some others telepathically.
The female characters are very much sidelined this time. Men decide the fate of their cultures through swords.
The ending gives some closure but it’s clear that the story continues.