Ace Double Reviews, 15: People of the Talisman, by Leigh Brackett/The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett (#M-101, 1964, $0.45, reissued in 1971 as #75781, $0.95)
by Rich Horton

These are Leigh Brackett's two Eric John Stark stories set on Mars. She wrote one other Stark story, "Enchantress of Venus" (aka "City of the Lost Ones"), published in the Fall 1949 Planet Stories. (The alert reader will guess that it was set on Venus.) It was a bit shorter, and it's collected in The Halfling and Other Stories. In the 1970s, she wrote three Stark novels set on a planet of another star, called Skaith.

People of the Talisman is an expansion of "Black Amazon of Mars", which appeared in the March 1951 Planet Stories. (Another story in that issue is one of the all-time classic "Brackett-like" Mars stories, Poul Anderson's "Duel on Syrtis".) The original story is about 23,000 words long, the expansion about 38,000 words. The Secret of Sinharat is an expansion of "Queen of the Martian Catacombs", which appeared in the Summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories. The original is about 21,000 words, and the expansion is to some 28,000 words. I have seen it asserted, both on the web and in the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, that the 1964 expansions were actually done by Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton. I don't know if this is true (Clute actually writes "reported expanded for book publication by Edmond Hamilton"), though Hamilton did contribute a brief biographical note on Brackett to the Ace Double edition.

I had previously read the Ace Double versions of these stories, and for this review I read the Planet Stories versions, with an eye to comparison. This was rather interesting. The Secret of Sinharat is a modest expansion, concentrated in the last couple of chapters, with some changes to incident (a character Stark kills in the original is killed by the villainess in the expansion), and with a slight alteration to the concluding message from the heroine to Stark. The changes in People of the Talisman are much more extensive, and they start earlier. Many of the basic elements of the story are the same, but there are radical changes. The nature of the aliens encountered in the closing chapters is wholly different. The ending is completely different. The motivations, and the final decision, of the heroine are radically different (and her hair color changes as well!) It's pretty much a complete rewrite from about the third chapter on. I would say that both People of the Talisman and "Black Amazon of Mars" are worth reading on their own.

People of the Talisman opens with Eric John Stark trying to reach the city of Kushat with a dying Martian. The Martian confesses with his last breath that he stole a powerful talisman from the city, which guards the mysterious Gates of Death. Stark promises to return it. But on the way he is apprehended by raiders of Mekh, and their masked, black-armored leader, Ciaran. Stark escapes and makes his way to Kushat, where he warns the soft and skeptical populace of the dangerous raiders. When the raiders come, the defense is desperate but it fails, though Stark manages to unmask the leader -- and what he finds is not a surprise if you know the title of the original story. Here the two stories diverge wildly. In the first, a man Stark has befriended escapes to the Gate of Death, hoping to find a secret which will free the city from its conqueror. Stark knows that only evil waits behind those gates, and he follows, only to be followed himself by the beautiful Lady Ciara, the red-haired "Black Amazon" of the title. The three find evil indeed, and Stark must take a terrible risk to use the power of the talisman to free his friends and save Mars from the evil behind the gates. In the novel version, Stark and other city-dwellers plot to escape the city to the Gates of Death, where they believe the talisman Stark possesses may be the secret of freedom. They manage to capture their conqueror, the beautiful black-haired Lady Ciaran. But behind the Gates they again find evil creatures, though portrayed rather differently than in the shorter version. Stark again must vanquish these evil creatures, but the conclusion is quite different, as Lady Ciaran's motivations turn out to be not the same as in the original story.

It's fun and deeply colorful, quite original of its kind, and as I said both the short and long versions are well worth reading.

The Secret of Sinharat opens with Stark cornered by the Solar System law. He is offered a deal: to avoid prison, he must join the war-band of a prince called Kynon, who is apparently going to rain havoc on Mars if allowed to carry out his plans. Stark joins the band, not without making a couple of enemies among the other chief assistants to Kynon. He learns that Kynon claims to have discovered the ancient secret of mind transfer, by which an old man can become young again by transferring his mind to a young body. However, all this is a fraud. Stark still accompanies the war party, meeting a beautiful maidservant, and her fiery mistress, the pampered Queen to Kynon. He and the Queen are, by treachery, isolated during a sandstorm, and manage to survive by coming to the old city of Sinharat -- and their Stark learns another secret of the beautiful Queen. When the two return to the war band, he knows enough to deflect the plans of the war leader, but he must also deal with some more sinister creatures. As I said, the two versions of the story are largely the same, with fairly minor but not insignificant differences. The ending in particular ends up with Stark paired with the same woman -- but the woman's plans for Stark and her future are quite changed in the two versions. Again, a quite worthwhile and colorful adventure story.

I should note that while both stories are about the same person, and his character is consistent between the two, otherwise they are wholly independent, and there is no reason to regard them as being in any particular order timewise (though if you insisted you would probably put The Secret of Sinharat first), and indeed they really read as stories set in two different "futures".

(I was amused, too, by the covers to the Planet Stories issues. Both are by Allen Anderson, a rather lurid regular cover illustrator for the magazine. Both are quite faithful in that they actually illustrate scenes from the story. Both feature Eric John Stark, recognizably the same person. And both feature red-haired women as the most prominent figure. Only the later cover features an armored "bra", though, complete with shaped nipples (which seems wholly unlikely for any real world armor). That, by the way, is quite unfaithful to the story, as the armor was clearly intended to hide any evidence that its wearer was a woman. Anyway, they are pretty much prototypical Planet Stories covers, matching the magazine's reputation to a T.)