Firmly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition of sword and sorcery adventures on Mars, Leigh Brackett flips the John Carter story on its head by making her hero, Matthew Carse, an interplanetary archaeologist in the distant future who, through some mystical force, is transported millions of years into the past. The Mars he winds up in is vastly different from the dusty world of dry sea beds and ruined cities he knows. Here, the seas of Mars are brimming and roamed by slave galleys while the empire of Sark and the realm of the Sea-Kings are locked in an uneasy stalemate.
Matt Carse winds up in this ancient world after being guided to the tomb of the legendary Rhiannon, a renegade god who was walled up for giving advanced technology to mortals. Carse is sucked through space and time and finds himself in a savage age with only Rhiannon’s fabled sword to defend himself with. Falling in with a rotund thief called Boghaz, the pair are soon captured and placed on the slave galley of Lady Ywain of Sark. Recognizing the sword, Ywain demands to know where Carse got it. He responds by initiating a mutiny and taking her hostage, thus upsetting the fragile balance of power between the Sarks and the Sea-Kings. Things are further complicated by the revelation that Carse has been possessed by the spirit of Rhiannon who seeks to right the wrongs done an age ago.
Originally published as ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories in June, 1949, the story was retitled for paperback release in 1953 as an Ace Double D-36 along with Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror. An individual Ace paperback followed later that year. Leigh Brackett’s career was an interesting mix of planetary romance and hardboiled noir. Her first novel was the 1944 Chandler-esque detective story No Good from a Corpse which earned her a job helping adapt Chandler’s The Big Sleep to the screen. Other screenwriting credits include Rio Bravo (1969) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Unfortunately her death in 1978 prevented her from seeing the Star Wars sequel to fruition and it is debatable how much of her work ended up on screen.
Borrowing as much from Robert E. Howard as Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Sword of Rhiannon is a breezy 128 pages of fast-paced action and vivid settings although not without the occasional moments of deep contemplation. Published in the post-war wasteland between the end of the pulp era and the beginning of the sword and sorcery renaissance spearheaded by Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp and the other members of SAGA, The Sword of Rhiannon harkened back to the planetary romances of Burroughs while heralding a new era of sword and sorcery writing.