“Black Amazon of Mars” appeared in its original form in Planet Stories, March 1951. It was later expanded into the short novel The People of the Talisman (1964). This post will review just the original version. I’ll save comparison of the two for another day.
The story starts with Eric John Stark accompanying a Martian companion, Camar, home to the city of Kushat just south of the northern polar ice cap. Camar is dying and wants to return a sacred talisman he stole. The talisman was left by the legendary Ban Cruach to protect the city from a danger in a canyon to the north known as the Gates of Death.
Camar dies in the opening scene of the story, but not before Stark promises to fulfill his quest. The talisman is a jewel. Stark puts it against his temple, sees strange visions that come straight from Ban Cruach’s mind, and takes it off. He hides the talisman in his belt and sets off for Kushat. It isn’t long before he runs into trouble.
Stark is captured by an army of outlaws who are on their way to lay siege to Kushat. Their leader, named Ciaran, dresses in black armor including a helmet that is never removed. Stark refuses to give up the talisman, which Ciaran wants in order to pass through the Gates of Death and secure whatever power is kept there. In a scene that reminded me of Conan’s crucifixion in Robert E. Howard’s “A Witch Shall be Born”, Stark is hung and tortured. In spite of this he manages to kill his chief tormentor and escape.This is hardly surprising as Brackett was a Howard fan.
He makes it to Kushat ahead the bandit army, but most of the people don’t believe there’s any danger. Only a young woman and her brother take his warning seriously. The bandits attack the next day, and of course they take the city. Stark and Ciaran are fighting when Ciaran’s helmet comes off, revealing Ciaran to actually be Ciara, a woman.
The woman on the cover of Planet Stories, to be exact. Reminds me of a certain warrior woman from Joiry. That cover is available as a poster, if you want one, BTW.
Ciara takes the city. Stark sneaks into her chamber that night. They form a truce. Before they can do anything, the young woman who had befriended Stark bursts into the chamber cursing Ciara because her brother has gone through the Gates of Death. Stark sets out in pursuit of the young man, and Ciara and her army set out in pursuit of Stark.
I’ll let you read the story for yourself to find out what happens. I read The People of the Talisman when I was in high school and didn’t remember much of it. (It was originally part of an Ace Double, with The Secret of Sinharat, also by Brackett, being the flip side. I read the Ballatine reprint entitled Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars.) So I pretty much came to the story fresh. I thoroughly loved it. There was a sense of doom and tragedy hanging over the city of Kushat. Brackett’s Mars has always been a melancholy place, haunted by past glories and forgotten empires.
There was also a hardboiled undercurrent running through things. Stark’s character is very much in the vein of Humphrey Bogart in his most famous roles, although they have no physical resemblance to each other. (Stark is black, something that is mentioned but not made a big deal of.) Ciara is a perfect blend of vulnerable woman, bandit leader, and femme fatale. This is another thing that appeals to me about Brackett’s writing.
My assessment is that “Black Amazon of Mars” is Brackett writing at the top of her game. She’s got a flawed but noble hero, a love interest/antagonist worthy of her hero, and an exotic setting with enough mystery and menace. The action is seasoned with the right balance of character development, philosophy, and exposition. This is the type of story I was drawn to when I was a teenager, and truth be told, it still is. Check this one out.