“The Sorcerer of Rhiannon” predates The Sea-Kings of Mars AKA The Sword of Rhiannon by seven years. Other than the word “Rhiannon” in the title, there doesn’t appear to be much connection between the two, at least on the surface. But the seeds of the later work can be seen in “Sorcerer” if one takes the time to look. Spoiler Alert for both stories.
In this story archeologist Max Brandon is searching for the mythical Lost Islands in one of the dry sea bottoms of Mars. He’s trying to outrace a lawman intent on arresting him, a rival from Venus intent on beating him to the find, and a woman intent on marrying him. Lost in a sandstorm, he stumbles upon the remains of an ancient ship. There he finds a room that has been sealed for ages and takes shelter in it.
The room isn’t empty, nor does it and the contents look as old as they must be. A man and a woman sit across a table from each other. About the man’s head is a metal band. The woman isn’t human, but Brandon recognizes her as a member of an extinct race called the Prira Cen. She’s wearing a golden girdle over a white tunic and a ring. The Prira Cen died out forty thousand years earlier when the Lost Islands were the dominant power on Mars. Both the man and the woman appear to be alive but in some sort of stasis.
On the table is a small bottle filled with an amber liquid. Half dead with thirst, Brandon drinks it and loses consciousness. When he wakes up, the man is a pile of dust and the woman is a skeletons and everything in the room is crumbling with age. Brandon takes the headband, the girdle, and the ring, along with a few instruments that haven’t decayed.
With that he stumbles out the door and across the desert. He soon comes to discover that he has been possessed by the spirit of Tobul, the man who was sitting in the cabin of the ship. Tobul shows Brandon how to survive because Tobul needs to get to Rhiannon, his name for what Brandon knows as the Lost Islands. There are weapons there in a vault, and Tobul wants them.
It’s not going to be that easy. The spirit of the Prira Cen woman, Kymra, has also been freed. And she and Tobul are mortal enemies. The love interest, the business rival, and the lawman will all show up before the final confrontation between Tobul and Kymra.
I found The Sea-Kings of Mars to be the far superior story. That’s not to say that “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon” isn’t a good story. It is. But it’s one Brackett wrote early in her career. The Sea-Kings of Mars is the work of a mature writer, one who had written screenplays for major motion pictures in Hollywood. It’s a much more complex and ambitious work, not to mention longer, piece of fiction.
While I doubt there’s any way to know with certainty, I suspect that Brackett drew on “Sorcerer” when writing Sea-Kings. Both stories have archeologists who are a bit shady as protagonists. Both concern the ancient past. In “Sorcerer”, people from the past come forward to the present, while in Sea-Kings, a man from the present travels to the past. In each story the archeologist is possessed by a person with superhuman if not god-like abilities. Each story has a vault that contains powerful weapons as a central point of the plot. The name “Rhiannon” is a key component of both stories, in one a city and in the other a person. And both archeologists are initially not interested (to put it mildly) in the women they end up with at the end of the story.
I can’t help but think Brackett, consciously or subconsciously, used elements from “Sorcerer” when writing Sea-Kings. I tend to lean towards the former more than the latter. For one thing, there weren’t many reprint markets available in the 1940s. “Sorecerer” was an early story that Brackett probably didn’t expect to ever see the light of day again. She certainly never included it in any of the collections she had published during her lifetime. And I suspect the name change from Sea-Kings of Mars to Sword of Rhannon was done at her publisher’s insistence when Sea-Kings was published in paperback in the 1950s. But that’s just a guess on my part.
So to conclude, “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon” is a good, second tier Brackett story, and one that is definitely worth reading. But it doesn’t rise to the level of, say, “Lorelei of the Red Mist“, “The Moon That Vanished”, “The Last Days of Shandakor” or “The Enchantress of Venus”.
Even though it was published in 1942, according to the ISFDB, “Sorcerer of Rhiannon” wasn’t reprinted until 2002 when Stephen Haffner included it in Martian Quest: The Early Brackett. This volume is out of print, but the limited edition is still available. A quick check showed that copies of the regular edition on the secondary market are almost as much as the limited edition. “Sorcerer of Rhiannon” has since appeared in Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories (Gollancz, UK) and is still available in the ebook Martian Quest from Baen. Sea-Kings of Mars is available in ebook format from Baen as well.