The Sword of Rhiannon was originally published under the title “The Sea-Kings of Mars” in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. I’m not sure if the story was expanded for book publication. I can certainly understand the change of title. The Mars in this story is an ancient Mars that still contains plenty of water, not the dry and dusty global desert of Brackett’s other works.
The story opens with Matt Carse, who is sort of an Indiana Jones type archaeologist but with less ethics, being lured to a cavern on present day Mars. A two bit thief has found the millennia lost cavern in which the god Rhiannon was imprisoned. (This Rhiannon has no connection to the witch from Welsh mythology.) Rhiannon is something of a Prometheus figure, punished by the other gods because he gave advanced technology, specifically weapons, to some of the early Martian races.
When Carse wants most of the proceeds from the find, the thief pushes him into what turns out to be a passage back through time. When Carse comes out, he finds himself on a Mars where there is still plenty of water and Rhiannon is a recent historical figure rather than a name passed down through the mists of time. He happens to have a very distinctive sword with him that he brought from the chamber that had belonged to Rhiannon.
Carse soon ends up as a slave on a galley that is owned by a beautiful but frigid princess. She’s accompanied by a creature in a long robe that is one of the secret masters of the ocean. It doesn’t take him long to convince them that he’s Rhiannon returned fix the problems he caused.
I’ll not go into all the twists, turns, and rebellions in this story. If you want a tale that races along at a breakneck pace without sacrificing characterization, atmosphere, or poetic beauty in its language, this is one for you. I read it in less than a day while on a trip, much of it on planes.
I thought it interesting that Brackett chose to return to the ancient past on Mars. That was probably because none of the worlds she had established in her earlier works would have worked for the story she wanted to tell. There are multiple races of men, martian, and other. Brackett gives us glimpses of many of them, but there was enough unexplored for other books. For some reason she didn’t write more in this setting.
Still, what she did write was top-notch. Few writers could characterize or establish a mood as economically and effectively as Brackett could. Carse is a complex character, not simply a cutout. The supporting cast come across as individuals. One of the questions I had until the end was which princess he was going to end up with, although I had a pretty good idea.
If you like pulp adventure, check this one out. It’s available from Baen in a variety of ebook formats under the original title, The Sea-Kings of Mars. In fact, much of Brackett’s work is available in ebook form from Baen. Check the titles, though, because the covers all have the same illustration.
This was the first time I’d read The Sword of Rhiannon/ The Sea-Kings of Mars. I’m not sure why I haven’t read this one before. I’ve had a copy of the Ace paperback for years. I’ll definitely be rereading this one.