Was Lin Carter on a one-man mission to confirm Sturgeon’s Law?
I keep reading Lin Carter books thinking he’ll exceed my expectations and finally deliver a story really worth reading. It’s strange because he certainly had a knack as an editor for selecting excellent stuff in anthologies and recovering forgotten classics. But his original stories — despite his constant, awkward self-promotion — always seem like poor imitations.
He tried to write almost every sub-genre of sci-f and fantasy. Here, he’s imitating Edgar Rice Burroughs (or actually, he’s imitating Leigh Brackett imitating Edgar rice Burroughs!) with a third rate planetary romance. The hero, Ryker, is a brawny thief, and while the convention in this sort of thing is to leave the protagonist relatively two-dimensional, Carter manages to make pretty much everyone in the novel uninteresting. The setting of course is Mars, though Carter slightly bucks convention by having the planet colonized by Earthlings who have Columbused the planet and displaced the Martians. Ryker is a criminal, exiled to Mars and living on the borders of Earthling and Martian society until he inadvertently rescues a trio of outcasts and tries to help them flee to their home city far to the north (or perhaps outside the world entirely). We never really get an explanation of how they arrived in the city that Ryker starts off in, nor why they were so far from home, and the story becomes a series of cliffhangers and narrow escapes in the Burroughs’ tradition. Except the Martian world just feels like a pastiche of Burroughs and his imitators, and the characters almost to a one fail to be interesting, even the villains. (I think he tries to create something original here, but simply isn’t up to the job of envisioning an interesting, reasonably consistent world. Half-way through the book a footnote points the reader to another of his Martian novels, indicating his dedicated, but hamfisted world-building.)
The final chapters have some promise, right up until the horrible deus-ex-machina ending. This is almost redeemed by some zombie vengeance, which was an unexpected twist, but page after page of boring monologue at the end makes this adventure end with a whimper.
Two out of five stars, mainly for some inventive scenes and action. (I do begin to wonder if Carter’s books would be more enjoyable for me if I read more of his source material — I have only read a few Burroughs novels and one by Brackett. Maybe aficionados of pulp genre fiction will find crafty homages and allusions to other works?)
Confession: I realized, as I neared finishing this book, that I actually have two copies of exactly the same edition of this. I was looking for a small, light paperback to take on a camping trip and pulled out a second copy from my shelf. One is in really good condition, and the one I read was more beat-up, but they are identical. I must have picked them up at different times. I think both are going to be donated back to the library book sale.