The Nemesis from Terra, or, in what I suppose is its original and much better title, Shadow over Mars, was Leigh Brackett’s first science fiction novel…wow. That simultaneously explains the slight discrepancies between this and her other Martian works, and is really impressive for a SF debut. Incidentally, excuse the slight incoherence. No coffee. Also spoilers will be casually dropped.
It’s a short work, less than 150 pages, and I finished it in under an hour.
The story is fairly straightforward: ambitious Ed Fallon and his enigmatic, brutal henchman Jaffa Storm own and run the Company that is eventually going to take over Mars. They aren’t gentle about it, either. Rick–Richard Urquhart–is introduced running for his life against Venusian anthropoid press gangs. He flees into a Martian house and is confronted by a creepy old woman who reads his future: that he is destined to cast his shadow over Mars–and then tries to kill him. Rick kills her and escapes the house, but is promptly caught by Jaffa Storm’s anthropoids and dragged to slave in the Company mines.
Meanwhile, for the people of Mars, their boy-king Haral and his grim and gallant general Beudach, the wind is rising….
The plot is straightforward–rebel-revenge-rescue-ride off into the sunset (or the Space-sunset)–with a few twists that are, while welcome qua twists, also quite straightforward. For instance, when it is revealed that Jaffa Storm has psychic abilities and has been using them to keep very close tabs on Rick, all the way up to the point at which the united masses are about to storm the Company compound, Rick doesn’t consider obfuscation. He merely changes his mind at the last minute and does something slightly different. It’s not unexpected for a hero to outmatch a villain with his wits, but something a little cleverer is usually expected. Not to complain about the end result–ramming an airship into an enemy compound to bring down the shield is a time-honored and worthy procedure. Ask Star Wars.* But it is a slightly less than clever solution.
Unusually with Brackett, the Martian setting does not wholly steal the show. If this was her first novel (I’m not bothering to dig and find out if she had other short stories/novellas in the setting before), this is understandable. This Mars isn’t choked with the dust of a billion years of human life, weary, sensual, wicked, barbaric, noble, and brutal, the haunt of Eric John Stark (who can be best and most accurately be described as Space Tarzan), resting place of Ban Cruach, warrior, god, and king, a million years guardian at the Gates of Death; the citadels of forbidden Shandakor and Jekkara of crumbling walls.
It comes close, mind you, and all of that atmosphere is there–but it’s slightly to the background and submerged against more modern concerns and more modern men–like Hugh St.-John (the guy who ends up running Mars after Rick’s shadow gets up and moves on) and his wonderfully pragmatic native sidekick (who melts the ancient and sacred relic of his people to get it off Rick and Rick out of their hair).
The characters are usually not the most interesting part of the pulp novel, but in this one they do well. Rick is a man who awakens from lifelong slumber and finds that he is great, capable of mighty deeds, casting a long shadow…but he’s not necessarily a good man–and the people around him know it.
Mayo McCall is a girl who epitomizes the pulp dichotomy (and there is a sentence I didn’t expect to see before coffee): a beautiful, smart, strong woman who influences the political and moral actions of the plot because of her own convictions, who is physically capable and hugely courageous and nevertheless still spends a chunk of the book as a damsel in distress. I’d say it was genius at work, but then again, at no point does she also end up scantily-clad, so it misses being a perfect tenner.
Jaffa Storm is an excellent antagonist: fearless, ruthless, as smart as and more prepared than the hero–and physically stronger and more capable. There is a real sense of menace whenever he’s around, but at the same time he’s easy to root for. A scene of him stalking the streets to slaughter the secret war-council of the Martian king–alone–at the dead of night–while bystanders slink away or bolt their doors–was really thrilling.
Even the minor characters–boy-king Haral, who summons up the rebellion to rise over Mars with a political savvy beyond his years; his loyal general, the wolflike Beudach, whose last moments are filled with a desperate nobility and dignity that makes him vie for spot of the most memorable character; Llaw the insane and vengeful dwarf–are clearly delineated and written.
I’m out of time.
tl;dr: Rick rises to revenge and rebel on Mars. Not all of Mars wants him to.
Rated: Four and a half ancient cities out of five. Good book. Read it.
* This review was written before The Last Jedi. This review does not constitute an acknowledgment of any sort that The Last Jedi did anything well. This review would prefer to take the stance that The Last Jedi does not exist. Anyhoo, Leigh Brackett rocks.