So I did do a half-baked kind of review of this book a couple years ago. Thing is, this new review isn’t going to be much better.
It’s difficult to review a book that is…pretty much perfect. I don’t think that I can make any substantive criticisms of this book. It’s tightly plotted, paced, characterized; the action scenes are swift, adept, exciting; and there’s a pervasive sense of wonder, adventure, and fun that You Just Don’t See Every Day. It’s got witches, space pirates, space battles, the dread overlord of a crime planet wearing a skullcap to protect him from psychic emanations, robot assassins, time travel (technically), creepy survival horror on an alien planet, rescuing little girls from slavery (and God help their former owners), fighting against the evil Empire, not being double-crossed by alien warlords, and quite a bit more.
I don’t think I have a single ill word to say about this book.
So what about the things that make it work?
Verisimilitude is one of them. I went into this review vaguely thinking that Schmitz was a Merchant Marine (he wasn’t, that may have been Jack Vance.) Nevertheless, his space ship battles, repair woes, difficulties with customs inspectors and uncleared merchandise—and the looming, inescapable fact that No One Reads The Regulations—rings very, very true. (Would the information on the witch-folk of Karres be under K? Or W?) The worlds feel worn and lived-in, in a way that can be most easily visualized as “Old-school Star Wars,” the floors scuffed and the corners dusty, the plas-leather of gunbelts worn and supple, the light of the suns overhead whiter and brighter than we see ourselves.
The other is an ethos that is pervasive to Schmitz’s oeuvre that took a few readings for me to define, and which may on that definition be one of the most endearing things about his work. It’s the spirit of the Golden Age of science fiction and space opera—the idea that to a competent and courageous man or woman, with a goal in their sights, a gun in their pocket, and their wits about them, nothing in the universe is impossible. It’s the idea that authority figures, up to and beyond the level of planetary governments, are competent, foresighted, and concerned with the safety as well as the benefit of their people.
Consider current media. Authority figures exist to oppose the heroes; to offer objections to /necessary but dangerous plot happenstances/–objections that may or may not have a basis in reality, but objections that do not come with solutions. They are then to be overridden and embarassed, or simply ignored (especially if the hero, as per the author, doesn’t have a better solution). Consider Top Gun: Maverick. It’s subtle, but it’s still there. At every step of the way, when plot, heroism, and human decency requires a daring (and dangerous, but also necessary) action, the Authority Figure objects.
In the opening of the movie, the Admiral shows up to obstruct Maverick from flying his super-duper fast plane. Why? So he could be shown up and proven wrong as Maverick buzzes him with a sonic boom. The Other Admiral objects to Maverick’s mission plan of flying the Death Star Trench (come on, lol), in under two minutes. Why? So he can be shown up and proven wrong. The Admiral refuses to lauch rescue to retrieve his downed fighters. Why? So he can be shown up and proven wrong. Why? So our heroes can look better. It’s a short-sighted view. An intelligent author would be able to draw a scenario where our heroes look good because they (and we the audience) know how difficult the task at hand is, know that all eyes and hopes are resting on them, know that everything powerful and capable allies can do to help has been done…and through timestorm and laser sword, have swon through.
Intelligent, thoughtful, competent authority figures do not exist in modern media. But once upon a time, back in the days when Man set foot on the moon, they kind of did. And they do here. Authority figures don’t reflexively oppose the heroes doing (random dangerous but necessary acts); they’re at the command post, weighing the pros and cons and providing the heroes with the information and armaments necessary to carry out those acts. After the fact, they may critique or praise, but they don’t actually ever forget that they are not the men in the arena.
Uh, what was I talking about? Oh yes, The Witches of Karres.
Look, it’s a really great book. If anybody in Hollywood had reading comprehension, we’d have had a Federation of the Hub Cinematic Universe decades ago.
Rated: The key word, it turned out, was “PROHIBITED.”
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