[originally posted here at Castalia House]
[Incidentally, Cirsova Publishing’s trade paperback of The Enchantress of Venus is out today.]
The Enchantress of Venus by Leigh Brackett appeared as the featured cover story in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories. This novella is the second (chronologically the 3rd) book in the original Eric John Stark Trilogy. While Stark is pretty badass, I’d only peg him as 4th level. Also of note, this may be the first Brackett story I’ve read without a highly erotic scene of strangulation!
I’d planned to talk a bit more about plot of The Enchantress of Venus, but unlike so many of the stories featured in Short Reviews, this one is readily available online and for free as a work in the public domain, so instead I’ll focus mainly on the Enchantress herself.
Eric John Stark has returned to Venus in search of his friend Helvi, who has gone missing while searching for his brother. Sensing that the pirates he’d been sailing the Red Seas of Venus with are going to pull a fast one on him and sell him into slavery, Stark dives into the thick red mists. What ensues is a compelling drama about the last of a decadent and inbred family, the Lhari, who rules over the pirate port and uses the labor of captive to excavate the ruins of a lost reptilian race at the bottom of the bay, where the secrets of an ancient life-shaping weapon supposedly rests.
Enchantress of Venus is a slow burn compared to some of Brackett’s other stories, but the atmosphere she creates is as thick as the gaseous seas. The Lhari, particularly Varra, the titular villainess, are delicious in their cruelty, not just to those they oppress, but to each other. While Ywain’s cruelty in Sword of Rhiannon stems from striving to be more like a man, the son her father didn’t have but needed to hold onto the empire, Varra’s cruelty comes from a place that is utterly feminine and biologically needy – the Lhari are dying out in no small part because they are horribly in-bred, as they look down on the other races and will not mix with them; Varra knows that if she’s to have any future as a ruler, it will not be as her cousin’s bride.
Varra sets her eyes on Stark when he is able to stare down her bloated and corpulent grandmother, the matriarch of the Lhari, who has condemned him to the life of a slave at the bottom of the bay where he will ‘find his friend’:
The girl sprang up. “Not yet, Grandmother! Keep him awhile.”
The cold, cruel eyes shifted to her. “And what will you do with him, Varra? Haul him about on a string, like Bor with his wretched beast?”
“Perhaps—though I think it would need a stout chain to hold him.” Varra turned and looked at Stark, bold and bright, taking in the breadth and the height of him, the shaping of the great smooth muscles, the iron line of the jaw. She smiled. Her mouth was very lovely, like the red fruit of the swamp tree that bears death in its pungent sweetness.
“Here is a man,” she said. “The first man I have seen since my father died.”
The two men at the gaming table rose, their faces flushed and angry. One of them strode forward and gripped the girl’s arm roughly.
“So I am not a man,” he said, with surprising gentleness. “A sad thing, for one who is to be your husband. It’s best that we settle that now, before we wed.”
Varra nodded. Stark saw that the man’s fingers were cutting savagely into the firm muscle of her arm, but she did not wince.
“High time to settle it all, Egil. You have borne enough from me. The day is long overdue for my taming. I must learn now to bend my neck, and acknowledge my lord.”
Yowzah! At this point, the gauntlet is thrown down – Stark has his first chance to fight Egil for the evil dame, but he’ll take a pass – after all, she’s evil.
Varra looked straight at Stark. “Will you fight for me?” she demanded.
Quite suddenly, it was Stark’s turn to laugh. “No!” he said.
Varra harries her groom-to-be with her falcon (yes, she is a falconer) in retaliation for his abuse; she wrecks his shit pretty hard. Naturally this is to show Varra’s own strength juxtaposed with the weakness of her ‘man’; not only can Egil not keep his woman in line without resorting to laying his hands on her, he can’t even keep her bird from pecking the crap out of him! But she doesn’t turn her bird on Stark. Why? “You would kill it.” she says. Stark is a man who could stand up to her, challenge her and her authority, and she would thereby be able to exert her authority further through his strength if she could properly bend it. A strong man would do a lot for a woman he cared about, and Varra knows it.
After the awkward and violent display, Varra asks Stark what he thinks of her proud family. Stark responds in the typical fashion of a Brackett protagonist:
He caught her to him suddenly and kissed her, holding her slim strong body as though she were a doll. He was in no hurry to set her down. When at last he did, he grinned and said, “Was that what you wanted?”
“Yes,” answered Varra. “That was what I wanted.”
Needless to say, at this point, Egil has no choice but to take out his frustration with his own relationship on Stark. Varra NEEDS a strong man to ensure her powers hold, and she’s made it clear that while Egil is certainly not going to do the trick, this Stark may fit the bill. Now, it’s important to remember Varra’s not planning on becoming some tamed “Mrs. Stark” – her power and ambitions are purely matriarchal. When she comes to Stark in the slave pits with her offer to rule by her side if he will help her kill her male family members, Varra gives up her real reason: “Our children will rule after us, and they’ll be men.”
She has objectified Stark! The man is merely a means to an end – securing her own authority and ensuring that she can have children who will be capable of maintaining her authority into her old age. This is in stark ::rimshot:: contrast to Zareth, the much abused daughter of the pirate Malthor. Zareth is a character described by Wikipedia as “a “stupid” and weak feminine character” whose “role is very much like most other females during this time that of a repressed figure and lack of “Feminist literary criticism”. Yet she is the counterpoint to Varra not because she’s weak or because she’s feminine or because she’s good, the “Madonna” to the “Whore”. No. While Varra sees Stark as dumb muscle and baby juice to secure her rule, it is Zareth who sees Stark as a fellow human in no small part because he was the first to see and treat her as a fellow human. Neither sees the other as a means to an end.
The Enchantress of Venus is a beautiful, fabulous and absolutely heart-rending adventure tale with its fair share of action and romance crammed into 40ish magazine pages. So if you haven’t already, click that link up there at the top and read it for free.