Excellent narrative weaving, obvious conclusion (4/5)
I’ve now read as many Brunner novels as there are in the English alphabet—for the less literate, that number is twenty-six—, nineteen of which are still on my shelves. That’s a pretty good keep-rate: better than A.E. van Vogt (6 of 10), a lot better than Frederik Pohl (9 of 18) and a hell of a lot better than Jack McDevitt (2 of 10) and Robert Silverberg (1 of 5). I’m a sucker for Brunner but he’s not infallible. This is my chief worry—that I may pick up a dud—whenever I chose to read a new Brunner novel; though the disappointment rate is low, it’s like a sword through my chest each time. The cover and synopsis of The Avengers of Carrig felt like the tip of that sword was already piecing the skin, waiting to be plunged hilt-deep.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Once the city of Carrig stood supreme on this planet that had been settled by space refugees in the distant, forgotten past. From every corner of this primitive lost world caravans came to trade—and to view the great King-Hunt, the gruesome test by which the people of Carrig chose their rulers.
Then from space came new arrivals. And with them came their invincible death guns and their ruthless, all-powerful tyranny.
Now there would be no King-Hunt in Carrig, or hope for the planet-unless a fool-hardy high-born named Saikmar and a beautiful Earthling space-spy named Maddalena, could do the impossible…”
The inaptly named planet Fourteen is one of many populated by the displaced people of a once known system named Zarathustra. When that system’s sun exploded eight hundred years ago, a diaspora on an epic scale flung its people across all of space in hopes that they could settle new planets and have fresh beginnings. Earth and its Corps Galactica have known about the planet’s fate and have been safekeeping the population of each from marauding pirates bent on forcing them into slavery. The inhabits worlds from the Zarathustra diaspora tend to be backwater simple places with flourishing trade routes pulled by indigenous animals and a social hierarchy topped by kings and lords. When left untouched, each planet would have developed its own culture, its own technology, and its own destiny; when zealous marauders bring their superior technology to such a place, they tend to make themselves kings.
The yearly king-hunt in the planet’s largest city, Carrig, is a festival where the winner becomes the “legal lord of Carrig” (40). The status of Lord is the highest attainable title available to the people of Carrig with the title of King reserved for the winged creature which resides in the steamy, pocked landscape of the volcanic mountain range near Carrig. In the king-hunt, manned gliders take to the sky riding the currents of warm air in order to battle with the parradile (a pterodactyl-like creature), the King of which is the largest. When someone eventually strikes it down, he becomes the new Lord.
For the last eighteen years, no one has been able to slay the King—an unheard of streak which raises the suspicion of many participants. The most hopeful participant in the nearly king-hunt is Saikmar son of Corrie, a cherubic-faced man most favored by bookies in the city. Rumor is that the current Lord has been spiking soporific drinks for the most favored hunter, so Saikmar vigilant in the lead-up to the hunt. The Lord has a touch of guilt for having let the King grow too large to kill and for allowing himself to reign for the last eighteen years, so he will allow the hunt to continue without his intervention, a move which will usher in a new Lord, supplanting him.
As the participants gather, Saikmar stands proud. However, one man who had recently come to the city in a caravan—coinciding with the murder of its head trader and the burning of his house—one man seems more arrogant than all the others. Claiming himself to be a southerner, none are convinced of the interlopers origin, but the rules allow outsiders to participate in the king-hunt. As the king-hunt commences, excitement grips the city of Carrig as the King swoops from its cave—the king-hunt has just begun… until a white glider-shaped vehicle shoots down the King with one strike of its fierce lightening weapon. The King has been slain and a new Lord must be crowned.
An Corps agent on Planet Fourteen—the same trader who was killed by the “southerners”—has been out of contact for a while, so Corps decide to send a replacement. Maddalena Santos may be one the smartest recruits of her base, but she also has one the most displeasing attitudes, making her an outcast even amid her colleagues. When Commandant Brzeska needs to choose one of his crew for the solitary mission, Maddalena’s poor attitude and her knownledge of languages make her he perfect candidate. She and Patrol Major Langenschmidt jump across space to Planet Fourteen, but are instantly attacked by a trigger-happy pilot in orbit which sends the two of them and their craft crashing to the ground. Having ejected, Maddalena trudges through the snow in search of shelter or Langernschmidt… whichever comes first.
Meanwhile, Saikmar is depressed about this stolen chance to win the king-hunt for his clan. Thinking himself a refugee, he flees Carrig for a winter’s stay at a northern sanctuary built into well-aged hull of the diaspora which had brought them to the planet they now call home. Before the sanctuary seals itself for the winter, Saikmar climbs in the frigid hills where he find a solitary parradile making itself a nest. Native to the tropical south and the steamy Smoking Hills of Carrig, the parradile is unaccustomed to a winter. Each day, he visits the beast; normally, the parradiles are feared for taking children and cattle, but this parradile is different—it exhibits intelligence. One day, Saikmar discovers the parradile had brought back a beautiful woman, who the parradile had saved from the lethal cold.
Flown back to the sanctuary by the parradile, the two settle in for the long winter. Maddaladen concocts a story about being from the south, but not everyone is sure of her origins. She is curious to find the ship’s reactors still working, creating channels of steam for heating and cooking. When she finds a passageway leading to a reactor-warmed room, she sees an ancient device used for making nutritional food in bulk. Savvy with such technology, the machine starts after centuries of disrepair, much to the reverent amazement of the sanctuary’s head priestess, Nyloo. When things begin to settle down, one event shocks them more than the rediscovery of food processing—the coming of the same mountain parradile.
Truth eventually reaches the Corps: The victor with amazing powers is actually a citizen of another system (Cyclops) who making slaves of Planet Fourteen in order to mine the heavy metals from the Smoking Hills, which he and his cohorts ship back to their planet. Combining their knowledge, Saikmar and Maddaladen unhatch a plan to bring down the nefarious Lord, but he might usurp himself from this throne with his poor understanding of the local people; they EXPECT a king-hunt every year and the new Lord is unwilling to fulfill their demands—anyway, he had already chased out all the parradiles because of their interfering with his mining. Either way, his end is near.
There are two aspects to this novel which, in many other instances, usually turn me off: (1) the medieval way of the life of the townsfolk, the importance of the titles such as Lord, and anything that resembles a dragon/pterodactyl; and (2) the far-reaching strength of a central organization tasked with secretly maintaining that statuses of entire planets. The former is often shared with many fantasy novels and the latter often found in early pulp SF; combine the two and the result should be unreadable—not so.
The weave of the two stories—Saikmar and Maddaladen—is a little too coincidental for the story’s length. Their meeting felt forced, but the unfolding of the story from the halfway point on is quite good, a pace matched with Fourteen’s history, more background about the Zarathustra diaspora, more depth to the culture of the Carrig, and an interesting turn of events regarding the parradiles. So, if the reader can ignore the coincidental affairs, the rest of the book is an excellent course of events… until the conclusion, which felt obvious every step of the way.
The Avengers of Carrig is the second book in a three-book series which explores the diaspora of Zarathustra through the eyes of three cultures of those affected. The first book in the series, Polymath (1974), highlights one ship’s inability to cope with the settlement on their new planet, even with the polymath on aboard. The third novel, The Repairmen of Cyclops (1965), I haven’t read it but it MAY crossover with some of the information about Cyclops found in The Avengers of Carrig: the planet has a very poor content of heavy metals and relies on imported metals from the asteroids and from other systems, yet without the metals they must make due… something along those lines.
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading “Secret Agent of Terra” (1962) from which this book is expanded. At least the novel-length version of the story has a better title! This is yet another addition to my ever expanding Brunner library, one of which will eventually, fingers crossed, come across all of Brunner’s greats and no more of his dreary flops… again, fingers crossed because, even as one of his biggest fans, I know Brunner isn’t immune from producing drivel.