Returning to the books we enjoyed decades ago is fun. Trust me on that, even if you haven’t got the decades under your belt yet.
Recently, for the first time in 30 years, I raced through The Lord of the Rings (although I had read it eight times, starting in 8th grade) and I cried. All the Harry Potter books still keep me up, muttering “one more page, just one.” Then there’s A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, with gorgeous descriptions that I never appreciated the first time through, and Secret History by Donna Tartt–which my book club has not quite forgiven me for but which I loved as much as I did in the 90s.
From the internet–I wish I still had my copy but I don’t.
The Witches of Karres is the book that hooked me on science fiction, somewhere around seventh grade. It was published in 1966, and I bought or was given this edition back then, along with a similarly designed copy of Past Master and one other tome that is lost to time. Both books are considered classics now, but try finding someone who’s read them lately. Just try.
The plot: In a vast and populous universe at some vast, unspecified future (we are told that 300,000 years ago, everything was back on old Yarthe) Pausert, a small time freighter captain, ends up saving three kids from slavery–and as they have magical powers, they end up saving him from the dull life he would have returned to on his plodding old planet, Nikkeldepain. Our captain and Goth, one of the children, zoom from adventure to adventure, stopping at pirate worlds, relling vatches, and daring the unknown and frightening passage of the Chaladoor while evading cannibalistic aliens, double agents of the Empire, and encroaching worm-like invaders.
The story contains elements that would show up in both Star Trek and Star Wars later. There’s a bit of Han Solo in Captain Pausert, whom we must imagine is handsome because he is, after all, blond. He’s enough of a lug and a goofball to be endearing, but he’s also brave and seems to have an innate affinity for the magical forces that the witches of Karres wield so ably. (I will bet you anything that George Lucas read this book in the 60s too.)
I wondered if The Witches of Karres could possibly be as entertaining as I thought it was. I’d read it, after all, in my twelfth year. My reading up till then consisted of fairy tales, biographies of saints and heroes, and my mother’s collection of Earl Stanley Gardner mysteries, along with a few teenage romances–but let me assure you that teenage romances in the mid-60s peaked with a tender kiss at the end, nothing more. My entertainment demands were not high, and I was a sci-fi virgin.
I was seduced, big time, and I’ve never gotten over it. Sci-fi, for me, is best when the science blurs into magic–thanks to James H. Schmitz and this one-trick pony of a book. (Other authors, Mercedes Lackey among them, have written sequels, but Schmitz never returned to these characters.) Would I still be dazzled?
Yes. Big time. Thrilled, on the level of finding photos of your favorite Christmas that you thought had been lost forever.
I recalled scenes and lines so clearly. I remember being the kid who read those lines for the first time. The kid who, if you must know, had a new mini-length hot pink jumper in thick double-knit polyester, and two psychedelic-patterned nylon shirts to wear with it. I was that chic. The kid who dreamed of dating Davy Jones. I also owned a set of Slicker frosted lipsticks in pale shades that horrified my mother, she said, because they made me look dead. I thought that was cool, and the only Goth I’d ever heard of back then was the little witch in the book.
But that’s me. Addressing the book as a 21st century reviewer, let me assure you that the story moves fast, there’s action and magic on every page, and the characters feel real, as real as Kirk or Leia.
As a writer, I notice that there are darn few adjectives. Schmitz learned English as a young man; his native language was German. I do not know if that plays into his prose, but how refreshing to not see a list of descriptive words before every noun: handsome, svelte, graceful, lovely, striking, piercing, blue, green, whatever. Instead we see action. “Something small and lean and bonelessly supple, dressed in dark jacket and leggings, came across the thick carpets of Wansing’s store and stood behind the captain. This one might be about nine or ten.” That’s our first view of Goth. “Her nose was short and her chin was pointed.” Even if you don’t like passive voice, it makes a nice change here.
In the new edition of the book, Eric Flint is listed as Editor. I don’t know what his contribution is but have to assume it’s sizable, since his name is on the cover. As I’m recognizing scenes and dialogue from nearly fifty years ago, I’m guessing he may have cut less memorable parts of the book out and tightened things up. Whatever he did, though, was not intrusive. The fun and innocence of the book I remember is all here.
Anyone who likes science fiction will like this book, I think, as well as anyone who likes fantasy. It’s especially appropriate for those of us who are weary of novels that morph into series, or of dystopian futures that revolve around achingly beautiful young women and the gorgeous heroes who love them.
Sorry, did I start to rant?
The Witches of Karres is highly recommended. Just relax and have fun.