Saturday 29 June 2013

The Witches of Karres, by James H Schmitz: The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Free

James H Schmitz is one of my favourite authors. Between the 1940s and the 1970s he wrote a large number of short stories and several, mostly short, novels. His fiction is characteristically light-hearted, fast-paced, amusing and entertaining. It straddles the SF/fantasy genres, can be equally enjoyed by adults and younger readers, and (unusually for the time and genres) features female characters who are at least as strong and interesting as the men. There is an innocent optimism about his stories which signifies an earlier age, one in which you know that the good guys will win out in the end and the bad guys get their just desserts. It is unthinkable that Schmitz would ever kill off one of his heroes or heroines; tragedy has no place in his writing. All of this makes his fiction perfect escapism, a kind of literary comfort food, a guilty pleasure. Yes, we know life will never be like that really, but it's fun to pretend for a while.

The Witches of Karres (first published in 1966) is my favourite among his novels, and is unusual in being relatively long. It is a major extension of one of his first stories (with the same title) published as a novella in 1949. As usual with this author, it is set in a far future in which humanity has spread across many planets in a substantial part of the galaxy. This tells the story of Captain Pausert, an amiable young man entrusted with piloting a spaceship on a mission from his home planet to sell a large quantity of unwanted goods. His task is almost completed when he rescues a young female slave from an abusive owner. One thing leads to another and he soon finds that he has purchased three young sisters. But these are not ordinary girls; they are from Karres, the witch world, and skilled in manipulating klatha – the universal force which powers witchcraft. This is the start of a whole series of adventures in which Pausert and his feisty and formidable young allies face multiple threats and problems as a result of attracting the attention of some powerful and dangerous organisations, with the survival of civilisation being ultimately at stake.

The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Free, is a direct sequel to The Witches of Karres, but was written long after James Schmitz's death in 1981, being published in 2004. It follows on from the point at which Witches stops (in effect, both books form one long novel) and makes a rather slow, box-ticking start as the first part is scattered with little infodumps to bring readers who have forgotten Witches up to speed. Once that's out of the way the pace picks up with a new and even deadlier enemy to humanity emerging. That doesn't stop the authors from indulging in some diversions such as a prolonged stay at a circus in which the hero group get involved in playing Shakespeare (circuses and Shakespeare seeming suspiciously like somebody's pet enthusiasms). We also learn a lot more about the Nartheby sprites, the humanoid alien race which once dominated their section of the galaxy, while Captain Pausert obtains rather mixed results from his growing but erratic klatha powers.

The authors make a good fist of matching Schmitz's light and amusing writing style and they pack in enough new ideas to keep readers involved and entertained; I read the 450-page book in just three sessions. These stories are rather silly, of course, but great fun. Since finishing Wizard I've learned that a third book was published in 2010, The Sorceress of Karres, this time written only by Eric Flint and Dave Freer, but an initial report on it is lukewarm so I might pass on that one.


Fred said...

Bring back yesterday. I had forgotten about Schmitz and the Witches. I remember little about the stories except that it was an enjoyable read. Just discovered that I still had a copy of the Witches in fairly decent shape. I just might dust it off and travel back in time a few centuries.

I also found a copy of his Agent of Vega, about which I remember absolutely nothing.

Good Review. I may look into the sequel, but I usually avoid sequels written long after the original work, regardless of whether it was written by the author or somebody else. They always or most always are disappointing .

Anthony G Williams said...

I generally agree with you about long-delayed sequels, especially by other authors, but Wizard is surprisingly good.

I think I have just about everything that Schmitz wrote, including Agent of Vega, but it's so long since I read it that the cover blurb rang no bells.

Bill Garthright said...

Schmitz is one of my favorites, too, and so is Eric Flint. I enjoyed The Wizard of Karres, but only mildly. But I can't imagine that I would have liked any sequel better.

At Flint's website, he posts 'snippets' of these books - nearly half the book, sometimes - before they're published. So I read much of The Sorceress of Karres there. It wasn't bad, but I really wasn't interested in continuing.

But I still think the original 1949 novelette was the best. :)

Anthony G Williams said...

The novelette was the first version I read, but it was so long ago I don't recall exactly what was added for the novel.

It's usually the way that short stories are better, though. Take 'Flowers for Algernon', for instance. It was expanded into a good novel, but the original short story was perfectly crafted and one of the finest SF short stories ever written.

Bill Garthright said...

Yes, indeed, Tony. That's another good example.

Fred said...

I felt the same way about "Ender's War." The expanded novel was good, but the original short work was much better, much more tightly written.

Anthony G Williams said...

I didn't realise that was a short story! I read the novel when it came out, but didn't keep it.