Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett originally appeared in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories. It can be read online here at Archive.org.
Black Amazon of Mars completes Brackett’s original trilogy of Stark stories. Black Amazon finds Stark on his way to the polar city of Kushat to fulfill the dying wish of his sword companion to return the ancient amulet of Ban Cruach to its home. Kushat was built by the ancient Martian warlord to stand guard over a pass known as The Gates of Death, and legend has it that his amulet protects the city from destruction-Stark must take the amulet back before disaster strikes the city.
Well, disaster does strike, but being a Brackett story, it strikes in the form of a tough dame. Ciara, the titular Black Amazon, is leading a host of Norland barbarians and plans on conquering the city of Kushat and possibly plunder the mysterious treasures beyond The Gates of Death. After a daring escape from the Norlanders, Stark fails to convince the lords of Kushat of their danger and discovers that the Death waiting beyond the Gates are a race of terrible Lovecraftian horrors that want to usher in another ice age but are kept at bay by Ban Cruach’s mummy and sword (a sci-magic microwave device that works kind of like the ray sabers from Maza of the Moon).
Like the other two Stark novellas, Black Amazon feature Stark and two women: the titular character and a woman of Kushat named Thanis. What is interesting to me is that, while these stories share this basic pattern, Brackett doesn’t retread with her female characters. While they share the function as Primemover and contrasting actor, these characters are all very different.
While Wikipedia makes the bizarre claim of Queen of the Martian Catacombs that “[Berild’s] role is not really central enough to name the story after her,” each of the early Stark stories are named for the woman without whom there is no story, no plot, no conflict. Berild shows up later in her story because she is a schemer and a plotter, acting from the shadows. Varra appears relatively early and is very straightforward about her motivations because of her confidence and vanity. Ciara appears early but is not revealed until midway through, because she is a complex mixture of strength and confidence with uncertainty.
Anderson’s iconic artwork, featuring a scene from one of the last chapters with Ciara and Stark fighting against tentacle monsters, is pretty spoilerific: while Ciara is wearing sexy lady armor in the picture, the twist is that Darth Vader is dame. The harsh and brutal warlord who gives a “join me and we shall rule the empire together, or you will die” speech to Stark in the opening chapters is revealed to be a woman when, during the siege of Kushat, Ciara’s helmet comes off as Stark tries to choke her (I KNEW Brackett would get to some choking eventually!)
Ciara is similar to Ywain from Sword of Rhiannon, but only at first glance. Rather than a woman openly taking on a masculine role, she is a woman posing as a man. She doesn’t believe that the Norland barbarian tribes would follow her if they knew she was a woman, so she keeps her identity a secret. She later admits that Stark unmasking her was a blessing: during the heat of battle and on the cusp of a great victory, the men of the Norlands see that it’s a woman who has been leading them – in the end, they don’t care that she’s a woman; she’s led them, fought with them, brought them great victories, and they’re willing to die for her, Lord Ciaran, Lady Ciara, it doesn’t matter.
Ciara is the one woman of the trio who has a ‘happy ending’. She may be the antagonist of the story in many ways, but she was the one woman who was able to temper her ambitions and desires with reality. Berild was a megalomaniac who desired godhood and empire. Varra’s desires were selfish and petty, far smaller in scale than Berild’s, but she was still willing to step on everyone to get what she wanted. Ciara realized that maybe unsealing an ancient evil race of tentacle monsters was a bad idea, so she accepted a role as an honored and (relatively) beloved warlord turned protector of civilization, using her strength and leadership to guard against the alien threat to the benefit of all Mars. Her secondary reward is a few pleasant evenings with an otherwise unobtainable man!
Thanis has a bit less impact in her role as ‘the other woman’, perhaps largely because, unlike Fianna, she does not have a direct connection to the titular lady, and she does not find herself in near as soul-crushingly hopeless a situation as Zareth. In fact, it’s her brother Balin who becomes a ‘dude in distress’ when his madness sends him beyond the Gates of Deaths and into the hands of the tentacle monsters. Thanis has a few moments of bluster, a passing interest in Stark and, unusual for this role, a lack of faith in him; though she sticks up for him when he first arrives in Kushat, just before Ciara attacks, even she has begun to doubt Stark’s dire warnings. Despite this, she gets a happier ending than most of Brackett’s ‘other’ women; she doesn’t die in the hero’s arms, like Zareth or Kyra, nor does she wander Mars to search for new meaning like Fianna. Thanis is allowed to be reunited with her brother and live as happily ever after as one can under the rule of the dame who conquered one’s city. She may accept Ciara’s heel-face-turn, or not, but to Ciara, it mostly matters that Stark accepted it.
All in all, Black Amazon of Mars was an excellent conclusion to the early Stark trilogy. A fate of the world apocalyptic crisis has been averted, the Norland barbarian tribes have a new role as protectors of the Gates of Death, and for at least a few more generations, no one is going to try to move the Sword of Ban Cruach because they’ll know the story of how the Man with No Tribe and the Warrior Queen of Kushat kept the polar tentacle monsters from escaping the ice cap and plunging Mars into an eternal winter.