The Hand of Zei by L. Sprague de Camp
The Hand of ZeiL. Sprague De Camp; Owlswick Press 1981Dirk Barnevelt writes copy for Igor Shtain, Inc. Shtain explores other worlds then returns to Earth and sells the story of his exploits. But Shtain is an explorer, not a story teller. Barnevelt’s job is to write up what happened. Right now Shtain is on Krisha – they think. Unfortunately, Shtain disappeared and possibly taken to the planet Krisha. Now someone has to go rescue him.
Barnevelt is a pencil pusher, ruled by his mother. His life is not exciting. When he is told he has to be part of the team going to Krisha, he objects. He knows his mother won’t let him. He knows that he’s not an explorer. He doesn’t want to dye his skin green and disguise himself. Yet he is convinced to be one of the two men to leave Earth for a rescue mission on Krisha. He is even able to avoid his mother as he slips off planet.
Once there Barnevelt becomes The Snyol of Pleshch and his laid back coworker George Tangaloa is disguised as well. They are two adventurers from a country on the southern part of the planet. They have to get out to the floating island where the pirates live. They believe they’ll find Shtain there.
In order to do that, Barnevelt and Tangaloa have to go to the country of Qirib. It has a matriarchal society with odd customs. The old queen is ready to step down in favor of her daughter; Zei will actually be a puppet ruler for her mother to continue keeping control. Barnevelt and Tangaloa arrive in Qirib in time for the ceremony. But before it is completed, pirates from the island kidnap Zei. Barnevelt is blackmailed into leading a small troupe of men to retrieve the princess. Hopefully he can locate and rescue Shtain as well so he can return to Earth.
But it’s never that easy…
The Hand of Zei was first published in 1950 during the early, burgeoning days of science fiction. L. Sprague de Camp was part of the early, stellar writers that included Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. He wrote well over a hundred books in his lifetime; many of them were science fiction or fantasy.
The setting and writing style of The Hand of Zei shows its age. Science fiction was still a struggling genre. Stories were high space opera – space travel and life on other planets and adventure and swashbuckling heroes. Barnevelt definitely fits the swashbuckling description – he even ends up in battles with pirates.
Even so, de Camp added enough human interest in Barnevelt to make him an interesting character. Barnevelt realizes he is under his mother’s thumb but doesn’t know how to get out. Once he does, he starts discovering himself and knows when he returns to Earth that she will once again take over. This thread continues in the background throughout the book. His life is mirrored by Zei who also is ruled by her mother.
Although this story is 60 years old, it is still a fun read. It drags at times, especially when Barnevelt and Tangaloa are on the road to Qirib. They have adventures all along but the writing didn’t pull me in. I liked the story but probably wouldn’t have picked it off the library shelf. It’s been on Mt. Bookpile long enough that it was time to read it. Plus the ink illustrations look corny now.
The Hand of Zei is a good representation of early science fiction. It’s a fun, satisfying story as well.
Notice: Non-graphic violence
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