The Witches of Karres
by James H. Schmitz

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Chapters 1 & 2, as a novelet:
Astounding Science Fiction, December 1949

Chilton: Philadelphia, 1966
202 pages

May 2017

One of the very best novels, of any kind, ever.

The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz is one of my all-time favorite novels. It's grand science fiction: the "witches" of the title are natives of the elusive planet Karres — men, women, and children — their witchcraft being exotic mental powers of various kinds and degrees. The novel opens deceptively simply:

It was around the hub of the evening on the planet of Porlumma when Captain Pausert, commercial traveler from the Republic of Nikkeldepain, met the first of the witches of Karres.

It was just plain fate, so far as he could see.

The Witches of Karres - James H. Schmitz - Astounding, Dec 1949 - by Zboyan (small) Porlumma is a minor Imperial planet, not a very savory place for non-citizens of the Empire. One after another, Pausert rescues three young sisters who were captured in a slaving raid while adventuring and had just been sold to three merchants on Porlumma. The girls are Maleen, Goth, and the Leewit: aged respectively about fourteen, ten, and six. Since the girls are proving to be more firecrackers in hand than assistants, the merchants are eager to re-sell them to anyone ignorant enough to take them.

Captain Pausert daren't return to his rather moral and stuffy home planet with three little slave girls, whatever his excuse, so he realizes he'll first have to return them to their home world, Karres. And off we go.

Schmitz is a superbly subtle stylist, and a superb delineator of character: one of the best of either talent ever to have written science fiction. Reading him is a joy, re-reading is quite as good, and I've read The Witches of Karres enough times to lose count. Beyond his fine characterization and rich use of language is his delightful inventiveness: the plot twistings and turnings, disguises, powers of mind explained and made plausible, galactic spaciousness with everything from pirates to some of the weirdest aliens ever — what a wild and glorious ride this novel is. And for anyone wanting to see real heroines in science fiction, I recommend starting right here, with the three young sisters and their mother, Toll. They are smart, brave, talented, witty, and unforgettable.

For those who've read the novelet in Astounding or as reprinted in The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology or elsewhere, the book changes only a few sentences of the original novelet: some background on the mental powers of the witches. In any case, you may as well begin the novel at its beginning. The story is so packed full of surprises that I've only given a few tidbits above, and those only from the first chapter.

James Schmitz is a master, and The Witches of Karres is a masterpiece. If you've never read it, I recommend you read it as soon as convenient. Or re-read it; I find it always fresh.


© 2017 Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding December 1949 cover
by John J. Zboyan

The story seems unusually hard to illustrate. Hubert Rogers' lead interior black-and-white for the novelet shows three girls on a broomstick — a scene not in the story, and misleading; as though he hadn't noticed the absence of broomsticks. Astounding's cover illustration — quite an honor for a very new author — while not inspired is colorful, on-topic, and reasonably accurate. The hardcover dust jackets and paperback covers range from poor down to awful, with inaccurate or irrelevant being the nicest one can say of some of them. Don't judge this book by its cover(s).

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