The late James H. Schmitz's delightful space opera, optioned several times for film but never yet making it to the screen, has - after years of unavailability - been reissued as a Gollancz yellowback Collector's. Originally published in 1966, it's aged well. There's a tinge of E. E. 'Doc' Smith about Schmitz's Galactic Empire, but his heroine (the redoubtable ten-year-old witch Goth) and her initially reluctant rescuer, Captain Pausert, have enough wit and energy to charm the jaded palates of today's readers.
Captain Pausert visits Porlumma to trade. After a business failure on his home planet of Nikkeldepain, his luck's turned. He's sold nearly all his cargo for a handsome profit, and he's won wagers and races enough to keep him - and bride-to-be Illyla, daughter of Counsellor Onswud - in considerable style.
But has his luck turned enough? By the time he leaves Porlumma - rather hastily - he's rescued three little slavegirls from their oppressive masters. Pausert, innocent and pure of heart, perhaps doesn't give proper weight to the obvious distress of those masters, who seem willing to sell their slaves for a pittance. How could three small girls be a threat to grown men?
And what is the Sheewash Drive which catapults his ship halfway across the Empire? "The one you have to do it with yourself," explains The Leewit (an adorable six-year-old blonde) helpfully. The captain's rather slow. It takes him a while to work out that his passengers are witches from the prohibited - and nomadic - planet of Karres. In fact, this realisation comes too late for him to avoid bankruptcy, betrayal and banishment.
The Captain and Goth go on the run, pursued by a glamorous interstellar spy, space pirates, and some trans-dimensional aliens. The Sheewash Drive may get them out of some tight corners, but everyone wants it for themselves. Captain Pausert's also haunted by a magical entity called a vatch, which believes the Captain is something it's dreamt up, and is terribly amused by the whole affair. Can things get any worse? Can his luck change again? The answer to both questions, of course, is 'yes'. After a series of incredible escapades, and some entirely unexpected revelations about his Great-Uncle Threbus, the Captain finds himself once more in fortune's favour. There are happy endings for those who deserve them, and just desserts for most of the villains. It's that sort of a book.
The Witches of Karres is an enjoyable, episodic romp. Schmitz, who believed in ESP, created a klatha magic that is both practical and consistent, and doesn't detract from the SFnal elements of the tale. Goth is a convincing pre-adolescent heroine, and the Captain is as clean-cut as any Golden Age hero. Fun, funny, and intelligent: an exemplary space opera.