Although he began writing science-fiction stories in 1943, James H. Schmitz turned to writing as a professional only in 1959. Most of his novels, The Witches of Karres probably the best known among them, were published in the 1960’s. It has been rumored that a sequel exists, possibly titled Ventures of Karres, but if so, the manuscript seems to have been lost.
Schmitz is difficult to categorize as a writer. Contrary to the technological bent often found in stories and novels of the preceding decades, The Witches of Karres does not emphasize technology in any way, and neither is there much hypothesizing or theorizing about how things work. In contrast to many of the New Wave writers of the 1960’s, Schmitz did not attempt to write literary masterpieces. His characters, likable as they are, are not worked out in great psychological depth, for example.
What Schmitz offers in this novel is a curiously happy mix of science fiction and magic, high adventure, and heroic deeds that delights many critics. Even though the characters are not “deep,” they are depicted well and have clearly distinct personalities. They are also unorthodox for a novel that, though it somewhat defies classification, might be called an interplanetary romance, a subgenre sometimes referred to as “space opera.” Instead of the usual young, male hero who must save the universe and often becomes romantically involved, Schmitz has as hero a merchant captain and a group of children, one of whom proclaims that she is going to marry the captain in another year or so. Saving the galaxy almost comes as an accident.
Readers may suspect that some of the writing was done tongue in cheek. The novel is a good-humored romp through space, describing Pausert’s discovery of utopian Karres and its magic, fighting alien invaders, and navigating through espionage and intrigue at an astonishing pace. The “landscape” in which all this takes place—the empire, its surrounding regions, and Karres and its weird politics—are all merely sketched and hinted at, but in such a way that the reader believes there is much more to be said. This is one mark of a good novel: The reader wishes there were more.