While I've discussed James Schmitz in general elsewhere, some of his works warrant individual discussion,and this is one of the best.
The Witches of Karres is undoubtedly James Schmitz' best-known work, and certainly deserves its fame. Originally a short story (basically the initial portion of the novel), many fans consider the novel to be a somewhat lesser work than the shorter version, but I don't agree.
The Witches of Karres is a … peculiar work. It's not quite like any other story I've ever read, even from Schmitz. It begins with young Captain Pausert (I don't think his age is ever specified,but from internal evidence I think he's got to be no more than about 25) cheerfully walking to his ship on the planet of Porlumma, reviewing the wonderful success he's had in his expected-to-fail trading run in the old but still serviceable ship Venture and his impending return to his home of Nikkeldepain and his fiancee Illya.
And then he comes across a man threatening a young girl, and comes to her rescue – which results in a fight that gets both him and his opponent arrested.
It turns out the girl Maleen is a slave, and her owner suspected her of deliberately poisoning or spoiling the food in his restaurant, causing multiple illnesses among his patrons. The judge is about to sentence them to jail when he thinks of a different solution: the slave owner can sell his slave to Pausert (since the owner's clearly dissatisfied with her) and the price will include court expenses so no one owes anything.
The price is hefty, but to Pausert it seemed that the owner was willing to sell for a ridiculously lower price if the court had allowed it. Still, it's eaten a fair amount of his profits and he's glad to be well out of things. But he has another expensive problem: Maleen can't stay with him – slavery's illegal on Nikkeldepain, and aside from that she's no more than fourteen or fifteen; she belongs back at home.
He bites the bullet and lets Maleen know he intends to take her home. At which point Maleen tearfully informs him that her two sisters are also slaves here on Porlumma. "You could buy them awfully cheap!"
Indeed he can. And in both cases something strange is going on when he arrives to purchase the young slaves from a world called "Karres". The youngest girl, called "The Leewit", is being threatened with holy men to exorcise her… and a very large axe if she tries to move from the high shelf she's taken refuge on. She also seems able to literally whistle things to pieces, as many expensive piles of broken pottery attest. The middle one, named Goth (and always reminding me strongly of Christina Ricci's Wednesday Addams, somehow) has reduced a wealthy jeweler to a quietly neurotic wreck, constantly taking inventory of his stock… an inventory that changes every time.
Having bought all three, Pausert immediately departs from Porlumma… only to be followed, shortly thereafter, by police cruisers!
It turns out that Goth wanted him to be compensated for his time and effort… and to do so, she has teleported an entire sackful of jewels from the jeweler's stock to the Venture. The cruisers, to the Captain's bewilderment and consternation, don't seem to be interested in allowing him to surrender, either! As he prepares for combat –
Suddenly the Venture is… elsewhere. Trying to solve this mystery, he goes to the cabin his young passengers are in and opens the door,to see a strange cone of twisted metal wires over which a swirling orange fire is burning, a fire directed and controlled by the three girls sitting around it.
The three Witches of Karres.
And it gets stranger from there.
One of Captain Pausert's most interesting and, to me, endearing characteristics is his acceptance of whatever reality he is faced with, no matter how that reality may be different from what he expected. He wastes no time arguing about how preposterous things are – or, indeed,in getting emotionally worked up over things that most people would find gobsmacking. His reaction to the Witches is mostly "what peculiar people"… even when the "peculiar" thing they've done is to move their entire planet.
So he doesn't stand around spluttering and gaping and trying to grasp what's going on when he discovers three former slaves operating a magical "Sheewash Drive" in his cabin using a few black wires and unexplained orange fire. He just says "Well, I guess we have a lot to talk about," and gets on with dealing with his current situation.
For some readers, this may be a bit frustrating; Pausert's usually calm and controlled demeanor can make even desperate situations seem less immediate. But I found it an attractive and unique feature of the character. He isn't a Vulcan-type character – unemotional – or some super-rationalist. He does things for emotional reasons, he's not always sure why he does some things, and he's certainly not always analyzing things (although when he does he demonstrates considerable intelligence and common sense).
At the same time, there is something unique about him. About the best way I can put it is that he is quite possibly the most sane and stable character I have ever seen in fiction. He is, to paraphrase the words of Jack Burton, "a reasonable man in unreasonable circumstances" who adapts to those circumstances quickly and sanely.
The entire novel is pervaded by this strange juxtaposition of the completely rational and the utterly bizarre – spaceships and shipbuilders and Imperial spies trying to find out the secret of Pausert's "super drive", suddenly contrasted with "witches" using "klatha magic", godlike "vatches" made of nothing but the klatha energies, alien supercomputers gone mad, pirate leaders with war robots suddenly contrasted with a world that seems haunted. Through it all, Pausert may find himself at a loss, but never without his wits.
I was always sad that Schmitz never continued that universe. I know there are a couple of sequels done by Eric Flint and a couple co-authors, but I have been very reluctant to try them. There is, as I have said more than once now, something unique about The Witches of Karres, and I don't think anyone else could replicate it. It may be that even Schmitz didn't think he could, and that's why he never did.
In any event, The Witches of Karres is still one of my favorite space-opera/science fiction novels of all time. I have been reading it to my kids recently, and it holds up well even today. If you've never read it, give it a try; it's one of the best things James Schmitz ever wrote, and if you share any of my taste in fiction, I'm sure you'll enjoy it!