The Avengers of Carrig, taken on lightweight escapist terms, is enjoyable and well-executed. This early Brunner adventure, first published in a slightly different form in 1962, is set on a remote world, settled by Earth colonists generations before, which has since reverted to the kind of quasi-medieval society of which fantasy fans and authors are so fond. At regular intervals, natives of this world venture to the city of Carrig for the "king-hunt," a ritual in which all of the noble houses of this society choose a champion to battle a large flying creature called a parradile (which, for reasons best known to themselves, these cover artists insist on rendering as a turquoise pterodactyl). The parradile symbolizes notions of kingship to the Carrigians. Whomever's champion wins the king-hunt becomes the reigning noble house until defeated by some future challenger.
It happens that this world is being monitored from space, by both the government of the Earth, which seeks to protect developing worlds from intrusive offworld technology, and a group of rapacious pirates, who look to little backwater worlds like this for slave labor. When the pirates infiltrate the king-hunt, winning it by zapping the parradile with a nasty — and unheard of to the pre-technological natives — energy weapon, and then set up their own tyrannical rule, a brash young female marine named Maddalena is assigned to the planet as a spy to help the Earth government figure out how to save the day.
As Maddalena approaches the planet, her ship is shot down by a pirate vessel and she finds herself stranded in a refugee camp in the icy north, where — keeping her cover as a native — she meets Saikmar, the beaten and dispirited champion of the clan who was the odds-on favorite to win the king-hunt before the pirates showed up. There she learns some surprising secrets. Saikmar and Maddalena then forge an alliance in the hopes of overthrowing the usurpers for good.
Sometimes good things come in small packages, and, as slight as this story is, it's a satisfying read. And perhaps that slightness contributes to its success. After all, if a story is not necessarily an epic then there's no need to blow it up into one (contemporary fantasy authors take note). This is a book that needs to be no more than 150-odd pages, and so it isn't. In this brief space, characterizations are deftly handled, a fascinating premise is introduced, and suspense is servicably if not heart-stoppingly delivered. Though the plot contains odd moments of author's convenience, overall it's quite likable. The way in which Brunner handles its resolution is particularly satisfying. Better than many of Brunner's later efforts, which ranged from rote to oddball, The Avengers of Carrig showcases the virtues of storytelling simplicity.