The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
I read A Princess of Mars in preparation for John Carter—I enjoyed both, although I enjoyed the novel a bit more than the film. But there’s little hope of a sequel at the moment. (I’d feel sorry for Disney’s eternal struggles for a fresh action franchise if The Avengers hadn’t just made all the money ever.) In any case, I didn’t have any particular reason to pick up the series again, except that I was in the mood for something short, swashbuckling, and uniquely Barsoomian. That I could read on my computer while doing my hair. Sometimes it’s just not that complicated, folks.
The Gods of Mars opens, after a preface from John Carter’s nephew, Burroughs, with John Carter, husband to the Princess Dejah Thoris, long stranded on Earth, suddenly finding himself back upon Mars—or Barsoom, as the natives call it. Unfortunately, he’s come back to the one location on Barsoom it is death to leave; the Valley Dor, believed to be the afterlife. As John explores the Valley Dor, he reunites with his old friend, the Green Martian Tars Tarkas, and discovers the sick truth about the Valley Dor—how the faithful, believing themselves to be taking a pilgrimage into the afterlife, are devoured by the vicious Plant Men or else enslaved by the White Martians. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as John discovers the true identity of the Goddess Issus…
A Princess of Mars was a lot of fun because of how many buckles were swashed and because it actually dealt with the fact that John, along with everyone else on Mars, is kind of bloodthirsty. It’s nice to see an action piece that deals with the implications for its heroes. It’s also often hilarious, to see Burroughs’ elevated writing style capture moments like John stabbing a guy in the ribs while thinking that his smarts won’t help him now. But The Gods of Mars takes a few steps back from the heights of A Princess of Mars; the action scenes are, towards the end, increasingly glossed over. Trying to think back (it’s been a while!), I remember a few compressions here and there in A Princess of Mars, but it feels like the entire climax of this novel is glossed over. To be fair, it’s for a reason—like A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars ends on a downer cliffhanger—but I still felt a little robbed.
The Gods of Mars is the first time we get deeper into racial politics on Barsoom. Burroughs’ only nod towards John’s background as an ex-Confederate soldier is John mentioning that, while it seems weird coming from him, the Black Martians are pretty attractive. Obviously, there’s a lot of ground to cover in terms of race here, which I leave to people much more qualified than I to do so. (I just never want to not address it, which is why I bring it up only to hand it off.) But Burroughs does explicitly mention, at one point, the fact that John’s ragtag team trying to escape from the Valley Dor is made up of people from all over Barsoom, and that that’s a good thing. His target here, at least, is organized religion. The Goddess Issus is corrupt, and there’s two layers of theocracies literally preying on the level below. In order to escape, John disproves the divinity of Issus to Xodar, a Black Martian, and John’s great struggle in the second half of the novel is trying to convince everyone of this religious deception in order to embark upon a rescue mission. It’s subtle—well, as subtle as a knife to the chest, but that’s pretty good for this series so far. (It goes without saying that this works as more or less a standalone; Burroughs, writing this serially, understood how the process worked.)
But even as I read and enjoyed the pulpy, swashbuckling before me, I missed something. Or, rather, I missed someone—Dejah Thoris. I don’t know if it’s because the film adaptation made me inordinately fond of Dejah Thoris, tattooed science princess, or because she was such a fixture in the first novel, but I really felt her absence here. When we do see her, briefly, I was a bit stunned by how passive the woman who had to be forcibly removed from John Carter’s side so she wouldn’t die fighting with him had become. It’s in service of the ending, which is kind of heartbreaking, but I’d hoped for something a bit more… well, the Dejah Thoris I know. I suppose you can’t have everything in a ninety-nine year old novel…
Bottom line: The Gods of Mars is more pulpy, swashbuckling fun with a side of “we’re bloodthirsty and we know it”; racial and religious issues are brought up, which is great fodder for discussion, but I truly missed Dejah Thoris, science princess. If you’d like.
I downloaded this free digital book from the Kindle Store.