This review is for the first three books of the Barsoom series: A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars.
I was going to write this up as a discussion because I listened to the first three Barsoom books instead of reading them, and this took me a good few weeks. My memory of the first book isn’t as fresh as I’d like it to be, and certain elements of the second book are also starting to wane. But, there really isn’t much to these books, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem if I call this a review.
Spoilers: I’m not going to recommend them, but*
*A Princess of Mars was published in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs and is the first novel in an 11 book series situated on Mars. The book opens up in a third person perspective with an unimportant character receiving John Carter’s journal. After perhaps the first chapter, the rest of the novel is told from the first-person-past perspective of John Carter as he adventures throughout Mars.
After being chased by some Apache Indians, John Carter winds up in a cave and is somehow transported to Mars where he meets some scary green aliens with four arms. They are a violent race, but they take a liking to John who is both an oddity and almost a super hero when it comes to battle. Because Mars has a thinner atmosphere and less gravity, John is able to jump and run at extreme speeds; his native strength has also gone up. Being a soldier on Earth, he fits right in with the warrior races of Mars who prize prowess in battle over everything else.
John spends some time with these Tharks before he runs into Dejah Thoris, a red Martian woman and princess of Helium. Dejah Thoris is the most beautiful girl on Mars, and John quickly falls in love with her. He spends the rest of these next three novels trying to save her from various groups of Martians, all of whom desire her because she’s a beautiful princess. By the third novel, this kind of plot device becomes tiring.
The best way to describe John Carter is to look at a description for Tarzan, another of Burroughs’s characters. The Wikipedia entry reads:
He is described as being Caucasian, extremely athletic, tall, handsome, and tanned, with grey eyes and black hair. Emotionally, he is courageous, loyal and steadfast. He is intelligent and learns new languages easily…He is deeply in love with his wife and totally devoted to her…When presented with a situation where a weaker individual or party is being preyed upon by a stronger foe, [he] invariably takes the side of the weaker party.
It appears that Burroughs has a habit of creating this very specific kind of flawless hero with no moral ambiguity about him. Such heroes are boring, and John Carter is no exception.
What makes these first three Barsoom books worth looking at is the world Burroughs creates. His rendition of Mars is quite interesting, and each new novel brings forth some new kind of Martian to learn about and then ultimately murder in a large scale battle.
And really, what these novels lack in literary qualities they make up for in violence. Mars was the god of war, and Barsoom is the planet of war. The Martians are constantly warring and enslaving each other, and it’s a wonder that anyone gets anything done. The red Martians have flying ships that are quite sophisticated, but when they took the time out of their busy and violent schedules to build them is never mentioned.
Burroughs skirts around the fact that Mars is in a constant genocide with itself and the heroes all wind up killing more people than probably necessary. War and death are very much romanticized here, so one never thinks of looking at John Carter as some kind of mass murderer. He’s too courageous and heroic for that, and all of the villains are so evil that such moral ambiguity holds no place on Mars. But I suppose on a planet where entire cities will go to war simply because one ruler wants to wed a stubborn princess, the concepts of good and evil are skewed or simply thrown aside.
Even slavery is brushed aside in such a fashion. The heroes have slaves because slavery is simply a thing on Mars. If one city falls to another, the citizens become slaves. John Carter has slaves, and so do all of the royalty and other characters John Carter befriends over these novels. Thankfully, all of the good guys treat their slaves really well, and the women even express love for them. The slaves don’t mind. However, the villains are all cruel towards their slaves and so they must be killed and their slaves set free. Slavery is only morally wrong if you are evil, apparently.
The Gods of Mars is the sequel and a much better book. Burroughs introduces another pairing of Martians, this time white and black in color, and John spends most of the novel trying to get away from these groups of people and back to Helium. On his travels, John ends up deconstructing every religious belief the various creatures of Mars hold, and it’s actually quite interesting. The action never settles down, and it’s easily the best book of the three. It’s because of this book that I’m disappointed John Carter didn’t fare better in theaters. I’d have loved to see this book turned into a movie with its new aliens, monsters, and exhausting amounts of action.
The only reason to read the third novel is because the second one ends on a cliffhanger. The Warlord of Mars rounds off the trilogy with Dejah Thoris getting captures yet again. John spends the novel questing after her with his dog-like creature named Wulla. The new antagonists take Dejah Thoris away to spite John since he ruined all of their plans in the second novel, but they get mesmerized by her beauty. They take her to a new region of Mars where a race of yellow Martians live, John forever in pursuit. Of course, the king of the yellow people finds Dejah Thoris to be so beautiful that he decides to wed her. John, of course, must stop that.
The evil characters here take Dejah Thoris in an attempt to spite John Carter and kill him emotionally, but why they never simply shoot Dejah Thoris and be done with it isn’t really covered. She’s beautiful yes, but these villains are seeking revenge. One doesn’t expect them to fall in love, especially since they are oh so evil. Lucky for Dejah Thoris that she’s such a gorgeous plot device.
It is, as I said earlier, a bit tiresome.
The dialogue over the course of these three books is hilariously bad. No one talks the way these characters do, spouting off long and cumbersome sentences when simple commands would have sufficed. It’s even less believable when these long-winded discussions take place during some kind of stressful situation, like battle or the need to stop a villain. Thankfully, Burroughs knows he’s incapable of writing believable speech, so dialogue is very infrequent.
On top of that, John likes to say his entire name and give his title for no real reason other than he’s apparently always on the verge of forgetting it. “I, John Carter, Prince of Helium” is only appropriate when giving speeches, and it’s never appropriate during narration. Had I known about this beforehand, I would have counted the amount of times his name shows up. This is all made worse when one remembers that the story comes from his own diary.
Though we spend three novels with John, he never becomes anything more than a generic hero looking to save the princess. He’s by no means a terrible companion to spend a few books with, but he never amounts to anything more than his archetype.
Dejah Thoris never amounts to anything more than a plot device.
These first three Barsoom books fall rather harshly under the spectrum of “alright.” The second book is really quite good, but it’s bookended by two mediocre novels that happen to take place on an interesting planet. In a way, these are the popcorn flick of novels; there are no hidden depths to uncover and the characters are all one dimensional. But, they are entertaining, and that’s why people go see popcorn flicks. Explosions and violence can sometimes mask poor storytelling and trite plotlines, and they almost do just that here.
These books, A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars, are all in the public domain and can be found and read for free. Should you not want to read them, they can be listened to for free using Audiobook, an app for both iOS and Android devices. If you’ve the time and want some light science fiction, these will be there for you. I had some fun with them. But, time is a precious thing, and there are much better books one could/should pursue.