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Review: A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

One of the things I’m going to miss terribly when e-books are the norm and brick-and-mortar stores are few and far between will be the opportunity to walk into a bookstore, pick up the one thing I really want to read, and then hit the discount rack on the way to the checkout. That’s exactly what I did when I was in Florida recently, picking up I Shall Wear Midnight, which I later reviewed on this site.

Among the books I picked up on my way out of the store was a three-pack of John Carter of Mars novels, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’d heard there might be a movie coming soon, and I wanted to familiarize myself with a sci-fi classic that I probably should’ve read long ago anyway.

Now that I’ve finished A Princess of Mars, I can sort of see why they’re classics. Sort of.

Like many novels written in the late 19th/early 20th century, A Princess of Mars starts out with the discovery of a manuscript by the author himself, and his memories of “Uncle Jack”. Burroughs uses the device effectively to set up the mythology of John Carter, and then jumps into the story. The first act is fairly straightforward: Carter goes to Mars, discovers he’s stronger than most everyone there, and manages to impress the natives. Burroughs spends a lot of time describing this new world, and though most readers of current fiction would say tl;dr or bemoan the author’s use of infodumps, that was the style back then, so I give it a pass. At the end of that act, he meets Dejah Thoris, the eponymous Princess of Mars, and decides he’s fallen in love with her.

By this point in the novel, I’d hit on its major sticking point — at least, in my mind — and it’s something I’ve seen in other fiction of the era: John Carter… well, he’s awesome.

No, he’s not awesome. He’s AWESOME. There’s literally nothing John Carter cannot do on Mars: he has superior strength, agility, martial prowess, physical attractiveness (as compared to humans of Earth, not the Green Men of Barsoom), problem-solving skills, intelligence, and luck. It’s like God rolled a series of natural 20s when He was creating Carter, and Carter knows exactly how to take advantage of that. He instantly figures out how to move in Mars’s lower gravity. He applies his knowledge of battle from the Civil War to fighting alongside several different alien races. He isn’t completely floored by the weird appearance of the Tharks (the green men of Mars). He learns to speak the Martian language and use Martian telepathy despite not — to our knowledge, anyway — knowing any languages other than English nor how to be telepathic at all beforehand.

And, what’s more, he instantly wins the trust of pretty much everyone around him. The few who don’t like him are so clearly Stereotypical Evil Characters that the reader knows almost immediately they’ll be getting some kind of comeuppance, most likely at Carter’s hands (or sword).

The rest of the story is spent on getting Carter back together with Thoris — they are separated in the second act — and it’s kind of blah through there (there’s even a pod racing scene, sort of) before the grand finale, when Carter leads the good Martians against some really, really, unmistake-ably evil Martians. Kind of like how, in Star Trek 6, there were honorable Klingons and evil Klingons.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. There was lots of adventure, interesting scenery and worldbuilding, and if the aliens were a little too human, that’s not really a failing — it’s just the way stories were written back then. Besides, the characters are consistent within themselves — none of them do anything that immediately drags you out of the story. The ending wraps up a little too fast, as stories from that era were wont to do, but that’s okay, because we know there’ll be more John Carter of Mars stories coming up. I feel bad for readers of that era, who didn’t know there’d be more.

A Princess of Mars is short enough that you can read it in a weekend, if you read at a good clip. The version I have has some very nice illustrations by Thomas Yeates, and an introduction by Mike Ashley that lays out the history of the Barsoom series. The book itself is suitable for reading by mature tweens who are already into sci-fi or adventure stories, though the illustrations do contain PG-13 nudity (Carter himself shows up naked on Mars, and to assimilate with the Tharks, he forgoes clothing as they do). I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m currently enjoying the second book, Gods of Mars, which is part of the omnibus.

Comments (6)

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  1. I consider these books “guilty pleasures” even though a lot of my friends pooh-pooh them… (I’ve heard the phrase “elegant trash” applied to them more than once). They’re dated, in that they are rife with casually assumed sexism, and the laws of physics are just laughable (the Martians use dirigibles filled up with “gravity-defying light rays”, one of my favorite quotes.) But man… they are elegant. Their fantastical settings and cultures are so lavish, you can practically taste them. Back then authors were paid by the word but there was no word limit — and readers weren’t such ADD adrenaline junkies as we all are now — so authors like Lovecraft and Burroughs could “waste” thousands of words talking about alien art and culture and alien religion and food and music which have nothing to do with the plot. Dude, I have a homemade cardboard “Padwar” (martian chess) set in my closet still, with a copy of the rules, which appear in the first novel I believe. The trick is just to leave modern expectations behind and simply bask in the sheer coolness of being a hero — (or a voluptuous warrior princess) — on a planet where “gravity-defying light rays” actually work. They are more like “Science Fantasy” novels than “Sci-Fi”. So if “hard SF” is your thing, you will hate these novels. But if you’re not too much of a nit-picker for accuracy and strict genre boundaries, they make great escapism.

  2. LorienStarlight says:

    After reading this review, I thought it might be helpful to link to LibriVox’s audio versions of the John Carter Stories. I listened to them in audio format, and they’re great.

    http://librivox.org/newcatalog/search.php?title=&author=Edgar+Rice+Burroughs&status=all&action=Search

  3. Paul says:

    It’s always interesting to read a review of ERB’s A Princess of Mars. Thanks!

  4. Brianary says:

    That’s funny, the reason I just read that same book was *because* of my ebook: I was searching for free ePub content, and remembered liking it as a kid!

  5. Curtis Sharpe says:

    Wow, the Mars series is my all time fave! Grand adventure, defining space opera. Try the second book, “The Gods of Mars”, the best in the series of 11. These make everyone want to be the hero (or the Princess.)

  6. Josh R. says:

    I’ve actually read the first three — JC, Gods, and Warlords. They came in a three-book set. Mightily convenient.

    Now that I have an e-reading device, I might try to get my hands on others that are available outside of copyright and see if they’re not all just “John Carter chases Dejah Thoris across Mars, being awesome in every way as he does so”.