Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
John Carter, gentleman from Virginia, sets out with his friend Captain James Powell to prospect in the Arizona territory. But their tools are not up to the task; to continue their endeavor, they need better equipment. Since Powell knows more of mining than Carter and has greater familiarity with the area, he is the one who sets out to collect the gear they require.
Unfortunately, Powell is captured and killed by Apaches. Feeling something amiss after spotting three dots on his friend’s trail, Carter goes looking for him in time to rescue his body from the tribe. After a brief chase he manages to hide within a cave, where the adventure really begins.
Falling unconscious within the cavern, Carter awakens to discover he cannot move. When the Apaches find him, he seems doomed to die, but something scares them off. Hours pass, with Carter unable to rise until one final wrench of his will brings him to his feet – or seems to do so. For on the floor of the cave lies his body, still clothed, while his consciousness or spirit stands looking back, completely naked.
Exiting the cave, he studies the sky until his eyes land on the planet Mars. Feeling called to that far-off world, he raises his arms and has a brief impression of hurtling through space. The next morning, he wakes stretched out on a dead seabed of the Red Planet.
John Carter is not there long before he encounters the Tharks, or Green Martians. Having sighted one of their incubators and gone to investigate it, Carter is perceived as a threat and the Tharks waste no time firing on him. They are surprised, however, when their prey leaps away – several feet away, to be precise. For Carter is of Earth, accustomed to a different gravity, where his strength and mass are the equal of most men on his homeworld.
But on Mars his strength and weight are different, allowing him to perform feats no Martian can accomplish. The Tharks, who are typically stronger than the Red Martians that also inhabit their dying planet, soon learn the gentleman from Virginia can kill one of them with a single blow.
Taken captive by the Tharks, Carter’s strength and prowess prevent the Green Men from enslaving or binding him. For the next three days he learns more about their customs and way of life, nearly perishing in the process at the hands of a pair of great white apes. In the process he earns a loyal guard dog (calot) and the friendship of one of the female Tharks: Sola.
On the third day of his captivity John Carter watches the Green Men attack a convoy of flying ships. Three manage to escape but the rest are destroyed, and their crews killed. Only one woman survives the destruction: Deja Thoris, princess of Helium. It is love at first sight for Carter, who will find himself drawn into more and greater adventures trying to see his princess safe. Green Martian and Red soon learn that there is no threat on Barsoom more deadly than a motivated gentleman from Virginia, whose strange brand of courage, honor, and compassion has not been seen on the Red Planet for millennia.
John Carter is the point-of-view character, so the story is told entirely through his eyes. A gentleman and a fighter, Carter never hesitates to enter battle and will often leap into combat for the sheer joy of it. A rare trait in the present, it is nevertheless a necessary one in a dying world where the denizens know only war, and it makes establishing an understanding with both the Green and Red Martians easier than many a modern novel would have readers think.
Deja Thoris is the space princess archetype to top all others. Kind, wise, entirely conscious of her position and her honor, she would outshine almost all other women to bear the title of princess on either Earth or Mars. It is not difficult to see how and why John Carter falls in love with her.
Tars Tarkas is a figure who commands respect. Cunning, strong, and a better politician than he lets on, the conclusion to his arc will leave one cheering. Sola has time to shine and Woola, John Carter’s dog (calot), also receives plenty of characterization.
Kantos Kan rounds out the immediate cast and is absolutely one of the best characters in the book. Though sidelined a fair bit toward the end, he is nonetheless a memorable friend to the protagonists and one that readers will wish to see again.
Mars – or Barsoom, as its inhabitants name it – is a rich culture entering its twilight. Large parts of the first few chapters are spent explaining the beliefs of the Tharks, and it is too bad that Carter didn’t learn Red Martian culture sooner. Theirs is less harsh than the Green Men’s but it is still distinctly different from Earth’s, with a set of austere conditions imposed by the planet’s declining resources. A reader will marvel at the extent of the worldbuilding that went into A Princess of Mars and never want to leave it.
The only politics are those related to the story’s world. Edgar Rice Burroughs had no trouble ignoring the current events of his time to tell a story that is as entertaining now as it was when it was first published.
There is a tribe of Tharks that wear the heads and hands of their fallen enemies as both trophies and armor, and there is a disturbing scene at the end of the novel in a cave. Carter is also shut up in a dark dungeon for three days, nearly driving him mad. None of these things are dwelt upon, though, and they pass quickly enough readers will barely notice them.
Who is it for?
Anyone who loves space opera and sci-fi. Star Wars borrowed extensively from the pattern set by A Princess of Mars, so reading the book gives one a new perspective on the beloved franchise created by George Lucas. Comic book lovers will also enjoy the book, since it helped to inspire Superman and dozens of other superheroes. The science is well-considered, and those interested in a pulse-pounding adventure will love this story.
Why read it?
The book set the stage for modern pop culture to take off. Reading it will give one a better, deeper perspective of present-day stories. Besides this, it is a rip-roaring good yarn. Why not read it?
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