Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blood of Ancient Opar (Christopher Paul Carey, Meteor House 2016)

As you may recall, readers, I wailed and gnashed my teeth when I came to the end of Hadon, King of Opar, as it ended on such a powerful cliffhanger that I wanted the next book in the series right then and there.  Well, Christopher Paul Carey has delivered the next volume in his continuation of Farmer's Opar prehistory, Blood of Ancient Opar, into my hands ahead of publication and I could have wept with joy to be able to continue the saga of Hadon of Opar.

Blood picks up right where King leaves off, with Hadon struggling to maintain order in the wake of a devastating civil war and invasion, in which the priesthoods of Kho the Mother Goddess and Resu the Flaming God conspired against the people of Opar, too eager for worldly power to look to the well-being of the civilization they're squabbling over.

The squabble costs Hadon his kingship and nearly robs him of his family, held together only be the cunning machinations of his daughter La, a prodigy at 16.  Though it pains her to go forward with it, she has developed a plan that may be the only way to save Opar - if it doesn't leave the city an empty ruin, put to the torch by rampaging Gokaku (neanderthaloid) slaves first!

I think I actually prefer where Carey has taken Hadon over where Farmer took him.  No king has worn a heavier crown than Carey's solemn, care-worn King of Opar, bound by chains of tradition and culture too heavy to escape from.  I've compared Carey's Hadon to Howard's Kull of Atlantis in the past, and I continue to stand by that comparison.  The toll Hadon pays in this volume is almost everything he has left, and stripped of everything, he continues to stand tall and prove himself worthy of the title, giving everything he has left to the city of his birth.

Where Hadon is beaten, bloodied and yet unbowed, his daughter La enters the spotlight more fully in this volume, a shifting and mercurial presence, steeped in tradition but not chained by it, she looks to the future to find the best course of action to protect her people and allow them to flourish once more.  She is close-lipped about her plans even with her own family, well-schooled but ultimately still a child, and her machinations here are both wholly necessary and choked with life-threatening risk to herself, risks she may not fully comprehend.

Christopher Paul Carey has inherited a heavy mantle and a big set of shoes in continuing the legacy of Ancient Opar, and he wears both well - if anything, those shoes might be getting a little snug.  His prose is his own while echoing Farmer's breathless adventure into the world of Khokarsa, his words as evocative of that lost world as Farmer's (or Burroughs') own.  With this newest volume, he takes us deep into the underbelly of Opar and unlocks secrets fans have been waiting for for a century now, ever since Tarzan first set foot in the ruined city of gold and ivory and apes, giving us the foundation of the city Burroughsphiles have known and loved and (if they're anything like me) pined for.  Blood of Ancient Opar is one part thrilling adventure in the pulp tradition, one part exploration of human nature, and one part solemn family drama worthy of Kurosawa, and if another drop of ink is never expended on Opar, then no better capstone could be asked for than Blood of Ancient Opar.

This volume is a must-read for fans of Burroughs, Farmer and Haggard alike, and can be preordered from Meteor House right now!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Phileas Fogg and the Heart of Osra (Joshua Reynolds; Meteor House Press, 2016)

In 1973, Philip Jose Farmer published The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, the "true story" behind Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, reframing the Eighty-Day Affair as the final skirmish in an ongoing conflict between two groups of extraterrestrials on Earth, waged as a proxy war between human agents.  The Eighty-Day Affair brought the war between the Eridaneans and Capellans to a vague conclusion, but Josh Reynolds picked up the threads left behind by Farmer and began extrapolating a series of novellas following Fogg in the aftermath of the Eridanean-Capellan conflict.  The first of these I reviewed last year, Phileas Fogg and the War of Shadows.  The second volume, Phileas Fogg and the Heart of Osra, is forthcoming, but Meteor House was kind enough to put an ARC in my hands.

Following his encounter in Paris, Fogg has continued east into Europe, drawn to the tiny kingdom of Ruritania by a letter, written in an Eridanean cipher, inviting him.  Recalling the Rudolf Rassendyll, the false king placed on the Ruritanian throne during the Zenda Affair, was an Eridanean agent, Fogg suspects a trap but feels compelled to visit the kingdom nonetheless.

He soon finds himself hunted by both the Ruritanian secret police and a fanatical nationalist sect, both of whom accuse Fogg of stealing the legendary crown jewel known as the "Heart of Osra." Aided only by his wits, his Eridanean training, and the saber-swinging wild card known as Rupert of Hentzau, Fogg must find the lost jewel, clear his name, and escape the country - not to mention determine who invited him to Ruritania in the first place.

Josh Reynolds has a fantastic knowledge of Ruritanias - of the piddlingly small principalities and duchies that litter fiction.  I recognized a good many mentioned here, while others escaped me, though I was very pleased to see both Freedonia (from the Marx Brothers' phenomenal DUCK SOUP; the neighboring country of Sylvania is likewise mentioned) and the Duchy of Strackenz (here rendered Strackencz; originating in George Macdonald Frasier's ROYAL FLASH) appear.  Robert E. Howard's sinister "witch-town" of Stregoicavar is likewise on Fogg's itinerary, and I can only presume it's a matter of time before he checks in at the Plateau of Leng.  Ruritania proper, of course, is the creation of Anthony Hope in the novel The Prisoner of Zenda, which I read years ago and really should revisit.

Reynolds furthers the theme he began with his previous novella, as Fogg uncovers more evidence that neither the Eridaneans nor the Capellans were the first extraterrestrials to maintain a presence on Earth, hinting darkly at encounters with entities from the Lovecraft canon in volumes to come.  Here, he crosses psychic paths with a race of "Angels" who call to mind both Lovecraft's Great Race (from The Shadow Out of Time) and H.G. Wells' unearthly observers from "The Crystal Egg." They are presented as wholly alien and inscrutable, which I enjoyed, and the reader is left with more questions than answers regarding these entities, which I feel is as it should be.

Best of all, Reynolds has crafted a wholly believable aftermath to the proxy war fought for centuries, and the toll that peace has taken on the survivors.  While the war between the Eridaneans and the Capellans left a minimum of bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets in its wake, to those in the know all of Europe is like the Vienna of THE THIRD MAN, haunted by human flotsam, cast adrift without a war left to fight.  Fogg's counterpart in Ruritania, the precise Colonel Sapt, has dealt poorly with peace, and convinced himself that there is still a war to fight - and given his recent experiences in Paris, Fogg finds it difficult to disagree.

Reynolds' two novellas so far (with hopefully many more to come, as hinted in the text) are not only wholly satisfying sequels to Farmer's original novels, but richly enjoyable on their own, deepening the back story of Farmer's take on the Eighty-Day Affair, and adding a new level of complexity to the Eridanean-Capellan conflict and its participants.  Phileas Fogg and the Heart of Osra receives a glowing recommendation from me and can be preordered here until June 15th.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Dragonfire Dreams (Wayne Saalman, 2015)

DISCLOSURE: I was sent a review copy of this book, as the author is a friend of a friend of mine, and I was asked to review it as a favor.

Peter Skyler's dreams of rock 'n' roll immortality shatter when a gunman enters the nightclub his band will be having their first big gig at, shooting out a giant disco ball to create chaos in which he can escape from police pursuit.  Skyler's girlfriend, Shannon, happens to be under the disco ball at the time.  At the same time, Skyler's band-mates need to flee an undercover cop seeking to bust them for drug use.  When Skyler follows them, Shannon, hospitalized, ends their relationship, eager to get away from the hollow glamour of the music industry.  Skyler embarks on a cross-country trip of discovery, while footage of Shannon being doused in burning glass shards finds its way on to the internet, where a "shock artist" edits the video to appeal to sexual sadists.  The video's biggest fan, fleeing a double-homicide of his own, reinvents himself as a similar "artist" out to recreate Shannon's horrific experience, and glut his sexual desires with her, willing or not.

Truth be told...I didn't care for this book.  And I hate saying that, but I simply did not enjoy reading it.  At no point did the action hook me, at no point did reading the book cease to feel like a chore and become a joy.  It took me over a month to read this 608-page novel, something that should have taken me a week.

The book moves very slowly, even sluggishly at times, which seems to me the kiss of death to a book marketed as a suspenseful thriller.  There is very little tension for much of the book, instead devoting a significant chunk of its page-count to being a mouthpiece for the author's devotion to Jack Kerouac.  He is quoted in epigrams at the beginning of chapters and cited in dialogue as an inspiration for the characters' actions.

Let me repeat that.  The characters talk to each other about how their actions are in tribute to Jack Kerouac and the book On The Road.  It didn't take me long to start to feel bludgeoned by this - did the author think his readers weren't going to get the connection if he didn't spell it out explicitly?

The characters, even our protagonist, are for the most part poorly-sketched out, with several characters being basically indistinguishable from each other - and most of them presented as fundamentally selfish, self-centered individuals who will sit there and rationalize for pages to explain why they're in the right in what they do and how those who disagree are wronging them.  They prevarication-dance Skyler does to justify why he left with his band-mates instead of following the EMTs with Shannon to the hospital, and then why it's unfair of her to suggest, from her hospital bed, that maybe he should find band-mates who aren't going to do heroin in the dressing room, is staggering.

Even more staggering, at one point, after emptying two handguns into two innocent civilians, a character flees the scene while rationalizing that he's a peaceful person who would never harm a fly, honest, and they made him kill them, he didn't want to but they left him no choice...After a while, it becomes nauseating to read.

The author's interest in New Age and occult material likewise comes through in the text; words are lavished on describing a character reading a book about reptilian conspiracies and how compelling these ideas are, while other characters seem to receive mystic visions or see ghosts, and debate spiritual awakenings, especially in the latter half of the book.  It seems out of place in what had begun as a serious thriller set in the real world.  It felt like a hard left turn to me when it started to happen.

All in all, I'm sorry to say I can't recommend this book.  I got no enjoyment out of it; I just grew more and more irritable as I continued to read it, and eventually was simply angry with myself that I was continuing to read this book instead of picking something more enjoyable off my shelf.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Doc Ardan: The City of Gold and Lepers (Guy D'Armen, 1928/Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, 2004)

I hope you'll forgive the scarcity of posts around here lately, readers - I've gone from reviewing pulp fiction to writing my own, and will be contributing stories to a couple upcoming anthologies.  That's all I'll say about it for now, but expect notices here when the books become available.  I am still reading every day on my "coffee" and lunch breaks at work, however, and yesterday I finished an excellent French novel, featuring an interesting precursor to Doc Savage.

Exploring the Kunlun mountain range in China/Tibet, physician and physicist Doctor Francis Ardan is captured and brought before the diabolical Dr. Natas, a cruelly brilliant Manchu scientist using atomic fusion to turn base elements into gold.  Ardan is told, quite frankly, that he will never be able to leave Natas' high-tech "City of Gold" - because it is also the City of Lepers, every slave-inhabitant infected with a gruesomely virulent form of leprosy, which only Natas' miraculous "Z-Rays" keep in check.  To leave the city is to rot to pieces in minutes.

Ardan's every effort to escape is thwarted - Natas has thought of everything.  But when physician Louise Ducharme is kidnapped to serve as an assistant, he finds his chance - unbeknownst to Natas, Ducharme has developed a cure for leprosy, and had two doses in her pocket when she was kidnapped.  Quickly curing herself and Ardan, they set out to bring an end to the fiendish Dr. Natas and his City of Gold and Lepers.

This book came out in France five years before the first Doc Savage novel was published.  There's almost no way Lester Dent could have come across this.  And yet Ardan (whose surname could be translated into English as "Savage") mirrors his American counterpart almost perfectly, down to having bronze skin and weirdly colored eyes, in this case amber instead of gold-flecked.  His ingenuity, his humanity and his all-around polymathism all could have been taken straight from Doc, or the other way around.  Indeed, the two characters are linked in some New Pulp, with "Francis Ardan" being a pseudonym used by Clark Savage Jr. when travelling abroad, and the Lofficiers, via their publishing house Black Coat Press, have gone with this with a wink and a nod to the reader.  In essence, one could choose to read "Doc Ardan" stories in their Tales of the Shadowmen anthology series as "Doc Savage" stories if one so chose.

The story here is pure pulp - Dr. Natas (and I'm ashamed of how long it took me to realize his name is "Satan" spelled backwards) is essentially Dr. Fu Manchu with a name change, and his super-science is of the grandest sort.  Above and beyond turning base elements into gold and creating a high-octane strain of leprosy, he's developed a dozen new alloys, advanced radio science by decades, has perfected the teletype machine, discovered new bands of the electromagnetic spectrum - and turned all his learning and science to ABSOLUTE EVIL.  He even at one point refers to himself as the Yellow Peril, personified.  His sneering arrogance and callous disregard for human life alone make him the perfect pulp villain, but the fact that he's producing all this gold to A) finance a new Mongol Horde to sweep the Western World with sword and flame, and B) to throw western economies into catastrophic disarray in prelude to the Mongol Horde attack - that's not just icing on the cake, that's like getting a whole ice cream cake on top of your regular cake.  For pulp readers like me, it's pure delight.

I purchased my copy directly from Black Coat Press; my big New Year's Resolution this year was to buy directly from independent publishers like Black Coat Press, Meteor House, Pro Se Press, Airship 27 Productions, etc., wherever I can rather than ordering their books through Amazon.  If I'm going to voice my support for these companies, then it's imperative that I put my money where my mouth is.  I would rather see my money going directly to these companies rather than have a middle-man take a cut, especially given that I know Black Coat Press has had issues in the past with people using Amazon as a lending library for their books, buying them and then requesting a refund.  Hearing that sort of thing makes my blood boil, and while I can't bludgeon the people who do that sort of thing, I can resolutely continue to buy from the companies that put out the books I enjoy.

I didn't really intend to end this review with a rant, but I'm going to let it stand.  In short, buy more books.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Warlord of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1914)

Continuing where The Gods of Mars left off, Warlord finds John Carter roaming the lands of the First Born with Woola by his side, hunting down pockets of Thern resistance and seeking a means to free Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor from the Prison of the Sun - and most importantly, learn if Phaidor managed to kill Dejah Thoris in there or not.

He luckily chances on two of his enemies, the Holy Thern Matai Shang and the black Prince Thurid as they are openly conspiring to open the Temple of the Sun and take the three women to a place where the Therns' power remains strong.  He follows them, seeking an opportunity to slay them and rescue his wife, but a wrong turn in the winding cavern tunnels under the Sea of Korus delays him long enough for Thurid and Matai Shang to kidnap the women and flee to a waiting flier.

John Carter gives chase, but his flier is shot down over the Forest of Kaol, on the Martian equator in the opposite hemisphere from Helium.  After a fight with a vicious hornet-like monster called a sith (likely the source of George Lucas' use of the word), he makes his way to the City of Kaol, one of the regions still faithful to the Thern religion, where Matai Shang and Thurid have been given sanctuary by the local Jeddak.  Just as John Carter is about to be put to death for blasphemy, he's rescued by a friend of Kaol's Jeddak - Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth and father of Thuvia.  When Matai Shang flees rather than produce the "slave girls" who are Dejah Thoris and Thuvia, Carter and Thuvan Dihn take off in pursuit.

Their pursuit takes them all the way to Mars' forbidding North Polar region, long known as a forbidden zone due to the fact that ships flying above a certain latitude never return.  Here they find the buried hothouse cities of the Yellow Men, a race long believed extinct.  Here Carter must contend not only with the cruel Thern and the lustful black prince, but with the savage appetites of Sallensus Oll, Jeddak of the North and his vicious pet apts - one of the most terrifying predators on all of Barsoom.

This book rounds out the initial trilogy of Barsoom tales, and ends on a note that could conclude the entire series well enough if Burroughs had decided not to continue.  It is also a fantastic example of some of the tools Burroughs used to keep a story moving that would probably get him labeled a poor writer today.

Burroughs is a big fan of the lucky coincidence and there's a couple big examples on display in this volume - for example, John Carter and Thuvan Dihn need to pass through the "Carrion Caves," a tunnel complex filled with rotting corpses and prowled by the royal apts to deter any who would try to enter the land of the Yellow Men this way.  There is apparently one day every month where the apts gather in one cave and sleep for a full day.  Guess which day it is when John Carter and Thuvan Dihn are passing through? Or, later on, while escaping from the dungeons of Sallensus Oll, John Carter's route to freedom takes him right up to the door behind which Thurid is loudly plotting to betray Matai Shang with the help of the man who controls the giant electromagnet used to destroy ships flying too close to the lands of the Yellow Men.

Likewise, Burroughs is a big fan of forcibly separating his characters and then reuniting them later to drive story.  The main through-plot of this novel and its predecessor is that John Carter has been separated from Dejah Thoris.  Burroughs keeps letting the two lovers see each other briefly, just enough to let them know the other is still alive, Similarly, while Carter and Thuvan Dihn enter the city of Kadabra together they are quickly separated.  This makes for great story-telling because it leaves Carter to rely on himself to get himself out of scrapes, but after a while it makes you wonder why John Carter bothers with traveling companions at all.

The one big disappointment I had was how it wrapped up the John Carter-Dejah Thoris-Phaidor love triangle plot (is it a triangle if one of the lines of connection is "kill" and another is "keep from murdering my wife"?).  Phaidor throws a cruel laugh at John Carter as she's leaving Sallensus Oll's throne room, having seen that Thurid kidnapped Dejah Thoris while (literally) John Carter's back was turned.  Then, on the flier as Thurid, Phaidor and Matai Shang are making their escape with Dejah Thoris while John Carter dangles from a rope below the ship, tables are turned.  Thurid stabs Matai Shang and throws him overboard to lighten the ship, and just as he's about to send John Carter to a similar fate, Phaidor jumps up and stabs Thurid repeatedly, stating first "this is for Matai Shang!" and second "this is for Dejah Thoris and John Carter!"

She explains, after Thurid's corpse has been disposed of, that she realized the error of her ways and understands the purity of love that John Carter and Dejah Thoris share versus the petty jealousy and possessiveness with which she approached "loving" John Carter.  She makes a comment about reparations for her sins, and then throws herself over the side!

I kind of think she's overstating her case on learning her lesson, given the "cruel laugh" she throws in Carter's face barely an hour before.  I feel like she killed Thurid to avenge her father, and threw herself over the side knowing that with Matai Shang dead, the power of the Therns was truly broken.  The bit about learning her lesson regarding love seems like rationalization to me.

The novel ends on a high note with John Carter and Dejah Thoris being reunited, with their son Carthoris falling in love with Thuvia of Ptarth, and the charges of heresy against John Carter dropped to the thunderous applause of Martians from pole to pole.  And I think this is a great place for me to take a little break from Barsoom and read something else briefly before returning to that world of barbaric splendor.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Gods of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1913)

Kaor, readers! Continuing with my return to Barsoom, today I'm looking at the second book in the series, Gods of Mars.  When we last left John Carter, he'd valiantly used what seemed his last breath to throw open the doors of the Atmosphere Plant so that the machinery could be repaired and Barsoom could live.  Upon so doing, he found himself back on Earth, ten years after he left it.  Gold discovered in the Arizona hills made him wealthy, but what did he care for wealth when Dejah Thoris, the love of his life, was on Barsoom, possibly asphyxiated? Years pass on Earth, and John Carter seemingly dies again, and is buried by his nephew (Edgar Rice Burroughs) in a tomb of his own design - one that can only be opened from the inside.

Awakening once more on another world, John Carter at first believes he's somehow missed Barsoom - he finds himself in what appears to be a well-manicured park, and a lake or sea is visible in the distance.  He's relieved to discover he has found Barsoom when he encounters his old friend Tars Tarkas - but learns that he has arrived in the Valley Dor, where Martians not slain in battle go to die, and from which, by ancient law, no man may return.

Dor is no paradise, however, being home to the vampiric Plant Men and savage White Apes.  Worse still, however, are the men John Carter meets - the Holy Therns, a race of white-skinned men who perpetuate the myth of heavenly Dor to lure in Red and Green Men, helping themselves to the arms and jewelry of the victims and eating their flesh.  John Carter makes it his mission to alert the world at large of the Therns' deception, regardless of personal cost to himself.

But escape from the Therns echoes Milton's Paradise Lost: "and in the lowest deep a lower deep, still threat'ning to devour me opens wide, to which the Hell I suffered seems a Heaven." John Carter falls first among the black-skinned First Born, who prey on the Therns as the Therns prey on the rest of Barsoom, and then into the hands of Zat Arrras, an old enemy from Zodanga who seeks to rule over the twin cities of Helium.  With Dejah Thoris in the hands of the First Born, John Carter embarks on a mad race to build a new fleet of warships to destroy the power of the Therns and the First Born forever, before Dejah Thoris is eaten and Zat Arrras claims the throne of Helium.

In this first sequel to A Princess of Mars, Burroughs cranks the adventure up to 11 and tears the knob off.  There are no "slow" scenes here; even when Carter is languishing in a completely lightless dungeon for months on end, it's written with a breathless intensity that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Here we get an interesting take on religion that prefigures probably a half-dozen or more crafty, fraudulent witch doctors in the Tarzan series.  I don't know what Burroughs' personal beliefs on religion or spirituality were, but the venomous contempt he shows for "false" religions such as that promulgated by the Therns and the First Born is fascinating and feels very contemporary to the 21st century.  It takes very little imagination to translate the self-servicing, vain corruption of the Therns to the real world of today - Matai Shang, ruler of the Therns, would not be out of place in a modern megachurch.  And having the First Born dupe the Therns the same way the Therns dupe everyone else was a delicious bit of irony.

Also a little startling given the 1913 copyright date is how the different races of Barsoom are treated.  The Red Men are the dominant human ethnicity on Mars, with a skin color comparable to Native Americans.  John Carter meets good people and bad people among them; the Red Martians run the gamut of morality and ethics, and are judged strictly based on their behavior towards their fellow men.  In Gods of Mars, John Carter encounters the First Born, who are black-skinned.  While initially described to him as bloodthirsty pirates, they're not described in any way, shape or form resembling how an African-American would be described in literature of 1913.  And while many of the First Born are arrayed against Carter, he just as quickly finds allies among them - through treating them as fellow human beings.  Burroughs even lampshades this a bit by having Carter, a Confederate veteran you recall, comment along the lines of, "this may seem odd for a Virginian to say, but these black warriors were some of the handsomest and most skilled I've ever seen."

The only Barsoomian ethnic group that is depicted as wholly and irredeemably evil are the white-skinned Therns.

Finally, I'd like to look at the three women in this book who love John Carter.  Total macho man power fantasy, of course, to have beautiful women falling all over you.  But the interesting thing is in how these three women - Dejah Thoris, his wife; Princess Thuvia of Ptarth, a slave to the Therns until Carter frees her; and Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang - interact with him.  Carter is no testosterone-fueled beast; he is very strictly monogamous to Dejah Thoris, even when he believes her to be dead he remains faithful to her memory rather than so much as hug another beautiful woman who is throwing herself at his feet.

Thuvia falls in love with Carter when he frees her from the Therns.  When Carter says, "sorry, I'm married," Thuvia accepts this, and devotes herself, heart and soul, to both John Carter and Dejah Thoris, sublimating her romantic love into a sense of honor and service.  She goes on to save Carter's life multiple times in the books to come, while also having adventures of her own, as we'll see later.

Phaidor falls in love with Carter when she sees that he's handsome and skilled with a blade.  When Carter says, "sorry, I'm married," Phaidor's response is to tell him he'll regret ever turning her away, that nobody ever tells Phaidor "no", and that by refusing her love he has signed Dejah Thoris' death warrant, because Phaidor will torture her to death to punish Carter for his refusal.

Quite the difference, and I'm sure Burroughs brought these two together in these pages as an intentional contrast.  Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes in the book happens at the climax, as Phaidor lunges at Dejah Thoris with a dagger and Thuvia trying to interpose herself - to stop the dagger with her own heart, if nothing else.

The book ends on one of the most gripping and heart-clenching cliffhangers I've ever read - at the command of Issus, the false goddess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, Phaidor and Thuvia are placed in the Temple of the Sun, a prison whose doorway opens only one day every year.  John Carter is tearing through the palaces of the First Born to try and reach them before the door closes, and arrives just in time to see the door seal shut, his last glimpse of the three women the scene described in the previous paragraph.  We're left to wonder if Carter will ever see Dejah Thoris alive again, or if Phaidor's dagger found its mark.

While Carter must wait a year to find out what has happened to his beloved, Burroughs' readers had a much shorter wait - The Warlord of Mars began its serialized run in All-Story seven months after the serialization of The Gods of Mars concluded.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912)

Greetings, readers! Some of you may know that when I began my current job back in August, the first thing I did with my first paycheck was treat myself to a big box of miscellaneous Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks; my mother always taught me, "with the first paycheck of any job, treat yourself to something you wouldn't buy otherwise." I didn't dive right into reading the contents of this box right away because I began the new job the day after Pulpfest last year, and I had a lot of new reading to work through first.  Now that it's a new year, I want to try and read as much Edgar Rice Burroughs as I can - it's been many, many years since I've read most of the Mars series, I've only read maybe a third of the Tarzan series, almost none of the Pellucidar series, and nothing beyond that.  So I decided to start digging in, and I decided to start where a lot of things began for me: under the moons of Barsoom with A Princess of Mars.

John Carter, a seemingly-ageless soldier and most recently a veteran of the American Civil War, has gone west to seek his fortune mining gold.  When his partner is killed by Apaches, Carter takes refuge in a strange cave, high in the Arizona hills.  A strange gas overcomes him, and he awakens on the planet Mars.  

Here, he finds himself amidst the barbaric splendor of a dying civilization; he's immediately captured by the Tharks, a tribe of savage Green Men - towering, four-armed creatures with bulging eyes and razor sharp tusks.  The increase of strength he experiences on the lower-gravity Mars (or Barsoom, as its known to its inhabitants) earns him their respect.  A Tharkian raid on a foreign airship brings Carter into contact with the Red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, with whom he falls in love.  

His devotion to Dejah Thoris brings him into conflict with the Tharks, and he makes a daring escape with Dejah Thoris and Sola, a Green Martian woman capable of the softer sentiments.  Carter braves horrible beasts and worse men to see Dejah Thoris safely returned to her city of Helium, and earn her hand in marriage.  

I would be lying if I said there was any one book on this Earth that had a more profound effect on me than A Princess of Mars.  I first read it when I was in the 5th grade, which would have been 1997.  So it's been almost twenty years now since I was first introduced to Barsoom and its inhabitants.  John Carter is the standard of manhood, integrity and honor that I aspire to every day, and Dejah Thoris was my first crush.  I've given copies of this book to every girl I've ever dated, because I think it's the key to understanding what makes me tick as a person.  

I chose the Michael Whelan 1979 cover painting to accompany this post because that's what adorned the copy I read in 1997 and it's what adorned the copy I read this past week.  It's the image that defines the look of Barsoom to me - Whelan's spindly, mantis-like Tharks match the description in the book better than any of the beefier versions we tend to see today, John Carter is built like a warrior without looking like he's competing in Mr. Universe, and Dejah...she is nude, yes, as described in the books, but she's not presented as jerk-off material.  It breaks my heart to see my first love as she's so often depicted this days, splayed out like a centerfold or drawn with cartoonishly over-inflated breasts.  She's a scientist and a statesman, in addition to being a princess.  She's not a porn star.  Whelan gives her an elegance and an innocence missing from so many modern depictions.  

I've read this novel probably eight to ten times since 1997, but let's face it, as a ten year old there was a lot I didn't "get" that first time or glossed over because it wasn't moving fast enough, and many of those revisits since then were light read-throughs, a brief and pleasant diversion.  This past week was the first time I really sat down and read the book deeply, chewing over every word of Burroughs' prose.  A couple points:
  • I had forgotten just how big the portion of the book detailing Carter's life among the Tharks is.  The first chapter is set in Arizona, but Carter's then with the Tharks from Chapter 2 through Chapter 17, for sixteen out of twenty eight total chapters.  It makes sense that this would be the case, because we the readers are being introduced to this world along with Carter - without showing him learning about the world a step at a time, the reader would be totally lost.  I also never noticed the passage where it's mentioned that Tal Hajus, the Jeddak (high chieftain) of Thark is a slave to his sexual passions, whereas in most of the Green Race the libido is reduced and sex is solely a matter of reproduction to strengthen the tribe.  Between that and his bulk, I wonder to what extent Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars was inspired by Tal Hajus? The influence of Barsoom on the Star Wars saga, especially RETURN OF THE JEDI, is well-documented, but I've never seen this point raised before.  
  • I also forgot the extent to which Tal Hajus is the "central" villain of Princess.  Than Kosis, Jeddak of the city of Zodanga, is waging a war against Helium that will only end if Dejah Thoris agrees to marry his son, but the way it's paced it feels almost like an afterthought; the conflict between John Carter (and even moreso, his Green Martian friend, Tars Tarkas) and Tal Hajus feels so much more personal and visceral.  And I say that with full recognition of the fact that the final battle wherein Tars Tarkas overthrows Tal Hajus to become Jeddak of Thark takes place between two paragraphs.  
  • Red Martian houses are built atop a piston that can be raised or lowered at will; rather than locking their doors at night, Red Martians simply raise their house up to deny anyone entry.  I don't think Burroughs revisits this idea at all anywhere else in the series, but it's certainly an intriguing way of showcasing the differences between Martians and Earthlings.  
  • There's a nine year period after the defeat of Zodanga and the marriage of John Carter to Dejah Thoris that is glossed over.  Burroughs writes simply, in Chapter 27, "For nine years I served in the councils and fought in the armies of Helium as a prince of the house of Tardos Mor." I can't be alone in wanting to know what happened during that time.  Sounds like a perfect opportunity to write some continuation stories to fill that nine year gap.  
Rereading Princess and revisiting Barsoom...it's like going home, in a sense.  Reading it as an adult, I can recognize issues - Burroughs was essentially self-taught at writing, though I believe he had an innate sense for storytelling - but they don't matter.  What matters is, in these pages, I can feel the same swelling sense of adventure and wonder that drove Bradbury to his typewriter and Sagan to his telescope.  Nineteen years after my first trip to Barsoom, I still feel the fire in my belly that I felt as a science fiction-loving ten year old picking up the book for the first time.  I still want to look up at Mars in the night sky, feel the click like a taut wire snapping, and take off through a moment of darkness and cold to find my way, across millions of karads of empty space, to the moss-carpeted sea bottoms, dotted with the ruins of long dead cities.  

And still, and I suspect forever, the words are burned into the fibers of my heart: "I do not believe I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes..."

Kaor, Uncle Jack.  It's a joy to see you again.