Swords of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs (1934)

I can’t quite recall when was the last time I read an installment of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series – officially called the Barsoom series – but it has been many years, perhaps as many as twenty as far as I can guess.  But I did indeed enjoy them in those days and it was only a matter of time before I returned to read this next one, Swords of Mars, sure that I would enjoy it as much as the others.

But something has changed and I don’t think it had anything to do with a change in what the author wrote as much as it is my ingestion of the material. Burroughs, more recognized as the creator of Tarzan and for which he wrote twenty-four books, was a quintessential pulp action writer. His Mars series, and the magazine serializations in which many were originally released, were published between 1912 and 1942 and targeted young men as their primary audience. Reading them today the misogynistic and racist attitudes sorely stand out.

In Swords of Mars, like the rest of this series, our Earth born swashbuckling protagonist John Carter is either duelling wits with some inferior antagonist (usually a highly ranked warlord) or duelling in actual battle. The tempo is near nonstop action broken only by periods of him contemplating his next move towards his ultimate goal, which in this case is rescuing his beloved princess Dejah Thoris – a recurring plot in many of the Mars stories.

Not that the specifics matter all that much but in this case Dejah Thoris has been kidnapped from her home kingdom of Helium and John Carter chases the trail to neighbouring Zodanga where, undercover,  he must deal with assassins only to learn that she has already been taken to Thuria (Mars’ moon Phobos). In order to continue with his quest he must commandeer a prototype spaceship whose controls are telepathically driven, only to arrive on Thuria to be enslaved by a race that are invisible to men. With the help of a dual-mouthed cellmate having chameleon-like pigment capabilities and an accommodating queen (a slave herself) John must undertake a bold escape plan whose success relies on former foes responsible for Dejah’s capture in the first place.

With his superior strength, intellect and a lot of very fortuitous events (defying logic if you were to be critical), John Carter methodically, always one step away from a sure death does away with callous traitors, bodyguards, armies armed to the teeth and a few dimwitted jailers. For those unacquainted, the Barsoomian adventures take place in a technological landscape in which sail ships flying are as commonplace as cars and while most of the automation and machinery are crude, other facets are near magical.

I must say that with one exception this novel is lacking in other imaginative races unlike the multicolored Martian ones typical in other John Carter stories. With mainly ‘red’ Martians like Thoris herself, I was disappointed that my favorite green, quad-armed Tars Tarkas, John’s best friend, did not make an appearance here. But like many of those stories, the plot is full of strangely named, sometimes confusing, mostly cardboard characters whose monikers include Jat Or, Ur Jan, Rapas “the rat” Ulsio, Fal Silva and Umka.

The novel interestingly begins on Earth with John telling the tale to someone else, but oddly does not end with any notion of him telling it as a story, so it is a one sided ‘wrapper’ if you will. I also found that the last chapter was rushed where entire encounters with other characters are summarized in just a few sentences which I suspect were planned to be fleshed out as another episode of the serialization.

I have to admit that I did not enjoy this one as much as some of the earlier novels in the series, in particular The Chessmen of Mars. As I mentioned, perhaps it is due to me being older, wiser and more discriminating, but it is still pure escapist, fanciful, action packed adventure and at times Burroughs still manages to throw out some well crafted words where characters speak in nuanced sentences, saying one thing, but meaning another.  I will eventually read the next installment, Synthetic Men of Mars, at some point – hopefully not in another 20 years – as I have the entire set illustrated by Gino D’Achille cover art as shown here, which alone makes them worth picking off my shelves from time to time.

Gino D’achille Mars Covers

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