I know, I know. A Princess of Mars? What kind of chick-flick junk am I trying to pull on you? This is not what you think it is, I swear. I can explain. First, let me say that generally I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with the word ‘princess’ on the cover (unless it’s The Princess Bride…that’s different). When I first heard of this book, I just scoffed and decided to read Crime and Punishment instead. Now that is a title I can get behind.
But then the movie John Carter came out. Now I know a lot of people thought it was a stupid movie. If you’re one of those people, then you’re doing your life wrong. I thought it was a very good movie and liked it enough to see if it was based off of a book. It was.
Turns out that A Princess of Mars is the first book of the John Carter of Mars series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That’s right, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who brought us Tarzan and inspired such writers as Ray Bradbury. I thought, “Okay, how bad can it really be?”
Turns out, not very bad. Not bad at all, actually.
At the end of the Civil War, Captain John Carter finds himself unemployed and in the possession of several hundred thousand Confederate dollars. While seeking his fortune as a gold miner, he trespasses onto Indian Territory. The Indians, not taking very kindly to this, set out to scalp him and John Carter is forced to hide in a cave to escape. Mysteriously, this cave is a portal to Barsoom, the planet known as Mars by us Earth people. Captain Carter unwittingly escapes into the vast red desert of this land, only to find himself captured by Tharks.
A brutal race, these green Martians are unimpressed with Carter, as he stands several feet shorter than them and has one less pair of arms. Unimpressed, that is, until they see him jump. Due to Barsoom’s lesser gravity, Carter has gained extraordinary physical prowess: he can jump 30 feet into the air and strike a Thark dead with a single blow. Thark Jeddak (chieftain) Tars Tarkas decides to take him back to their city, knowing that his skills will greatly improve their main source of entertainment: gladiatorial games.
But first, John Carter is handed over to Sola, a female Thark who teaches him to speak Barsoomian and to wield their weapons. It is from her that he learns of the Thark’s philosophy: those who kill and torture are to be honored and any signs of affection are the markings of weakness. It soon becomes apparent to Carter that this philosophy is why Sola is disliked by many Tharks: her loyalty and friendship towards him flags her as a lesser being.
Sola becomes Carter’s main ally, followed closely by Woola, a repulsive-looking animal with ten legs and sharp rows of teeth. Short and pudgy, his appearance belies the fact that he is the fastest animal on Barsoom. When Carter hears of a fellow captive named Dejah Thoris, a red Martian princess and one of the foremost scientists of the city of Helium, he relies on Sola and Woola to help them escape from the Tharks.
But, in doing so, Carter is plunged into the battle between three Martians races: the Tharks, the people of Helium, and the people of Zodanga. He must earn the trust of Tars Tarkas and work to form an alliance between the Tharks and the people of Helium in order save the people he has grown to love: gentle Sola, loyal Woola, and Dejah Thoris, a princess of Mars.
This book is no Disney princess ‘waiting for true love’ fairytale. It’s a swashbuckling adventure full of strange creatures and life-and-death situations.
It falls into the soft science fiction category. For those of you who may not know, soft SF is generally defined as a book that uses bits and pieces of science as a backdrop to a story rather than a main point. But we’ll just call it like it is: soft SF is when a book uses science rather like magic: the science is unexplained, impossible, and just plain cool.
A Princess of Mars is the first book out of eleven. That’s right: eleven. I’ve read five of them so far. The writing is nothing spectacular, there’s no real character arc, and the plots generally consist of John Carter somehow misplacing or being robbed of Dejah Thoris and fighting to reunite with her. If you’re looking for an intellectual read or a book that might better society, then this is not your book.
But if you want something heroic, fantastical, and completely fun, then you’re in the right place.
A Princess of Mars gives us a sparkling new take on Mars that goes beyond fluorescent man-eating insects or aliens with big heads. John Carter is ever the honorable warrior and, though not very deep, his character is impossible to dislike. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to sign up for Mars One on the off-chance that I might find my own personal Woola (What? You can’t deny how awesome that would be). We know the good guys will always win, but we keep reading because we want to see exactly how that’s going to happen.
Simply put: if you’re a fan of science-fiction and action-adventure novels, John Carter of Mars is not to be ignored.
Because I like you, I shall leave you with this little tip: do NOT start this book without having access to the second and third one, because the end is a cliffhanger. Not a “whatever, I know how this will get resolved” kind of cliffhanger but an “Oh crap” kind of cliffhanger. Plus, I almost think the second and third books are better than the first since the plots become more intricate and wild.
What about you? Are you a John Carter fan? For some strange reason, I’ve been unable to find any fellow Barsoomian buffs, so if you’re one, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about your favorite character or your favorite book from the John Carter of Mars series! And, of course, if you’re unfamiliar with John Carter, leave a comment anyway. It's always fun to connect with our readers!
Hannah Heath - bookworm and aspiring author