Llana of Gathol is the 10th of 11 JOHN CARTER OF MARS books that Edgar Rice Burroughs left to the world. This book is comprised of four linked short tales that first appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine from March to October 1941. Each of these stories is around 50 pages in length and is made up of 13 very short chapters.
In the first tale, “The Ancient Dead,” John Carter goes for a spin in his flier to get away from it all, and winds up in the ancient Barsoomian city of Horz. This long-dead city, however, turns out to be anything but. In “The Black Pirates of Barsoom,” Carter discovers an enclave of the First Born (last seen in book 2, The Gods of Mars) and is forced to fight in their gladiator-style games. In “Escape on Mars,” Carter goes to the aid of the besieged city of Gathol, and winds up stealing a battleship and putting together an untrustworthy crew of mercenaries and assassins. Finally, in “Invisible Men of Mars,” Carter and his granddaughter, the eponymous Llana, come upon the lost city of Invar, and its invisible inhabitants.
Space does not permit me to go into the remarkable plot twists and surprises that this book offers. Each of the tales is a little gem of swift-moving action, but this time presented with a decidedly lighthearted touch. For all the serious goings-on, this Carter volume features the most humor yet seen in the series. This combination of deadly action, presented with a light tone, is a very appealing one.
Llana of Gathol is also something of a nostalgia piece; of all the books in the series, this one refers back to events in previous volumes more than any of the others. Indeed, I can hardly see how a reader could really enjoy this collection without a thorough knowledge of all the previous entries in the series. And in addition to previous events being referred to, we also see the return of several characters from earlier volumes: Ptor Fak from A Princess of Mars, Tan Hadron from A Fighting Man of Mars, Zithad from The Gods of Mars and so on. This harking back to old events and characters strikes me as being not repetitive, as some readers have claimed, but a nice, almost nostalgic tribute to past events.
Llana of Gathol also features one of the longest and nastiest sword fights that Carter has ever engaged in; the one with Motus, in the city of Invar. This is one memorable sequence, indeed. Carter is told several times during the course of this novel, by one or another of his many enemies, that “Resistance is futile.” I can’t help wondering whether the creators of Star Trek‘s Borg menace were Burroughs fans! Anyway, these short-story gems will certainly entertain any lover of fast-moving SFF.
All of which is not to say that Llana of Gathol contains no problems, however. Like all the previous books in the CARTER series, this one contains some doozies. For example, the use of outrageous coincidence, while frequent in past volumes, is waaay overused in this book. I refer here to the coincidence of bumping into Llana in Horz and the coincidence of meeting the brother of Janai (heroine of book 9, Synthetic Men of Mars), not to mention the coincidence of meeting all the other “old friends” mentioned above. Worse still is the fact that by the book’s end, the fate of several of the main characters remains unknown; e.g., the fate of Hin Abtol, the main villain of the saga, and of Tan Hadron and Fo-Nar. We are told by Carter at one point that he will soon explain how the First Born have come to be in the lost rift valley, but he never gets around to it. There are the usual inconsistencies that pop up, too: Why do the clothes of the invisible inhabitants of Invar become invisible also? Why haven’t the clothes of the living dead in Horz not long since disintegrated? How is Carter able to read the hieroglyphs on the king’s crown in Invar, when in previous books Burroughs has told us that each city has its own written symbols? Why is it necessary for Hin Abtol’s ships to drop men with equilibrimotors (flying belts) into the besieged city of Gathol, when these soldiers could just fly in themselves? I should perhaps add at this point that I have been told by one of the founders of the ERB List (the best Burroughs Website that any fan could ever hope for) that many of these errors and discrepancies are absent from the original versions of the CARTER books, but only added later by addle-brained copy editors. I can only speak of what I have read (the Ballantine/DelRey paperbacks from the early ’80s), and these books are something of a mess. Still, the vision of Burroughs does manage to shine through, and despite the glitches, Llana of Gathol is a veritable packet of wonders.