Editor’s note: This title can be purchased free on Kindle.
The Chessmen of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fifth JOHN CARTER novel out of eleven, first appeared in serial form in the magazine Argosy All Story Weekly from February to April 1922. It is easily the best of the Carter lot to this point; the most detailed, the most imaginative, and the best written. Carter himself only appears at the beginning and end of the tale. Instead, our action heroes are his daughter, Tara, who gets lost in a rare Barsoomian storm while joyriding in her flier and blown halfway across the surface of the planet, and the Gatholian jed Gahan, who goes in search of her.
In the first half of this novel, Tara and Gahan wind up in the clutches of the kaldanes — bodiless brains who live in a symbiotic relationship with their headless “rykors.” One of these brains, Ghek, befriends the couple and tags along with them for the remainder of their odyssey. Ghek is a wonderful character, touching and fascinating and amusing all at once. In one passage, Ghek gives us some very interesting philosophy regarding the relationship between mind and body. In the second half of the book, the trio is captured by the hordes of Manator, and Gahan winds up fighting for Tara in a game of Martian chess, or jetan, a game in which real men are used in lieu of pieces and fight to the death for possession of squares. The jetan sequence is extremely exciting and detailed, and knowledge of chess is not necessary for full enjoyment. One need not be a chess buff to appreciate the detailed moves that Burroughs gives us.
The Chessmen of Mars is, as I mentioned, very well written for a Burroughs novel; even, dare I say it, poetically written in spots. The action is relentless, the standard of imagination very high, and the denouement extremely satisfying. It is a near masterpiece. Why only “near”? Well, as is usual with these books, there are some problems….
As in the previous Carter novels, these problems take the form of inconsistencies and implausibilities. At the book’s beginning, Burroughs, who has just been told this tale by Carter himself, writes that “if there be inconsistencies and errors, let the blame fall not upon John Carter, but rather upon my faulty memory, where it belongs.” He is excusing himself in advance for any mistakes that he might make, and well he should, because there are many such in this book. I, however, cannot excuse an author for laziness and sloppy writing. Saying “excuse me” doesn’t make for good writing. Just what am I referring to here? Let’s see….
Tara, in several spots in the book, refers to Tardos Mors as her grandfather, when in actuality he is her great-grandfather. The Martian word “sofad” is said to be a foot; but in the previous book, “Thuvia, Maid of Mars,” an “ad” was said to be a foot. Tara, in one scene, smites Ghek on the back of the head. Gahan is watching this fight from a distance, and sees her hit Ghek in the face! In the game of jetan, the thoat pieces are said to wear three feathers; but in the Rules for Jetan at the book’s end, they are said to wear two. This book is based on events told to John Carter, conceivably by Tara, Gahan and/or Ghek, and yet scenes are described in which none of those characters appear; thus, they could have had no knowledge of these events described. This, I feel, is a basic problem with the book’s structure.
Besides these inconsistencies, there are some things that are a bit hard to swallow. For instance, that Gahan could fall 3,000 feet from a flier in the middle of a cyclone and, freakishly, survive. It’s also hard to believe that Tara does not recognize Gahan when he comes to her rescue, and fails to remember where they have met, until the very end of the book. In addition, I feel that the character of Ghek is underutilized in the book’s second half. It might have been nice to see the old boy loosening up a bit, as he got more in touch with his emotions, Spockstyle.
Anyway, all quibbles aside, The Chessmen of Mars is a wonderful piece of fantasy, one that had me tearing through the pages as quickly as I possibly could. It is an exceptionally fine entry in the JOHN CARTER series.
The Chessmen of Mars comes a little way into Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ BARSOOM series, after John Carter had saved Dejah Thoris in pretty much every conceivable way one person can save another, so he had to pass the torch to his children. The first book in what I guess we can call John Carter: The Next Generation was Thuvia, Maid of Mars, featuring Carter’s son Cathoris as the hero. In Chessmen of Mars we move on to Tara of Helium, John Carter’s daughter.
The storyline sticks so closely to Burroughs’ well-established BARSOOM tropes that any experienced reader can probably sketch a pretty solid outline sight unseen, but let’s do a quick summary anyway for form’s sake. Tara of Helium is a beautiful Martian princess of a city named — for reasons lost to Martian history — after a gas known for giving people squeaky cartoon voices. A bold and manly specimen of a Martian man arrives to pay court to her, but Tara decides to blow him off because she’s kind of a brat. Having established a solid character flaw to overcome in the next couple hundred pages of adversity, she makes the hilariously unwise choice of taking a tiny airship out into a gigantic windstorm and gets Dorothy Gale-d away to yet another Unknown Region of Barsoom (seriously, how is there so much of this planet that a civilization with airships has not explored?). Once there, she is inevitably captured by a new group of bizarre monsters. Loverboy has an attack of chivalry and sails off to the rescue despite having no idea where she’s gone, but finds her by sheer dumb luck. Rinse and repeat until the finale.
Despite my snarking at what is by any standard a very familiar progression of events by this point in the series (that is, the good old Romance ‘n Rescue storyline), I have to say that I kind of like The Chessmen of Mars. For one thing, Tara is my favorite heroine in the series. That’s not saying a lot, but at least she doesn’t seem to be as much of a pushover as the other Martian women we’ve seen so far. Must be those strong Carter genes, though I find it very suspicious that Cathoris inherited his dad’s Earthling super strength, while Tara apparently just has the muscles of a regular Martian. What’s going on here, Burroughs?
But of course Burroughs would really rather you not bring that up, because he’s having a hard enough time establishing Tara as both John Carter’s daughter (thus pig-headed and extremely stab-happy) and also an ideal feminine model of the era in which he wrote (this is Burroughs: for good or bad, the heroine always has to be some kind of feminine ideal, just as the hero never strays too far from Man’s Man territory). I was left with the impression that Burroughs wasn’t quite sure how far was too far in regard to Tara, and by the end of the book he was still grappling with the issue. In the end, Tara averages out at about 90% her mom and 10% her dad, so that I had to imagine her as basically a carbon copy of her mother with one prominent Carter feature (I usually envisioned her as having inherited John Carter’s manly butt-chin. Come on. You know Carter has a great big butt-chin).
As usual with Burroughs novels (which, in fairness, were written very quickly), there are a good few mistakes and unlikely plot twists. The story is supposedly relayed via a frame narrative of John Carter telling it to the author (Burroughs even hedges his bets by having the narrator claim that he might have misheard or misremembered Carter, so any small inaccuracies should be attributed to that), but that doesn’t explain how Carter can occasionally describe things to which he probably couldn’t have been privy, unless he’s just making assumptions for the sake of a better yarn. I guess we also have to figure he’s embellishing as he goes, because some of the events that take place here are frankly ridiculous. In the most egregious moment, Loverboy falls out of an airship thousands of feet up, is caught by wind currents, survives completely uninjured, and ends up conveniently close to where Tara’s ship went down. It’s not like this is common on Mars, either: the rest of the airship crew immediately assumes he’s dead. Then there’s the time Tara stabs an elderly man in the chest, he bleeds out on the floor for a good long while, and then he apparently just recovers with no ill effects when Burroughs needs him again.
On the other hand, I must say that other elements of the book are better than usual. Burroughs isn’t exactly a master prose stylist even at the best of times, but The Chessmen of Mars often displays more evocative language than I’m used to seeing from him, and while the themes and messages he occasionally tries to impart (especially with a supporting character named Ghek) are a little basic, they’re… well, they’re actually there. Burroughs didn’t bother with putting much speculation in his speculative fiction earlier on, and the more contemplative tone is welcome here. Also, while Tara inevitably slumps into the same female default as every Burroughs heroine, she does show glimmers of better characterization than Dejah Thoris or Thuvia; and her relationship with Gahan (aka Loverboy) is actually somewhat more thoughtful material (by Burroughs standards) than the “love at first sight” thing he does in other works. He even uses the romance to talk a little about class, at least in a perfunctory way, although of course it’s the usual “secret prince” routine whereby the princess agonizes over whether she can betray her station for her commoner boyfriend, only to learn that he actually is royalty after all once she’s chosen love.
These novels are pulpy adventures in outer space, and despite his failings in terms of narrative and his very dated politics, Burroughs is still a bluffly compelling author. He’s not a careful artist, he’s a spinner of yarns, and ultimately The Chessmen of Mars is an engaging story with some genuinely fun and thrilling moments. It probably won’t change many readers’ minds one way or another on the John Carter material or on Edgar Rice Burroughs as a writer, but for the person who enjoyed the earlier novels, this one is fun and lively and shows that there was still a spark left in the series.