Book Corner: The Chessmen of Mars (Burroughs, E. R. 1922)

At first, I thought I hadn't read the Chessmen of Mars before, despite I did clearly remember its name. Before Tara, daughter of always manly John Carter and the most beautiful woman on Mars, Dejah Thoris, is whisked away by a maelstrom I had no recollection of the story. And then the headless Martians with their symbiotic heads with spider legs appeared. So yeah, I've read it before, it's just has been so long time, that I had forgotten most of it. Not that anything about it is far too complicated.

So let's rewind a bit. There's Tara, daughter of the warlord and princess of Mars. She's a bit anxious, as she's lived her life as a princess, and she knows that one of these days she's to be wed to the son of her fathers best friend, or second best, as John's best mate is the green Martian Tars Tarkas and the red Martians aren't into that tusks and insectoid look. But yeah, she's anxious as she yearns for an adventure and perhaps she even yarns to learn what love really is, as her mate to be, while fun and all, is like a pair of old shoes: familiar and nice to the feet, but there's no real reason to make a number out of them.

As Tara is a seasoned air pilot, she one day decides to take a trip. A freak and rare martian storm hits and her little flier are carried far away from home only to end up near a city in a valley of Bantoom. There she meets up to date the strangest, yes even stranger than the plant men, race of Mars:  Kaldanes, a race that has given up their own bodies in order to become almost purely brains. But they also need a bit better transportation than their little spider feet allow, so they've created Rykors, headless bodies they can mount on as a head and gain control over their movements.

Kaldanes have no emotions, they pride in being all about pure logic. So when Tara is captured by them she soon notices that her meagre brain box isn't good enough to convince the leader of the Kaldanes of her worth. But one Kaldane, Ghek, gets enamoured of Tara's singing. At first, selfishly, he wants to keep Tara around, as he has never heard singing before, as his race has no need for such trivialities. Soon enough Tara does manage to convince Ghek that individuality does have its merits as well, and when Ghek is himself sentenced to death because of how he showed clear signs of brain malfunction because of liking something as trivial as singing, he decides to help Tara escape after Gahan of Gathol drops by to save her.

Gahan of Gathol isn't the suitor John Carter indented by the way, so this is the romance part. In a proper Barsoom novel tradition Gahan, Tara and Ghek escape the valley of Bantoom, but this wouldn't be a Barsoom story if they wouldn't instantly just jump from one frying pan to an another. This other frying pan being the city of Manator, inhabited by a bit more primitive race of Red Martians who have no firearms or flyers. And they aren't welcoming to the strangers either. Melodrama ensues.

The people of Manator are keen about two things: Martian chess Jetan and death. In Jetan they combine them both, as their prime punishment is to put people on a huge Jetan board where they can duke it out. Their other way of getting their jollies about death is taxidermy, which they use to, well, stuff their dead loved ones, which they then position on their balconies and other rooms that clearly decorate the best with a couple of finely detailed corpses.

In any case, as you might assume, there are obstacles in the way of the lovers and the road to blissful happiness is hard indeed. In a good Barsoom series, fashion people are imprisoned, they fight for their lives and they make friends among their enemies and in the end, they prevail.

Tara, unlike her mother Dejah Thoris and the previous leading lady of the series Thuvia, is a more competent character this time around. She's feisty as her mother, but she also has inherited some traits from her father John Carter. Despite she's imprisoned by someone a good length of the story, she isn't a helpless wall rose either: she manages to put up a fight more than once and while she's no blade fielding slaughter machine like her daddy, she does kill an enemy or two with her dagger.

Gahan is a more typical hero for the series. As he's martian born and bred, he no John Carter either, but he is courageous and tenacious and pretty good with his blade as well, though while John Carter left hills made of corpses in his wake, Gahan is more content with a much smaller kill count. This fact makes the story feel a bit less like a self-parody than the stories John Carter stars in.

John Carter is again in a much smaller role. He's more prominent in the beginning, where he acts as narrator for the story by again after astral travelling to Burroughs himself. After Tara goes missing, Carter appears again at the end of the story when he arrives at Manator accompanied by his heliumite fleet and then continues to conclude the story with Burroughs, giving a nice bow tie to it all.

Again the story is about adventure and romance. Just like with Thuvia, Maid of Mars, the story is more about exploring and encountering new cultures rather than it is about the action itself.  The first half, where Tara is captured by the Kaldanes has very little actual action in it and is more about trying to convey the bizarre existence of the almost hive mind construct of walking brains. The latter half, while has more action in it, is more about traditional romance and, again, an unwanted suitor in the form of the jeddak of Manator trying to woo Tara over while Gahan and Ghek are doing their best to find a way of getting her free.

Overall The Chessmen of Mars is a pretty decent read. As science fiction is archaic, which is to be expected considering the style of the story as well as when it was written, but as a straight cut adventure story, it is marvellous. And again, Burroughs's attention to detail with his Barsoomian world brings in an interesting feeling of both familiarity and alienness.

If you want to grab a copy of it, the Barsoom novels are very easily acquired in either digital or paper form. As the copyright to them has elapsed in many countries, it is pretty easy to even find a free digital copy of it, but the copies floating in digital stores are pretty cheap as well, so there's nothing stopping you if you fancy a read. And, I guess libraries are a good place to go as well.