Book Corner: Swords of Mars (Burroughs, E., R., 1936)

With a Fighting Man of Mars, I thought the Barsoom series and its formulaic structure has run its course. The story did break some of the tried structure Burroughs uses heavily on the previous books, but in the end, it was just a predictable piece of fiction that offered only a few bright spots. That in mind I had no big expectations from Swords of Mars.

I guess Burroughs himself was already aware that the Barsoom series was starting to feel too rutted for its own good, as the Swords of Mars is a bit different kind of a tale: it starts out  like a spy tale, when John Carter, who returns to be the main protagonist, masks himself up to be a red skinned martian in order to infiltrate the most powerful assassins guild of Zodonga. He has sworn to abolish the assassins for good and in order to do this, he needs to become a no-name sellsword Vandor.

Soon after Carter enters Zodonga, he finds himself employed by a yet another amoral martian scientist. Fal Sivas, a suspicious and paranoid man, soon comes to a conclusion, that Carter can be trusted with his scientific secrets and the fighting man soon learns, that Sivas has created a ship that is capable of interplanetary voyages. Not only that, the scientist has managed to create a "synthetic brain", that is controlling the ship. The only flaw with the brain is, that it is incapable of originating thoughts, but after it's been given a command, it will do as required with better precision than any human could.

At the same time, Carter also learns, that the head of the assassins guild, Ur Jan is planning to kidnap Dejah Thoris in order to show Carter his place and so that they could do a boatload or two of cash at the same time. Carter runs back to Helium only to find out that the princess has been kidnapped, so he flees back to Zodonga with a young officer Jat Or.

It won't come as a surprise at this point, that Ur Jan has been aided by a rival of Fal Sivas, Gar Nal, who has also built a ship capable of space travel. Carter also learns that the love of his life has been whisked away to Thuria, a moon of Mars known us as Phobos. So, he proceeds to acquire Fal Sivas's spaceship and heads after Ur Jan, accompanied by a former slave woman Zandana and the young officer.

Of course, in Thuria they end up between the rock and a hard place when the natives take them as prisoners. The rest of the tale is more typical travelling journal through the hardships that take place before the happy ending. And as it's customary to the series, there's even a couple of unexpected new friends and allies Carter gains on his road, because he's just so awesome.

Thuria introduces two new sentient species to the world of Barsoom novels. The human-like Thurians aren't that exciting, as they're only light skinned and blue haired. The most peculiar thing about them is, that they can render themselves invisible. The more interesting race is the feline-like species with one big eye and two mouths.  But other than that the Thuria part of the story offers no big surprises and returns the story to its more predictable paths.

Also, the ending of the story is a huge letdown. It feels very much like that was the point where Burroughs either ran out of ideas or just decided that this is the point where it all ends. Not surprisingly Dejah Thoris is rescued and all that, but all that is thrown in pretty plainly before the final point. That by itself does bring the story down a bit, despite it all was already heading in a familiar direction.

What does separate Swords of Mars from previous stories is, that it's not a melodramatic romance. Carter and Thoris are already known entities and their affection towards each other is a known factor, so Burroughs doesn't dwell too much on that. He also doesn't spend much time on the romance of Zandana and Jat Or, which is just told in a couple of sparse sentences.

Then there's the thing, that John Carters fighting skills are greatly downplayed in the story. While he still is the best swordsman around, he's not leaving hills made of bodies after him like he did on the first three novels. The odds against him feel more reasonable this time around and on many occasions, he also gets more help from his comrades.

As a story, I liked Swords of Mars better than the previous, a Fighting Man of Mars, novel. While it has its own share of predictability it at least shows that Burroughs was still trying to bring new elements to the series and was willing to ease up on some aspects, like the overflowing dramatic romances. The characters still get in difficulties, but they do prevail, as it's expected of them. They find enemies and even at times from among the enemies they find friends.

I'm not 100% sure that I've read the Swords of Mars before.  It has some things about it, that does ring a bell, like the description of the Thurian cat people. Though I can't be entirely sure if I've just seen the description somewhere else. But in any case, I did enjoy the story. It's not the greatest piece of pulp fiction ever created, but it's entertaining enough and it flows with ease.

It perhaps might be, that Burroughs was stretching the series too far or that he was intentionally making the stories simpler than he should have. This and the previous story do show, that he was capable of bringing new ideas to the table as well, but at the same time he also was happy following the good and tried paths to the finish line. He also leaves a lot of things, just like in the previous books, in the hands of dumb luck alone. Often things go Carter's way just because he's lucky enough, not because of skill or preparation.

But again, I did enjoy the story for what it was. In the end, it doesn't break as much new grounds that I'd hoped, but it still is entertaining enough. And I guess at times that's just enough.