Edgar Rice Burroughs
Date of Publication: 1972 (reprint)
Cover Price: 40p (U.K.)
John Carter returns to Barsoom (Mars) a full decade after the events of A Princess of Mars. He arrives amidst the Barsoomian south pole, a land of sacred death. Barsoomians undertake voluntary pilgrimages there to enter the afterlife under the watch of Issus, a powerful goddess. To return from this land is to invite immediate expulsion and execution as a blasphemer. What Carter discovers, however, is that the ancient religion is nothing more than a fraudulent cover story designed to lure unwitting victims into a land of death.
The Great Therns are white humans who act as priests and as spies, using their vast network of temples across Barsoom. The First Born are black humans; they are marauding pirates who regularly take captive girls from the therns whom they eventually offer up as sacrifices. They are the personal guards of Issus, who oversees the entire operation. Carter escapes the white apes and strange plant creatures only to find himself in the middle of this dark secret. His only quest, however, is to be reunited with his beloved Dejah Thoris and so he risks life and limb to escape to that end.
At times, Gods of Mars feels racist; Burroughs regularly refers to the First Born as "the blacks," though he does make clear that Carter finds the race beautiful and formidable. It is also curious that these black Barsoomians should be so high up the slaveholding ladder, taking white therns for their captives (although the implication that they carry off and sexually abuse white girls certainly feels like a Jim Crow-era perception). Of course, race isn't the only target of Gods of Mars, as Burroughs makes a clear assault on the foundation of religion as well. Carter's expose of Issus as little more than an ugly old crazy woman is rooted in his narrative disinterest in the Barsoomian faith; as there is no attempt on his part to assert his own faith, we are left with the notion that Carter--and hence Burroughs--has little more than disdain for any faith.
Beyond these dallianecs with social issues, Gods of Mars is first and foremost an action thriller, and at this it largely succeeds. There are only two nitpicks I have. First, I find much of John Carter's account of events so full of machismo as to be off-putting. This is beyond self-confidence to the point it frequently becomes self-aggrandizing arrogance. Even knowing that, on Mars, Carter possesses superhuman capabilities, he speaks too pompously of the devotion other Barsoomians have for him. Still, this was originally published in 1918 and the masculine ideals were yet to be tamed.
The other nitpick I have is that Gods of Mars suffers from a milder case of what I call the Ali Effect. If you've seen Ali, you're bound to have noticed that some scenes happen in almost less-than-real time, emphasizing every word that was spoken and yet other scenes gloss over entire months or years at a time. Most of this novel takes place in the literary equivalent of real time, but there are times when we simply leap ahead. The most startling of these leaps is when, in the final thirty some pages, Carter is imprisoned for literal months. That captivity is related in just a few paragraphs. Somehow, despite being confined for nearly a full Earth year in a dark cavern, held in place by a leg chain so heavy even he cannot break it, he is able to emerge in peak physical form. No muscle deterioration, not even an adjustment to light is mentioned.
These are my only knocks, though, and they reflect the style of writing that reigned supreme before writers became conscious of trying to sell movie rights. Gods of Mars could be titled John Carter and the Temple of Doom. I think I actually prefer this entry in the Barsoom/Martian series to its predecessor, A Princess of Mars. I've yet to decide if I will limit myself to one of this series annually (as I have done with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels), though I confess that the cliff-hanger ending has me a bit excited to read the third in the series.