The Chessmen Of Mars
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“The Chessmen of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the fifth book in the Barsoom series. After “Thuvia, Maid of Mars” was something of a disappointment, this installment may be the best of the series. As with the prior book, this one focuses on different characters than any of the earlier books in the series, this time the focus is John Carter’s daughter Tara, and Gahan, the Jed of Gathol. The story was originally published as a serial in “Argosy All-Story Weekly” in the February 18th, 25th, March 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th editions in 1922 before being published in book for in November of the same year.
It is true that there are some issues with it. For one thing, the Prelude initially seems unnecessary and doesn’t quite fit with the book. The premise is that John Carter returns to Earth briefly to relate the tale, but when the story starts he is speaking from a perspective of Tara, not himself, and that is the case for most of the book. When one gets to the end, then having John Carter telling the tale makes a bit more sense, because it allows Burroughs to quickly tell what happens after the main action without a drawn out couple of chapters. The other issue is that it is a bit difficult to believe that Tara doesn’t recognize Gahan at their second meeting. While one can understand that it is important for the way the story is told, it doesn’t seem believable, and then it leads to issues with the narration referring to Gahan by the wrong name and position, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. The reader knows that he is not a Pathan and that his name isn’t Turan, and it would have made sense to consistently refer to him with the proper name and rank when it is from another character’s perspective, rather than the general narration.
Those problems are minor though, as the story is very enjoyable, and the new characters add a lot to the series. Ghek is a member of a rather horrifying race (the Kaldane), but when he becomes an ally it adds a great deal to the story. The city of Manator likewise is very inventive with its social behavior, and of course we have the use of the game of Jetan, which is much like chess which plays an important role in the story. The story is so entertaining, that one hardly notices that one of the major plot devices, that Tara is promised to another but is falling for Gahan/Turan is rather similar to the one used in “Thuvia, Maid of Mars”.
One of the reasons I feel that this book is probably the best of the series thus far is that unlike John Carter in the first three books, the major characters in this book are much more vulnerable. Carter always seemed invincible, as he could fight countless foes hour after hour. While it is true that Gahan faces one foe for a long period in this book, it is the same one who would also be suffering the ill-effects of a prolonged combat. Of course, one cannot deny that this book does not stand on its own, and that you need to read at least the “Princess of Mars” before it, and better yet all of the prior books, and so one can understand why others may feel that it is those books are more important to the series, but I don’t think this one is behind any of the previous ones when it comes to the entertaining storyline.