Meet John Carter, clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia. A veteran of the War Between the States, he decided to go prospecting since the Confederate cause was well and truly lost, and the money he had was rendered worthless. While on a sojourn in Arizona, he is waylaid by Indians and is forced to hide in a cave — but the cave transports him to planet Mars — or “Barsoom” as it is called by the inhabitants — where he meets and falls in love with the lovely red-skinned princess Dejah Thoris. However, Dejah Thoris is captured by an implacable enemy, and is forced into a marriage with a local lord. John Carter decides that he will fight valiantly to rescue his dear Dejah Thoris, come what may.
Thus is the story of John Carter and his beautiful princess of Mars.
The story is short but simply told, without the great twists and turns that have come to characterize modern fiction. John Carter, though he has an extensive backstory, is not weighted down by angst or self-doubt, making him seem simplistic to a modern audience; however, this does not weaken his character. Rather, it strengthens it, showing that he is a man of action — and just as well, because such a trait is prized among the Martians. His quest for Dejah Thoris is very much a classic “rescue the princess” situation, yet it doesn’t feel stupid or anything; rather, it feels refreshing and romantic, especially since modern authors avoid playing this trope too straight. Codes of honor are treated not with cynicism, but with respect; not once does John Carter try to game them or insult them, since they seem so similar to the conduct expected of a traditional Virginia gentleman such as himself. Indeed, if anything characterizes this story, it’s the complete lack of cynical attitudes toward anything. Lastly, the story does not end how you would expect it — let me just leave it at that.
Within this story, you can see the DNA of several concepts used by later science fiction: the post-apocalyptic wasteland, the sword fighting in the vein of Star Wars, the airships of the steampunk genre, lots of high-tech weaponry, and the proud warrior races of Star Trek and even Dragonball Z. This is one reason why I think the film version failed to catch on: by now, in the 21st century, all of these concepts had been done better in more recent works. That being said, reading A Princess of Mars feels like a walk through the genre’s early days, when much of this stuff was new and groundbreaking.
The story’s main weaknesses are a tendency to stop and explain things at length; indeed, the book starts with someone recounting John’s life, then John himself talking about his past in detail before reaching Mars. Also, while on Mars, he often meanders to explain some bizarre Martian custom or wildlife, though these digressions aren’t nearly as bad as the beginning and serve to ground the reader in the world. Also, the action doesn’t feel as solid or visceral as it should even during important, dramatic moments. While it is not necessary to describe every sword thrust or pistol shot, pivotal moments should have more descriptive action in them. But overall, the good outweighs the bad.
I recommend this book if you like simple and straightforward tales of heroism. While the descriptions aren’t always up to snuff, it is a nice story free of snark.