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Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Today’s romance market offers a lot in the way of otherworldly love. From vampires and werewolves, to fairies and even other worlds entirely, readers thrill to the unknown and the unexplored.

But to me there will only be one true into interplanetary romance, and that will be John Carter’s love for Dejah Thoris in A Princess of Mars. I first read that novel when I was 13 or 14, a very impressionable age. Even then, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first novel was 60 years old. Now it’s 97, but interest remains in the story because Disney is going to release a movie based on the novel in 2012.

I read a lot to my son, but we’ve been reading the YA fantasy novels featuring young protagonists that don’t usually mix too much violence into the story. I’ve noticed that his interest in television and movies have acquired a more grown up taste regarding physical combat. So I thought I would try to introduce him to John Carter and the dying planet of Mars.

It was interesting reading the book as an adult while remembering it so vividly from my childhood. When I first read the book, the archaic language sounded cool and courtly. Reading it now, I realize that Burroughs was – at times – incredibly verbose. In fact, some of the sentences required a second breath to finish.

As I read through the first chapter, I was certain I was going to lose my son’s patient attention. Instead, I needn’t have worried. As soon as John Carter reached Mars and Burroughs’ natural storytelling ability kicked in, my son was captured, adrift on the dying seas of the red planet.

The story seems relatively plain and unadorned by today’s standards, but it still had the raw power to draw my son’s imagination and wish for adventure into an iconic event. There simply nothing quite like being an adventuring Earthman braving the swords and spears of the malicious Tharks across deserts and saving the life of a beautiful princess. Especially when she doesn’t think you’re good enough to clean the teeth of her grandmother’s cat!

For his day and age, Burroughs invented a lot of things for this novel. He blended science fiction and his grasp of anthropology into a new concoction, threw in a few “scientific” premises, created bits and pieces of an otherworldly language, and made it all seem real. Sure, no one today will ever say that the Mars Burroughs describes ever existed, but every reader will be will left wondering what if it did?

The Martian novels Burroughs wrote, as well as his Tarzan novels, has inspired generations of fantasy and science fiction writers. When the new movie comes out, it will be interesting to see how many new converts flip over to these types of stories.

My son loved the sense of heroism and bravado that lies so keenly in these pages. He loved the fact that enemies could find a common respect and forge bonds of friendship despite their differences. After all, that’s what heroes do.

I was moved to read the book to my son because one of my college students recently discovered the Burroughs Mars books and fell in love with them. I was surprised to find that despite the 30 year gap between myself and my student there was a commonality. I was even more surprised to find that my son, inured by years of Harry Potter movies and video games, could be so taken with the world and a book almost 100 years old.

There something about heroes that will never fade away. My son’s enjoyment of the novel reminded me of all the heroes I grew up on in television, comics, and books. Thankfully, we’re going to get to share some of them. I’m glad I got to share this one.

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About Mel Odom

  • I was an avid Burroughs reader as a young teen, too. I generally enjoyed his Mars books more than I did his Tarzans, but they all made for rousing reads. Good to see the man’s still being read . . .