The Chessmen of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fifth JOHN CARTER novel out of eleven, first appeared in serial form in the magazine Argosy All Story Weekly from February to April 1922. It is easily the best of the Carter lot to this point; the most detailed, the most imaginative, and the best written. Carter himself only appears at the beginning and end of the tale. Instead, our action heroes are his daughter, Tara, who gets lost in a rare Barsoomian storm while joyriding in her flier and blown halfway across the surface of the planet, and the Gatholian jed Gahan, who goes in search of her.
In the first half of this novel, Tara and Gahan wind up in the clutches of the kaldanes — bodiless brains who live in a symbiotic relationship with their headless “rykors.” One of these brains, Ghek, befriends the couple and tags along with them for the remainder of their odyssey. Ghek is a wonderful character, touching and fascinating and amusing all at once. In one passage, Ghek gives us some very interesting philosophy regarding the relationship between mind and body. In the second half of the book, the trio is captured by the hordes of Manator, and Gahan winds up fighting for Tara in a game of Martian chess, or jetan, a game in which real men are used in lieu of pieces and fight to the death for possession of squares. The jetan sequence is extremely exciting and detailed, and knowledge of chess is not necessary for full enjoyment. One need not be a chess buff to appreciate the detailed moves that Burroughs gives us.
The Chessmen of Mars is, as I mentioned, very well written for a Burroughs novel; even, dare I say it, poetically written in spots. The action is relentless, the standard of imagination very high, and the denouement extremely satisfying. It is a near masterpiece. Why only “near”? Well, as is usual with these books, there are some problems….
As in the previous Carter novels, these problems take the form of inconsistencies and implausibilities. At the book’s beginning, Burroughs, who has just been told this tale by Carter himself, writes that “if there be inconsistencies and errors, let the blame fall not upon John Carter, but rather upon my faulty memory, where it belongs.” He is excusing himself in advance for any mistakes that he might make, and well he should, because there are many such in this book. I, however, cannot excuse an author for laziness and sloppy writing. Saying “excuse me” doesn’t make for good writing. Just what am I referring to here? Let’s see….
Tara, in several spots in the book, refers to Tardos Mors as her grandfather, when in actuality he is her great-grandfather. The Martian word “sofad” is said to be a foot; but in the previous book, “Thuvia, Maid of Mars,” an “ad” was said to be a foot. Tara, in one scene, smites Ghek on the back of the head. Gahan is watching this fight from a distance, and sees her hit Ghek in the face! In the game of jetan, the thoat pieces are said to wear three feathers; but in the Rules for Jetan at the book’s end, they are said to wear two. This book is based on events told to John Carter, conceivably by Tara, Gahan and/or Ghek, and yet scenes are described in which none of those characters appear; thus, they could have had no knowledge of these events described. This, I feel, is a basic problem with the book’s structure.
Besides these inconsistencies, there are some things that are a bit hard to swallow. For instance, that Gahan could fall 3,000 feet from a flier in the middle of a cyclone and, freakishly, survive. It’s also hard to believe that Tara does not recognize Gahan when he comes to her rescue, and fails to remember where they have met, until the very end of the book. In addition, I feel that the character of Ghek is underutilized in the book’s second half. It might have been nice to see the old boy loosening up a bit, as he got more in touch with his emotions, Spockstyle.
Anyway, all quibbles aside, The Chessmen of Mars is a wonderful piece of fantasy, one that had me tearing through the pages as quickly as I possibly could. It is an exceptionally fine entry in the JOHN CARTER series.