A Fighting Man of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs
This is the seventh book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) series, also known as the John Carter of Mars series. John Carter has long left his role as main character of the novels, having been replaced by a series of one-off lead characters, with varying degrees of success.
Burroughs writes from a formula–a rich young woman gets kidnapped, a warrior who loves her (but cannot have her) races off to rescue her, he goes through strange lands and upsets local customs and beliefs, rescues the girl, and they get married despite earlier protestations that it cannot happen.
In this one, Hadron, the hero du jour, is in love with Sanoma Tora who is kidnapped shortly after the novel begins. Hadron sets upon a journey to rescue her and *yawn*… it’s all been done before…
And then Burroughs goes and changes everything.
One of the allies Hadron picks up along the way is a young woman by the name of Tavia. She is dressed like a man and plays a very masculine role in the novel, at least in terms of Burroughs’s definitions of masculine and feminine characters. This is the first truly strong female character I have seen in the entire series so far. Women are always treated as weak and inferior–yet here’s finally one who can make her own way in the world and is capable of handling things herself.
And Hadron begins to love her. This was another first for the Barsoom series. Not only does Hadron carry a growing affection for Tavia, he learns that Sanoma is a power-hungry, money-hungry bitch… and wants nothing more to do with her. This was a great step forward in the development of romantic relationships in the Barsoom novels–the characters have become a little more 3D and the love story has stepped beyond the cardboard cutout that has been used for the six previous books.
Burroughs also dropped his racist/colonialist/anti-religious plot devices that he has so overused in the past. The tension of this plot and its subsequent resolution was devised without mocking different faiths or worldviews, and without taking a colonialist approach to indigenous civilization. It was a refreshing change.
There were some downsides to this novel as well… a few things that got me thinking.
I question the character of Tavia–especially in that to be a strong female character, she must become more masculine. While Tavia is a significant step forward for Burroughs in the development of strong female characters and moving away from the immense sexism and the usage of gender binaries, Burroughs has instead moved into a different area of sexism. Though Tavia is strong, women are still depicted as weak since Tavia’s strength comes from her masculinity. A strong female character should derive their strength from who they are, not by taking on the characteristics of the “dominant gender.” The minor character of Phao is a good example — she is very strong as a person, but does not have to take on masculine characteristics to do so; she is smart, determined, courageous, and still wholly feminine.
(The character of Brienne from George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire / A Game of Thrones is another good example — she is a strong female protagonist. She may have a lot of masculine characteristics, but Brienne does not draw her strength from her masculinity. She is strong because she is living into who she is — and it just so happens that part of her character involves a skill at fighting and such. It’s a small distinction, but I feel it is an important one.)
On a different note, but still in the vein of criticism, I think that Burroughs’s literary device of creating a fictional “true story” is wearing thin and becomes quite ridiculous at times, especially in this book. Each of the John Carter novels so far has been written as if the stories had been dictated to Burroughs by John Carter or Ulysses (a character from the previous book). To set up this story, Burroughs receives a sort-of radio transmission from Ulysses, who is telling the story of Hadron… so it’s a story about Burroughs telling a story about Ulysses telling a story about Hadron telling a story. These layers are unnecessary and wholly forgotten by the end. Just jump into the story already.
While I had a few quibbles, the strengths of this volume far outshine its weaknesses. This was easily one of the best Barsoom books in the series so far.