Synthetic Men of Mars
(Book 9 of the Barsoom series)
Edgar Rice Burroughs
John Carter desperately needed the aid of Barsoom’s greatest scientist, Ras Thavas, who is now a prisoner of a nightmare army of his own creation.
I have to admit I was quite hesitant in picking up this book. The reviews on Goodreads are not kind at all, with many calling it one of the worst in the series, despite it having an average star rating. I think it must come down to what people are looking for when they read a book. A lot of people say they feel the quality of the Barsoom series (AKA the John Carter of Mars series) declines drastically after the first trilogy — but I suspect that’s from readers who are looking for the swordfights and action of the first few books, and if that’s what the reader is looking for, he will be disappointed with this book. As the series has progressed, those action scenes have become a little fewer and further between. A few books were stumbles, because with the fewer fight scenes, there wasn’t enough substance to prop up the rest of the book. As the series approaches its end, with only a few more titles left for me to read, I’ve felt the series has gotten stronger by introducing some strong character and plot work to fill the gaps between fights.
Synthetic Men of Mars is, in my opinion, the absolute best Barsoom series title so far. It is told from the perspective of Vor Daj, a warrior in John Carter’s employ, who provides a likeable and thoughtful character to guide this narrative. This title is greatly imaginative, bringing in cloning and genetic engineering, as well as Ras Thavas’s brain-switching medical procedure (last seen in The Mastermind of Mars).
Vor Daj and John Carter are in search of Ras Thavas as he may be the only one who can successfully operate on Carter’s wife, Dejah Thoris, who was gravely injured in an accident. In searching for Thavas, Daj and Carter are captured and enslaved by a community of misshapen clones that have feasible plans to take over Barsoom. Captured at the same time as them is a woman by the name of Janai, a woman that Vor Daj is instantly in love with (as is typical of these Barsoom novels) and swears to protect — but the only way Vor Daj can do so is by switching his brain into the body of one of these misshapen clones. And thus begins a typical, though superbly executed, Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure.
The great strength of this novel lies not only in its imaginative elements, but also in its intertwining of previously established characters and settings with new ones. That kind of strength is only possible in an established series — we have characters we’ve seen books ago and now they’re back — how are they different? How are they the same? Can we trust them? What’s gone on since we last saw them? This novel reads like it has been written with great care and attention (unlike some of the weaker ones, like The Chessmen of Mars). This novel also continues Burroughs’s slow trend of creating stronger female characters. Earlier characters mostly screamed, cried, and cowered. Lately, they’ve been standing up for themselves and demanding weapons to participate in battles. While Janai is still very much a weaker female in a male-dominated culture, there are elements of strength that shine through. And, lastly, this book doesn’t have much of Burroughs’s mocking of faith and believers, which had long grown wearisome. So, essentially, in this novel, Burroughs has dropped his bad habits, exercised his good ones, and created an engaging and exciting story that pulls the reader in.
Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is an entertaining read with lots of excitement, a touch of humour, and a whole lot of fun.