After the Civil War ends, Virginia Confederate veteran John Carter heads west to prospect for gold. With his partner, Carter finds a gold vein in the dry rocky desert of Arizona. When his partner agrees to head to town for supplies, Carter suspects that the Apache tribe of Native Americans will attack him. Riding in pursuit, Carter discovers his friend has been killed by the warriors. Hoping to avoid death himself, Carter stumbles upon a sacred cave that is actually a “stargate” portal. In a blink, Carter is surprised when he looks around at his surroundings. He is on Mars!
Burroughs spends some time for world building, but the short version is that Mars, called Barsoom, is inhabited by various races of intelligence that wage war with each other. Carter finds himself a prisoner of green, tusked Martians known as Tharks. Carter wants to locate other humans, and is shocked to find Dejah Thoris, a captured princess from Helium, a red “humanoid” Martian race.
The narrative is a bit clunky, but the premise is that Carter rises through the ranks of the Tharks while falling in love with Dejah and befriending a Thark warrior named Tars Tarkas. Eventually, Carter leads the Tharks against Helium's enemy Zodanga to achieve peace between the red and green. As the book closes, readers learn that Carter spent nine years on Mars, but it ends with the character unexpectedly back on Earth wondering what befell his friends on the red planet.
I'm motivated enough by Princess of Mars to pursue reading more installments. I much prefer Burroughs' Tarzan novels thus far, but this first Barsoom novel was entertaining enough. The story is a showpiece for science-fiction fantasy, inspiring countless authors and filmmakers. One can journey down any pop-culture or literary rabbit hole to learn more about the series and its legacy. If you love science-fiction, the Barsoom series is probably already on your shelves.