In events that aren't particularly clear, John Carter is transported back to Mars after his ten year absence from the Red Planet. The hero apparently died on Earth, and when he awakens it is in the afterlife area of Mars known as the Valley Dor. Think of this place as a sort of purgatory. When Carter arrives here, he witnesses a race of Green Martians savagely attacked by flesh-sucking “Plant Men”. If this purgatory isn't horrible enough, any survivors of the Plant Men vampire-like monstrosities are then consumed by the “gods” of the place, a white-skinned race called Therns, which also eat their victims.
These opening chapters depicting the events associated with Carter's arrival in Valley Dor are similar to the horrifying descriptions found in Dante's Inferno. Burroughs' pulls no punches submerging these opening segments into a nightmarish not-so-traditional horror setting. Even in 2023, Burroughs proves to be quite the impactful horror writer (intentional or not). The descriptions of the howls from the cliffs and the “sucking” of blood and flesh were just so memorable. These chapters are amazing.
This descent into “Hell” continues when Carter, and his old friend Tars Tarkas (Tars is here searching for Carter) escape the Thurns (with a slave girl). However, their escape is short-lived when they run into another race of Gods populating this part of Mars. The Black Pirates of Barsoom, referred to as “First Born” are an ancient race of Martians that feed off of the Therns. Carter and Tars are transported to the underground caves of Omean, a giant prison empire controlled by a “goddess” calling herself Iss.
There is more action, horror, swashbuckling, science-fiction, sword-and-planet, fantasy, and genre-defying literature in this 190 page paperback than countless other genre novels combined. The Gods of Mars is a more superior work than A Princess of Mars and takes into consideration a lot of religious theory. Valley Dor is a self-indulgent scam created by self-proclaimed Gods to further their own interests. The concept of multiple races in combat over religion is parallel to our own culture now. Burroughs uses aspects of religion, politics, and world history to create Mars' culture, lineage, and all of the various empires, races, and competitors vying for superiority through aggression. It's really a mesmerizing mix that is equally entertaining as it is clever.
Like the Tarzan novels, Burroughs does fall into his own literary traps with events that are cyclical. In the Tarzan series, Tarzan eventually has a son that displays all of the same heroic characteristics. The same can be said for this series as Carter discovers he has a son on Mars that is an expert swordsman. Tarzan's love interest is often captured by various bad guys and the story revolves around her rescue. The same is found here as Carter jaunts from place to place freeing his enslaved lover and friends. Often, I found that the story was an endless cycle of “capture and rescue”, which I've come to accept as the signature of Burroughs writing style. Love it or leave it.
The Gods of Mars is extraordinary even with the above-mentioned flaws. It is a high water mark of Burroughs literary legacy and one that may not be topped with future series installments. I'll be the judge of that as I continue my journey through Barsoom. However, this novel is a mandatory read.