Ten years have passed since the events of A Princess of Mars
. John Carter has finally found a way to return to Barsoom, and hopefully to his wife, Princess Dejah Thoris. As with the previous novel the exact method of this transportation is completely ignored - presumably because Burroughs couldn't think of a convincing way to achieve it. Again, the style of narration is unusual - there is an introduction from Carter's nephew that explains that the book is his presentation as a novel of Carter's memoirs which he found after his return to Barsoom. A third-person narrative, but one-person removed. To all intents and purposes though, the main body of the novel is third-person and the one-person removed facet doesn't distract at all.
This novel delves into the Barsoomian religions, and how those religions are transposed over the planet's obvious racial tensions. The green and the red Barsoomians (who we were introduced to in the first novel) believe in a physical afterlife in another region of the planet. As they reach the end of their lives they take the pilgrimage to the Valley of Dor. Nobody returns from this place, and the few who have are killed as blasphemers upon their return. John Carter finds himself returned to Barsoom in the middle of this valley, and is immediately set upon by the two wild species that inhabit the valley. As John Carter tries to escape the valley we start to discover that the Barsoomian religion is not quite what it appears. Both white (the Holy Therns) and black (the Black Pirates) Barsoomian races are introduced to us - secretive species who control the religions of the lower colours to ensure a slave class for each of their own races. Of course, Carter reacts angrily to this injustice and determines to destroy the religious structures and ensure that the green and red Barsoomians are no longer subjugated by the 'higher' races. Interestingly, a fifth race of yellow Barsoomians is mentioned, but not introduced - I guess that's something for the next book.
The novel uses lots of the same plot devices as the previous one. John Carter is always physically, intellectually and morally superior to the Barsoomians. He is again struggling to be united with the princess Dejah Thoris. The level of coincidence that operates of Barsoom is incredible - the right people always just happen to appear at the right time when John Carter needs them, or to have just departed the day before John Carter arrives to meet them. Again, John Carter repeatedly lets us know that he's not a ladies man, while multiple Barsoomian beauties repeatedly throw themselves at him. We are repeatedly witness to John Carter's reckless pursuit of freedom and fair play for the slightly backward species of the Barsoomians. He is, after all, destroying their religion 'for their own good' - there are elements which certainly seem to parallel western colonial history, as well as elements which attack religions which use their hierarchy to exploit those not in their inner circles. And, finally, he will of course bring the Barsoomians another step closer to a more civilised state and end up separated from his beloved Dejah Thoris in some way that will set up the cliff-hanger for the next novel. Phew.
Ultimately though, The Gods of Mars
is a riotously fun boys own adventure, told through pulp science fiction. Burroughs continues to sit at the top of that pulp category however, as the writing and characterisation is certainly better than the simplistic and repetitious plot devices might suggest.