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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Tarzan and the Forbidden City: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

Tarzan_and_the_forbidden_cityOriginally published as The Red Star of Tarzan as a six part serial in the pages of Argosy Magazine 1938 this story has the unique distinction of starting out as a radio play, and only later adapted by Burroughs. The radio play it was based on was called Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher, written by Rob Thompson in 1934, and something Burroughs was not too keen on adapting. It has several of the tropes that pop in many of the Tarzan stories but in the case The Red Star of Tarzan (later to be called Tarzan and the Forbidden City) it is just chock full of them; dual lost cities, villainous treasure hunters, a Tarzan look-a-like, and of course some fair maiden who will fall madly in love with Tarzan. It’s no surprise that neither Burroughs nor his fans are that keen on what comes across as a bit of a retread.

The book begins with Tarzan’s relaxing day riding atop Tantor the elephant being interrupted by a local native bringing him a message that he is requested to go to the village of Loango. Tarzan at first has no intention of visiting Loango, it is a smelly place according to Tarzan, but when he hears that the message originates from his old friend Paul d’ Arnot he immediately begins the journey there. Turns out that Paul has run into couple of people who have come to Africa looking for their missing family member; the pair in need of Tarzan's aid consists of Helen Gregory her father. Apparently Brian Gregory, Helen’s brother, has vanished while searching for the Father of Diamonds, a fabled jewel worth more than any jewel in the world. Also interested in this fabulous jewel is Atan Thome, an evil East Indian who comes across a bit like Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon, and in place of Elisha Cook we have La Taask as Thome’s henchman. Along with these two villains is the beautiful femme fatale Magra, who is bound to Thome for some mysterious reason, but she apparently also had a thing Brian Gregory. When she spots Tarzan talking with the Gregory’s she at first mistakes the Ape Man for Brain as they look very much alike, and she lures the Ape Man into a trap.
Why Burroughs decided to make Tarzan and the missing Brian look-a-likes is the true mystery here; we already had the nefarious Esteban Miranda from Tarzan and the Golden Lion and then later there was the actor Stanley Obroski who was to play a jungle man for a Hollywood production, and just so happened to be a dead ringer for Tarzan in Tarzan and the Lion Man.  So what possessed Burroughs to create a third Tarzan look-a-like is beyond me. What is even more bizarre is that this “complication” is ditched fairly early on and never addressed again. When the trap fails to snare Tarzan, and the Ape Man is seen tossing Thome’s henchman around like a ragdoll, Magra quickly realizes this could not be the Brian Gregory she knows.


There is a lot of running around, kidnapping, stealing of maps, and various attempts at sabotaging the expiation to find Brian, with most of it seeming a little like plot padding. We are also introduced to the Gregory’s main guide, a man named Wolff who just so happens to be in cahoots with Atan Thome, and it’s his job to keep these people away from the lost city of Ashair by leading them in the wrong direction. Of course he is a treacherous bastard towards both parties, and is completely useless when it comes to getting the party “lost” as with Tarzan along it’s kind of hard to fool the Lord of the Jungle. The dumbest thing Wolff does is sabotage the fuel lines to their plane. Due to a storm the expedition flies into, and with the lack of fuel due to the broken fuel lines, they are forced to crash land in the jungle and proceed on foot. I may not be a master of sabotage but even I think it’s a bad idea to tamper with an aircraft that I intend to fly in. Also the whole “flying into a storm” thing is very reminiscent of Jane and her expedition’s plane troubles in Tarzan’s Quest, and that was just the previous book.

Helen and Magra are decently written characters but damn do they spend a lot of time being snatched; they go from one different captor to another so often it almost becomes a French Farce. At one point I wished the girls had some kind of Starbucks “Frequency Capture Card” that would be punched every time there were snatched, and after the tenth kidnapping they’d get a free latte or something. Throughout the book they are snatched by the following; the traitorous Wolff, Atan Thome, a random tribe of cannibals, priests and soldiers of each of the two warring lost cities, and even a group of great apes…twice! And not just once each, they get passed back and forth so often you almost need a program to keep track of who’s got who.

As to the Forbidden City this book is titled from; well Ashair and the Father of Diamonds is located inside a dormant volcano and is ruled by a cruel queen (Are there any other kinds of queens in a Tarzan story?) who thrills at the idea of torture and murder, and the one rule in this city is that anyone who enters may never leave.  Wich then leads to the aforementioned torture and murder. Tarzan and company are captured, are split up, escape, get recaptured, meet up with one or another of the party, get recaptured, team up with a warrior from Ashair’s rival city, and then get captured again. The most unique aspect of Ashair is that it has whole submerged sections of its city that they traverse using underwater apparatus that turns water into oxygen. Also the volcano is inhabited by various prehistoric beasts including a scaled down version of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and giant seahorses. All of which Tarzan kills in his usual awesome fashion.


Tarzan and the Forbidden City is far from a terrible story but it is rather repetitive in its nature, and much of the goings on we’ve seen in previous Tarzan books. The true fun here is getting to see Tarzan kick butt seven ways to Sunday; constantly characters will write Tarzan off as doomed but then it will cut to d’ Arnot basically stating, “You don’t know Tarzan.” Any fan of Tarzan will find themselves grinning with delight as he battles dinosaurs, gladiators, giant sea creatures, and hordes of crazed zealots. This may be far from the best book in the series, but its still loads of fun.

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