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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Llana of Gathol: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

city-of-mummiesLlana of Gathol is the tenth and penultimate book in the Barsoom series and consists of four connected stories; "The Ancient Dead" (originally "The City of Mummies"), "The Black Pirates of Barsoom," "Escape on Mars" (originally "Yellow Men of Mars"), and the "Invisible Men of Mars." Published in the pages of Amazing Stories between March and October in 1941 these stories follow John Carter as he tries to rescue his granddaughter Llana of Gathol, and though our hero attempting to rescue a damsel in distress is nothing new in these tales, in fact rescuing damsels is the number one occupation on Barsoom by this point, but here Burroughs ventures a little into self-parody. In this collection of stories the author has some fun poking jabs at his earlier works; John Carter’s ability as fighter become almost comically over-the-top, the level of coincidences (a feature that is often criticized in Burroughs’ books) is off the charts here, but all done with love and in the inimitable style of Burroughs.

In the first story “The Ancient Dead aka "The City of Mummies" John Carter is escaping the boring trappings of being The Warlord of Mars by exploring some of the more distant regions of his adopted planet; while flying over the deserted city of Horz he spots a red man being chased by a dozen green warriors, and so Carter leaps into action and with his usual flair for swordplay he turns the tide and wins out over the superior numbers provided by the Tharks. Pan Dan Chee, the man Carter saved, is very grateful, but unfortunately this doesn’t stop his people from taking Carter prisoner. It turns out that the city of Horz isn’t quite deserted but holds the last remnants of the once dominant race of Barsoom, the Orovars, and no one is allowed to leave the city with that knowledge. Carter and Pan Dan Chee, who stands by Carter’s side, are sent to the pits to await execution. The people of Horz are insanely polite, even when sentencing one to death, and Pan Dan Chee feels bad about the whole situation, but he’s also against Carter’s plans for escaping. He may owe Carter his life but his allegiance is still with his Jeddak (king/chieftain), and so things look bad for our hero until Carter brings out his pocket Jettan set (Martian Chess) with pieces that are carved with the exact likeness of his family. Pan Dan Chee falls in love with the Llana of Gathol piece, her beauty even in tiny form is apparently breathtaking, which is about the most unique version of “Love at First Sight” that I’ve ever heard of.

While wandering around these pits, which haven’t been used for thousands of years, Carter an Pan Dan Chee hear strange laughter and spot a light in the distance, and while they search for this phantom laughter they come across a room full of coffins that contain hundreds of ex-residents of Horz, all who had been hypnotized by and old madman and placed in these coffins centuries ago. This “madman” is a bit of an oddity himself as he’s actually dead, but a legendary master of embalming was so good at his job that often his clients got up off their slabs forgetting they were dead. The old madman tries to hypnotize Carter but our hero has stronger mental faculties than the average Barsoomian and so he is able to kill the crazy undead bastard. With the old man dead all the people that had been hypnotized wake-up, but none of them believe Carter when he tells them that they’ve been asleep for thousands of years and that the oceans have long since dried up.


While everyone is arguing one of the chests opens up and Llana of Gathol steps out, she wasn’t hypnotized she had just been hiding there; her story is that while back in her home of Gathol she had been kidnapped by the brutal Hin Abtol, a Jeddak of the North bent on conquering all of Barsoom, and who wanted Llana for his very own. Llana was able to sabotage the flier she was being carried away in, lucky for her the people of the North weren't familiar with ships designs of the South, and once landed she was able to escape into the ruins of Horz where she has now been found. Pan Dan Chee declares his love for her, because of course he does, but she says he has to fight for her first, something that is most likely to happen during their 1500 mile walk back to Gathol as they have no flier.

The Ancient Dead” is easily the goofiest of the four stories in this collection; with Pan Dan Chee falling in love with this book’s damsel simply by seeing a chess piece in her likeness, and then her turning out to be just down the hall from our imprisoned heroes.  Then you have the story of an embalmer who was killed because his abilities was so good that when a client’s dead wife, who was embalmed so well she forgot to be dead, stumbled in on him and his current wife. The story does have a bit of a sad ending for all those people that had been place in a hypnotic state of suspended animation; when John Carter leads them out to show them that the once great ocean they knew was now gone, and nothing but a desert is left, time catches up with them and they all turn to dust. We’re supposed to be okay with this because they wouldn’t have been able to handle this new bleaker world, but it still kind of bummed me out.


The Black Pirates of Barsoom” continues the adventures of John Carter, Llana and the love sick Pan Dan Chee as they make the long trek to Gathol. After many days of grueling foot travel they spot an approaching caravan of green men, they try to hide but their escape is blocked by a huge rift valley that rivals the Grand Canyon. The group finds a path down into the canyon, a route littered with many human skeletons, until the reach the safety of the bottom (the path much too narrow for the large green Martians to navigate), and eventually they spot a beautiful city. Knowing how most Barsoomians treat strangers Carter decides to avoid the city, but alas as they make their way across the valley floor they encounter two hundred mounted black men of the race Carter first encountered back in The Gods of Mars. They are taken to the city, separated and examined by a strange machine, and then sold into slavery. Later Carter learns that the machine had made a complete map of their individual nerve indexes and that if one were to try escape the city the machine, having mapped and catalogued your brain algorithm, could now kill you at even a great distance. This explains all the skeletons that littered the way to the city.

As is typical for John Carter his fantastic swordsmanship is remarked upon and he finds himself fighting in gladiatorial games, which he of course easily wins, earning him both respect and hatred from the Black Pirates, all this while trying to figure how to find Llana and with Pan Dan Chee escape this horrible city. The biggest danger facing Carter is that if any of the residents of this city recognize him for the man who upset their religious scamm and overthrew their queen back in the Valley Dor, he would mostly likely be killed instantly. Needless to say visitors from Dor arrive who could expose him, Carter gets to fight several duels, he disguises himself as a Black Pirate, Pan Dan Chee still can’t get Llana to admit she has any feelings for him, and the group escapes after Carter destroys the machine and the man who operated it.

This second story I found very reminiscent of the original Star Trek series; I could easily see Captain Kirk fighting duels and putting a stop to a machine that keeps people trapped under the thumb of an evil dictator. Stick Yeoman Rand in place of Llana of Gathol, insert Chekov as a Russian version of Pan Dan Chee, and you’ve got a great hour of Star Trek.


Escape on Mars” aka "The Yellow Men of Mars" has our group finally make it to Gathol only to find it besieged by the forces of Hin Abtol. After landing to scout out the situation, and hopefully find some food, Carter is captured by soldiers of Gathol (they don’t recognize Carter because he forgot to wash off his Black Pirate make-up), and by the time he is able to straighten things out he learns that Pan Dan Chee and Llana have been captured by some of Hin Abtol’s men. Carter uses stealth tactics he learned from the Apaches to infiltrate the camp, and after killing a sentry and taking his harness so he coule blend in, he learns that Hin Abtol is planning to send Llana back to Pankor (Hin Abtol's domed city state in the North Polar Region).  Carter heads for the landing field where is able to fool a drunken officer into giving him command of one of the fliers, he then quickly collects a bunch of fighters that are not loyal to Hin Abtol, as most of his army is conscripted from conquered cities they are not hard to find, and he sets off to rescue Llana.

There is some fun action in “Escape on Mars” with John Carter having to deal with a mutiny, unsuccessfully I might add, and then making it to Pankor the rest of the way on foot, but the really interest element that Burroughs creates in this story is that of the frozen soldiers that make up Hin Abtol’s military reserves. When Carter first sees thousands of frozen human corpses hanging by their feet he assumes that this is some barbaric cannibalistic society he has found himself in, but when one of these corpses is thawed out and brought to life he realizes that to save food Hin Abtol keeps his soldiers “on ice” until they are needed. Needless to say Carter is able to uses his jumping and fighting abilities to free Llana and escape the clutches of the cruel Hin Abtol.


The “Invisible Men of Mars” continues John Carter and Llana journey once again back to her home of Gathol, but as expected they do run into trouble. When they land for provisions they are quickly surrounded by a group of invisible soldiers and are quickly enslaved. This of course isn’t the first time Burroughs has had our heroes deal with invisibility; in A Fighting Man of Mars the mad scientist Phor Tak an invisible paint that could be used to cloak a person or a ship from sight, and in Swords of Mars a race of people who live on one of the moons of Mars had the mental ability to make their enemies unable to see them. In the case of “Invisible Men of Mars” it is a pill that when taken will make a person invisible to all. The problem with this is that a rival city also has this pill which makes battles a tad messy as one is just as likely to stab a fellow soldier as an enemy.

The best element of this tale when John Carter gets aid from a noble woman who falls in love with him, a burden that Carter is more than accustomed to, and to ensure their escape he plays along with her even though it goes against his moral code, but the great thing is that when he eventually tells this woman that he could only ever love Dejah Thoris she doesn’t seem upset at all. Turns out she never loved him and only pretended to so that Carter would take her with him when he and his friends escaped. That is a great twist and a nice jab at our somewhat egocentrical hero.

This last tale does wrap up the threat of Hin Abtol rather abruptly; Carter flies back alone to Gathol and while invisible announces to the enemy ships that, “This ship is piloted by Death.” And as these villains are apparently a superstitious and cowardly lot they fall for this.  With this subterfuge he is able capture Hin Abtol and the siege of Gathol ends when the Helium navy arrives.  They Carter returns to Panar and frees nearly a million frozen men. As almost an afterthought we are told that Llana finally gives her love to Pan Dan Chee. *whew* I know that love story had me hanging at the edge of my seat.


The continual rescuing of Llana of Gathol is the fun thread that ties the four stories together, and the way Burroughs handles the self-aware “Mary Sue” of our hero is brilliant satire of a genre he was the king of. Only Burroughs could write a protagonist who constantly goes on about how he is the “Best fighter on two worlds” and have him not come across as an egotistical jackass. Llana of Gathol is a very amusing adventure collection that will keep any fan of romantic space adventures happy.

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