The only thing possibly more dangerous than love at first sight is walking through a palace garden on Mars. In this seventh book in the Martian Tales by Burroughs, first released in the pages of Blue Book Magazine in 1930, we find our hero falling immediately for a pretty face, and said pretty face is abducted out of her garden by nefarious forces. What makes this book stand out from its predecessors is that Burroughs finally illustrates that “Love at first sight” is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.
In A Fighting Man of Mars we once again get a story that doesn’t follow the adventures of John Carter or his family, but of a low ranking officer in the Helium military. The hero of this tale is Tan Hadron of Hastor, a lowly, poor padwar (mercenary) who has some royal blood flowing in his veins, enough to get him into the nicest parties but not enough for a rich noble girl to give him more than a second look. It’s while at one of these parties that he sees and falls instantly in love with the beautiful Sanoma Tora, a daughter of rich but minor noble. She spurns his impertinent advances but when she is kidnapped out of her garden (seriously, women of Barsoom should not be allowed to walk in their gardens, it’s just not safe) Tan Hadron leaps into action, vowing to score the vast plains of Barsoom until he finds her, and with the promise of her hand in marriage from her father he does just that.
This is your standard action hero opening; guy meets girl, girl isn’t exactly into him, then girl is kidnapped and hero rushes off to rescue her, but in this book Burroughs changes it up a bit; normally the hero would eventually track down his beloved, whatever obstacle stood in the way of their love (i.e. betrothal or class distinction) would be resolved and then they’d get married. That is not the case with A Fighting Man of Mars, as the book enfolds we discover that Sanoma Tora is vain, selfish and is as shallow as she is beautiful. She’s not the ideal damsel in distress one expects to see in a Burroughs adventure story, but lucky for us she isn’t suddenly going to fall in love with Tan Hadron, instead we will be introduced to one of the best written female characters in the Burroughs pantheon and that would be Tavia, an escaped slave girl whose boyish figure and short hair makes her a very atypical Burroughs heroine. Not only is she far from the curvaceous buxom figures of previous damsels in distress but she is by far one of the most well rounded female character in this series; she is self-reliant, witty, brave, and good in a fight.
When Tan Hadron saves her from a horde of Green Martians her spunky attitude and bravery causes him to develop deep feelings of friendship and comradery towards her; it can’t be love because he is still on a mission to save his one true love Sanoma Tora. Yeah, Tan Hadron may be a great fighting man of Mars but like many a hero he is sometimes a thick as a brick. Whenever they are in danger she refuses to seek safety, vowing to die at his side if need be, and they survive several encounters because it turns out she has a pretty damn good hand with a sword. They are a perfect match, and it’s clear that Tavia is hopelessly in love with Tan Hadron, but as she is just a slave girl she hopes at best to be his slave. Tan Hadron is shocked at the very idea of her being his slave, and tells her that she will always have a place at his home with his family. Tan Hadron is just so lovably thick. Any moment between these two is a delight to read; their banter and clear devotion to each other is palpable, and where their “friendship” will end up is clear to everyone but them.
A Fighting Man of Mars may have oodles of planetary romance but it’s also loaded with action. Tan Hardon soon learns that the country that abducted Sanoma Tora have in their possession a terrible weapon; an invisible ray that causes any metal it hits to instantly disintegrate. The cruel Tul Axtar, ruler of Jahar, plans to use this weapon to totally decimate the Heliumetic fleet. The kidnapping of Sanoma Tora was just bait to get the fleet within range of this devastating new weapon.
Note: This disintegrating beam weapon may seem familiar to some of you as something similar to it was used in the John Carter movie, only there it was developed by the Holy Therns.
In the books this weapon of mass destruction was developed by the mad scientist Phor Tak, who not only developed this weapon but also the blue paint that protects the ships of the wielder from the awesome effects, and because Tul Axtar is cruel as he is stupid he had kicked the scientist out of his city. Now the even madder Phor Tak vows revenge on Jahr, and the world! Lucky for the people of Barsoom Tan Hadron comes across the scientist lair while adventuring across hostile territories; fighting giant spiders, disgusting cannibals and other evil despots, he and a fellow adventurer “befriend” the quite unbalanced Phor Tak, and from him they get a new ray, one that can disintegrate flesh, and more importantly an invisible flier. With such tools at their disposal how could they possibly fail? Well if you know Burroughs it’s clear that no heroes journey is going to be a cakewalk.
Will Tan Hadron find the beautiful Sanoma Tora? What of the slave girl Tavia, will true love win out? Can Tan Hadron warn the Heliumetic fleet in time, or will they be destroyed by the superiorly armed fleet of Jahar? Will the awful weapons of Phor Tak doom all life on Barsoom? All these questions and more are answered in the mesmerizing pages of A Fighting Man of Mars.
It’s truly amazing that seven books in and Burroughs is still bringing his “A” game to the series: we get to meet many new races, there are tons more lost cities and civilization on Mars than you will find in Tarzan’s Africa, and Burroughs decision to introduce new heroes, instead of sticking with John Carter, certainly allows for the stories to stay fresh and interesting. We also get more of a “Shared Universe” with this book as the story isn’t being narrated by or passed along by John Carter, instead it’s being broadcast across the vastness of space via the Gridley Wave, a sort of super radio frequency previously introduced in Tanar of Pellucidar, the third of Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels. A Fighting Man of Mars is an action packed page turner that not only contains one of the best female characters to grace the pages of pulp fiction but also the sincerest relationship between a hero and his girl. Tavia may find herself occasionally fulfilling her job as damsel in distress but it’s when she is allowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the man she loves that is when this book really shines. *pssst turns out she’s actually a princess. Shocking I know*