Winning ones true love is a difficult thing, if you find yourself in a story written by Edgar Rice Burroughs it’s about four times as hard. In the fourth of the Barsoom books Burroughs sets aside the heroic John Carter and instead we have his son Carthoris fighting across the desert lands of Mars. First published in 1916, in the pages of All-Story Weekly, Burroughs drops the first person narrative device that he utilized in the previous three books and adopts the standard third person narrative as we follow the adventures of Carthoris and the beautiful Thuvia of Ptarth.
The Warlord of Mars ended with John Carter being granted that title of Warlord by the four main ruling races of Mars, and with Dejah Thoris needing a break from being kidnapped the job of damsel in distress fell to Thuvia of Ptarth, who Carter had earlier rescued in Gods of Mars, and who by the end of the last book Carthoris had become rather enamored with. This book begins with Thuvia in the gardens of her father Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth, while there she is aggressively wooed by Astok, Prince of Dusar. She rebuffs his advances, but as he is your Snidely Whiplash type of suitor he doesn’t take no for an answer, and when he dares to lay hands on her the shit hits the fan. Thuvia calls out for her guards but its Carthoris, the son of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, who arrives first and punches out the man who had the audacity to touch this fair princess. Later Carthoris professes his love for the princess but is shocked when she tells him that she cannot return his love for her hand has been promised by her father to Kulan Tith, Jeddak of Kaol, who is a friend of John Carter. This is your standard romantic fantasy stumbling block, with our hero having to prove to all that he is the one most worthy of her hand.
Raise your hand if you think Prince Astok is going to have her kidnapped, and then give yourself a cookie because of course he is. This general plot line has shown up in dozens of Burroughs stories; from the jungles of Tarzan to the depths Pellucidar to the distant forests of Venus, but it’s not these clichéd romance plots that make Burroughs the king of the genre it’s the worlds and the creations that populate them that bring readers back for more and more adventures. The Barsoom series stands head and shoulders above all others for its massive tapestry of races, creatures and startling inventions, and Thuvia, Maid of Mars is no exception. We learn that Carthoris had been visiting Ptarth to demonstrate one of the Barsoomian anti-gravity fliers that he had equipped with an auto-pilot of his own invention. With this new device the pilot can just plug in his destination, go and take a nap below, and the ship would fly and land safely without anyone at the helm. It even has anti-collision capabilities that will steer it around oncoming or pursuing aircraft. What’s really impressive is that Burroughs came up with these idea decades before they would find themselves aboard actual aircraft here on Earth.
Unfortunately when he explains that its system is tamperproof because of a unique key, which is required to access the navigation system, he is explaining it to a spy working for Prince Astok. The spy is able to make a copy of the key allowing the villains to rig Carthoris’s ship to fly out into the middle of the desert near the ruins of ancient Aanthor. When he awakes to find himself in such a strange location he doesn’t have much time to ponder what went wrong as he quickly spots Thuvia being carried away by a Green Martian. This wrinkle came to pass because Prince Astok planned to frame Carthoris for Thuvia’s kidnapping and had Thuvia brought to this location only to have his men set upon by a horde of Green Martians. The Kidnappers fail to stop the Green Martian and then they fail to stop Carthoris running off after her. Prince Astok had a bad plan and he should feel bad.
Of course Carthoris will eventually catch up with Thuvia’s latest abductor, and when he spots her in the clutches of Hortan Gur, Jeddak of Torquas, a particularly large and rather nasty horde of Green Martians, he decides rushing into to attempt a rescue would be suicide, and no help to Thuvia in the long run. Then he sees Hortan Gur strike Thuvia across the face and no son of John Carter could let that stand, so the young man charges across the desert to rest her from the vile Jeddak’s clutches. Lucky for him this particular horde of Green Martians was on one of their routine siege/attacks of the ancient walled city of Lothar located in a lost valley, and before Carthoris can be cut down by their superior numbers a massive army of bowmen storm out of the walled city. The residents of Lothar are fair-skinned humanoid race, but unlike the white Therns the Lotharians sport hair, and they also have a very unique gift, and is what makes this book really stand out. After the Green Martian Horde is driven away a much surprised Carthoris and Thuvia, who were sure they going to die caught between these two forces, enter this mysterious city and its there that they learn that the residents have the ability to create lifelike phantasms from pure thought, and that the army of bowmen they saw were mere creations of Lotharian’s imagination. The mounds of dead Green Martians attest to the lethality of these “phantoms” that can be felt, as well as kill. That is for as long as the opponent believes them to be real.
If any of you have seen the 1970 Beneath the Planet of the Apes you will remember that James Franciscus and Linda Harrison found themselves in the clutches of a group of mutants who lived in the underground ruins of old Earth, and that they used their mental projections and mind controlling ability to keep others out of the Forbidden Zone. If the writers of that movie had read Thuvia, Maid of Mars I would not be the least surprised. But that isn’t even the most interesting thing about the Lotharians, there are two factions with different beliefs on how their powers work; one of them believing that eventually if you create something enough times it will eventually exist on its own, while the other faction thinks that idea is insane. Unsurprising the insane group turn out to be right for at one point Carthoris runs into Kar Komak, a bowman who was part of the “imagined” army that chased off the Green Martians, but when his brethren vanished he found himself still existing, if a little naked and unarmed. He of course teams up with Carthoris to help rescue Thuvia from whom ever had kidnapped her last. Kar Komak even discovers he has the same power to create deadly armies with his mind, which really comes in handy. I really hope this guy appears in further adventures.
I shouldn’t be too rough on Thuvia, though she does suffer from the same kind of kidnapping problems that plagued poor Dejah Thoris, because she has one very unique ability of her own that makes her stand out. Back in The Gods of Mars we learned that for some unknown reason she can control the banths, the great cats of Mars, and when her and Carthoris are tossed into a pit to be eaten by the god the people of Lothar worship she is pleasantly surprised to find out this particular god is just a very, very large banth. Having a monstrous cat as an ally certainly makes her a little less of a damsel in distress, well for as long as the big cat is around that is.
Thuvia, Maid of Mars may not have the most riveting story structure, and the villainous kidnapping plot against Thuvia makes little to no sense and goes nowhere, but the third act pit-stop in a city where they meet people who can mentally create anything they can think of, even to point of being able to survive on food that they mentally generate because the illusion is so good it fools the body, is just delightfully cool. Though the ridiculousness of that lends credence to the belief of one of the Lotharians in that maybe they are all just illusions, and that the last resident of Lothar had died years ago. I would have gleefully read a whole book based on these bizarre people and it’s certainly well worth the time to read.