Friday, May 3, 2013

Book Review: The Chessmen of Mars

Despite the title of the book, the Earthly game of chess is never played by any of the characters. Instead, Edgar Rice Burroughs invented a new chess-like game for the Martians to play, with its own unique pieces and rules: jetan. But that left Burroughs with a conundrum: to entitle the book The Jetan-Men of Mars might be confusing or even offputting to potential readers but to entitle the book The Chessmen of Mars would be inaccurate. He finally went with the latter. Jetan is supposedly a representation of the ancient animosity between the Yellow Martians and the Black Martians. However, the reason it appears in the title is because at one point a giant jetanboard is introduced and live players are forced to take the place of pieces and fight to the death to capture a given square. As far as I can tell, Burroughs was the first to write such a scene.[1]

My verdict: Given the importance ascribed to the game (it even appears in the title, after all), it was used disappointingly sparsely. I really would've been impressed if Burroughs had managed to describe a convincing game, but in the life-sized game he changed the scene not long after the opening moves. The book as a whole takes the usual formula for this series (the main character ends up somewhere new on Mars/Barsoom, the civilization there is strange, they escape and pick up a noble savage and possibly a new lover along the way) and doubles it. Really this should've been two novellas ("The Brain Men of Mars" and "The Jetan-Men of Mars"), not one novel. The protagonist, Tara of Helium (I'm not sure why Burroughs spells it out most of the time), is an obnoxious character. She's spoiled and petulant. Even after she is tempered by all of her experiences, she is still an unattractive person. The only thing I really liked about this novel was the character of Ghek (because he was unique, not necessarily because he was admirable). Though perhaps I was influenced by the fact that even though his description doesn't fit at all, I kept picturing him as Minion from Megamind.[2]


[1] This is over 70 years before Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone.

[2] Read my review of that film here.

Image attributions:

Jetan Pieces and Layout is by Ninjatacoshell, available at Board.svg.

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