The fifth book in Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" series, 1922's The Chessmen of Mars, (click here to reserve a copy) trods some by-now familar narrative ground yet still has some great sequences and bizarre characters to keep the reader involved. This time around, the protagonists are John Carter's daughter Tara of Helium and her would-be suitor, Gahan of Gathol, who "meet cute" at a reception at the beginning of the novel.
Tara, who's already betrothed to another, isn't too impressed with Gahan and decides to take a spin on one of her father's airships to decompress. But an unexpected and destructive storm throws Tara's flyer off couse, causing her to land several hundred miles away from Helium.
As Gahan and others go in search of Tara (John Carter stays behind to assist victims of the storm), the lady finds herself in the strange land of Bantoom, where headless creatures called the Rykors are used as vessals for the Kaldanes, beings who are basically living heads with six spider-like limbs, who can attach themselves to the Rykors and use them as transportation. After a series of adventures, Gahan, posing as a "Panthan" (Martian warrior/mercenary) named Turan, manages to rescue Tara (who doesn't recognize him) and one of the Kalanes, Ghek, and the three make their way to the city of Manator.
(See one artist's depiction of the Kaldanes and Rykors here.)
Big mistake. Led by the nasty O-Tar, Manator's warriors kidnap people from other lands and put them to work as slaves, occasionally having them fight one another as actual pieces in a living version of Jetan, the Martian chess game. When Tara spuns O-Tar, the latter decides to have various corrupt Panthans and criminals fight for her on the Jetan board. Gahan, already on the run, winds up taking on a third identity in order to take part in the game and rescue Tara, as well as spurring a revolution among the slaves. But then, there's still the matter of getting back to helium, and will Gahan reveal who he really is to Tara and win her love?
As with the previous novels, Chessmen is basically one long chase from one situation to another, with the hero and heroine constantly being separated between swordfights and other bits of derring-do. But Burroughs' pacing never bogs down. Plus he adds a number of eerie, bizarre touches and characters, not only including the Kaldanes and Rykors (scary in themselves), but the city of Manator itself, which seems to radiate evil everywhere, with actual stuffed corpses put on display throughout the buildings and streets, as well. And the game of Jetan as played in Manator, was an obvious influence on the Harry Potter books and films' "Wizards' Chess".
Almost a nightmarish horror story -Tim Burton would've had fun making a movie version of this book!- , but with plenty of action and adventure, The Chessmen of Mars is an exciting thriller from start to finish.
Next: The Mastermind of Mars.