I’ll admit, I’ve been reading free copies of these novels on my Nook, but I think that Chessmen of Mars is the last of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars (or Barsoom) novels that’s in the public domain and while I’m sure it’s possible to find a free copy anyway, it’s a moral point no to, though that seems shallow, since I took advantage to read the others for free, isn’t it? But let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good, now shall we?
Like many of his novels set on the dying planet of Barsoom (known to us, as Mars), Chessmen feels like two long, connected short stories. The daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris runs away and her airship crashes among yet another previously unknown subset of Martians, the kaldane and their rykor… well, it’s complicated. The kaldane are oversized human heads that walk on little spiders and who mount themselves on headless human bodies called rykor, seize hold of the spinal column, and use them as their bodies. Burroughs doesn’t have Lovecraft nor Carter’s feel for imparting the horror felt by a character, but he does a decent job of showing how horrified the princess is (and her lovesick rescuer who is, naturally, also a fierce and chivalrous warrior).
When the two more or less human protagonists escape (along with their new friend, one of the walking heads and his stolen rykor), they wind up in a sort of lost and primitive kingdom where a game similar to chess is played, only with… well, you can guess. Yes, the pieces are actually people, fighting on a giant board.
Will Tara of Heliun and Gahan of Gathol escape? Will they find true love together? Will the villainous king (or jeddak) be replaced by his much nicer and braver vassal? Will there be an addendum explaining the (non-fatal) rules of Martian chess?
Well, um, yeah.