Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: Tarzan's Quest

It's been a long time since I last reviewed an adventure of the Lord of the Apes. So let's return to the hidden tribes, deadly animals and lost babes that makes up the fantasy version of Africa.

Instead of opening in the darkest wilds though, Tarzan's Quest opens at a party being attended by Jane Porter Clayton (aka Lady Greystoke) where she runs into an old acquittance, Kitty Krause and her much younger husband, Prince Alexis Sburov. While making idle chitchat, Jane mentions that she is heading out to Africa to visit her husband when the Princess reveals her own plans to visit the continent in search of a rumored formula to preserve youth. Jane agrees to go with the couple but a raging storm forces them to crash in the middle of the jungle. As the group-including the pilot Brown, butler Tibbs and maid Annette-attempt to survive, Jane takes charge but the suspicious death of one of the group and Annette's disappearance threatens to destroy the small group.

Meanwhile, Tarzan is busy investigating the strange disappearances of women from local tribes, attributed to a legendary group of barbarians known as the Kavuru. Finding little help from the tribe of Bukena who fear reprisals, Tarzan is ready to give up when the daughter of Muviro, the chief of the Waziri tribe and Tarzan's friend has also vanished. Tarzan takes up the hunt. And as you can guess it isn't too long before both parties find the fabled village of the Kavuru: a group of white barbarians who have remained young through the decades thanks to a potion involving the glands and blood of women. Tarzan ultimately has to match wits with the tribe's leader Kavandavanda to save the women from the sacrifice...and Jane from the usual "fate worse than death."

By the time Tarzan's Quest was published in magazine form between 1935-36, Edgar Rice Burroughs's jungle hero had lapsed into a formulaic series of adventures that usually involved lost civilizations, clueless expeditions and Tarzan saving the day. But for this entry, Burroughs decided to bring back Jane-who had been last seen in Tarzan and the Ant Men over a decade earlier-and streamline the narrative, resulting in a fun, pulp adventure. What makes the book fun is the return of Lady Greystoke, who has evolved from damsel in distress into an independent, clever and quick thinking heroine. She quickly assumes command of the small party of survivors, makes her own weapons and even takes down a leopard who threatens to take dinner from her. In fact she probably gets more pages devoted to her than Tarzan does, to the point that Burroughs could have left out Tarzan and the book would have still worked. As for the rest of the characters, well it's pulp so they're caricatures-a snooty prince and his whiny wife, a clumsy comedy relief butler and superstitious natives-even though compared to the natives from before they at least are presented more intelligently and the Waziri are written as a noble, proud group. As for the Kavuru, the idea of a group of deathless, young warriors who use the glands and blood of women adds a vampire motif to their actions, giving them a little more bite than the usual lost tribes in the other books.

That's not to say there isn't the usual chuckles to be had. Little Nkima is present and while he doesn't take up too much time can still be annoying. We also get another case of men lusting after Jane, first the snidely Prince and then later both Kavandavanda and another Kavuru warrior named Ogdli. What makes it especially hysterical is that Kavandavanda delivers a big speech about how women taint men and they would cause the Kavuru tribe to fall, yet two chapters later is ready to jump all over Jane: "I'll keep you. I'll tame you...I'll start now!" Talk about breaking your vows.

Beyond that though, this might be the most fun I've had with a Tarzan book. The only disappointment was with the next entry, Tarzan and the Forbidden City, the worn out formula returned and Jane was gone for good. She deserved more time and even her own adventure. Rating: ***1/2 out of 4.

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