Monday, August 13, 2018

Naked and Enslaved

So a reader told me, when I mentioned the Gor series in passing, that he was kind of looking forward to me reviewing a Gor book, and since I own a few I dug them out and perused them, considering the idea. After all, while Gor is not really Sword & Sorcery, the series has definitely had an influence on how the genre is perceived. But then, looking deeper, I decided I didn’t really want to review a Gor book, because that would mean reading one again, and they are, without real exception, garbage.

But then I remembered the Amazon Warrior series, which purported to be an inversion of the Gor tropes but really is not, and the idea was born to cover both series as a whole at once, so I would be forced to read the actual books as little as possible, and hopefully put them to bed right here, so to speak.

John Norman’s Gor series is by far one of the longest-running series in fantasy fiction, as of now comprising 34 books dating back to the release of the first book, Tarnsman of Gor, in 1966. The most recent book, Plunder of Gor, came out in 2016, and Norman (actually a pen name for John Fredrick Lange Jr.) is still with us at 87 and still writing this shit.

Even the first books were not properly Sword & Sorcery, but rather Sword & Planet, being in conscious imitation of the classic Burroughs adventures, at least in the broad strokes. Hero Tarl Cabot (which always looked to my dyslexic brain like a misspelled “Carl Talbot”) is the typical man’s man who does not fit into the modern age, and then he is mysteriously transported to “Counter-Earth” - a planet much like Earth that orbits on the far side of the sun, so nobody can see it.

Gor is inhabited by people who have been brought to it by the “Priest-Kings”, who are actually an insectoid alien race, who have populated Gor for their own reasons. Norman sticks with the Burroughs template for his early stories, often getting very into the travelogue aspect of detailing the world to a great degree, seen through the eyes of his Earth protagonist. Norman’s writing is done in a rather simplistic, declarative style, and does not have much flair, and his hero is a stolid and quite boring human being, much in the tradition of the square-jawed pulp heroes of the 30s who have no weaknesses and show no emotions.

But the plots, such as they are, are not what readers remember about the Gor books, rather it is Norman’s highly detailed and rather tiresome sexual philosophy which permeates the books and gives them their one unique feature. Because Gor is a world of slavers and slaves, and on Gor, all women are slaves, or wish they were. The core of Norman’s ideas is that men on Earth have forgotten how to be real men, and if women are enslaved by real men they will realize that this is what they always wanted, and will be happily enslaved, after some initial complaining.

So it’s not hard to see what it is that Norman faps to, and in fact, after the first three or four books, the plotlines are largely sidelined for endless repetition of the fetish content. Interestingly, Norman does not seem to be that into sex scenes per se, as they are always rather soft-focused and elided, without thrusting loins or anything pornographic. Instead you get repeated scenes where females (always referred to as “females”, like an alien species) are enslaved, whipped, degraded, and always, always chained or tied up, the bindings elucidated in great detail. Norman is obviously much more into the bindings and the psychology of enslavement than he is in anything done with said slaves.

People think I am exaggerating when I say there are no plots in the later books, only repeated enslavement fetish fantasizing, but I really am not. They become genuinely pretty unreadable, because there are no stories, no characterization, nothing but enslavement, binding, enslavement, on and on. If it’s your thing, then hey, I bet they are fine, but they are not otherwise even remotely interesting. The early books got some sweet Vallejo covers that made them look dramatic and cool, and definitely played on the naked flesh aspect, but there’s really nothing to see here.

On the supposed flipside of the coin we have Sharon Green, who started in 1982 with her Amazon Warrior series that was expressly said to be a “refutation” of the Gor books by “creating three-dimensional female characters and powerful female characters in similar fantasy settings.” Let me note how the books completely fail to do this.

The five Amazon Warrior books were published between 1982 and 1986, and they focus on Jalav, the titular amazon herself. Yes, the books are first-person, and so Jalav has a bit more depth than the usual Gorean plaything, but she is not a terribly interesting character, and her rote, declarative interior monologue is often so uninteresting it is hard to stay awake through.

Oh, and maybe if your intention is to refute the Gor books by creating “powerful female characters” then maybe don’t have your entire plot revolve around them being kidnapped and raped all the time. See, the books wallow in the same tropes of sexy enslavement as the Gor books, only depicted from the female point of view. Jalav spends the entirety of her stultifyingly long and tedious saga being repeatedly captured, enslaved, and raped. Though it’s not depicted as icky, realistic rape, but rather the kind where she is slowly, against her will, driven to heights of ecstasy by the attentions of barbaric meatheads who are always referred to as “males”, as if they were an alien species.

I generally have more affection for the Jalav books as they have some sense of fun, and even though they are written in an awful faux-archaic style, they have a bit of charm. Also, the sex in them is a good bit more salacious than in the Gor books, and so there are quite a few “good parts” to be found throughout. Still, I certainly cannot recommend them as “good”.

Both these series crowded the shelves of fantasy sections in bookstores throughout the 80s, and the lurid covers of oiled-up barbarians and naked slave women caused them to often be equated with the third-generation Conan pastiches also clogging the genre at the time. However, there is nothing of genuine Sword & Sorcery to be found here, only a bunch of thinly-disguised fetish porn with plots and characters as thin as the kleenex the fans kept on their bedside tables.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Wolves of Midwinter Fire

The snows came down heavy in the winter-tide, and they drew fast around the hall of Elweag. The days were dark under low skies, thick with gathering frost, and the nights were silent and deep, unharrowed save for the baying of wolves in the dark hills. Here the armies of King Arnan – such as remained of them – had withdrawn to hide from their enemies, and here an uneasy peace reigned.

The hall belonged to Balra, the young son of Torgged, whose death had begun the war. He had opened his hall to the king, and here the blind king held his exiled court. Many of his thanes had slipped away, escaping to their own lands with their own men. Only those who had been driven out still remained here, and even in the hall itself there were those who gathered in shadow and whispered that Arnan had failed, and that Balra should be king.

The great pillar of Arnan’s remaining strength was his thane Haldr, and since the loss of Arnan’s hall, his prestige had fallen far. It was his own strength that sustained him now. Men knew him for a fierce warrior. He was a big man who bore scars and did not fear battle, and none dared to challenge the king within his sight. Without him, the blind king would be easily put aside, and blood would run on the ancient floor of the Shield Hall.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Raven: Swordmistress of Chaos

If you have looked over a shelf of secondhand fantasy books then I guarantee you have, at some point, spotted a Raven book. There was a series of five of them, and since they were put out by Ace they got a lot of distribution. Also, since they are pretty much crap, they end up in used bookstores a lot. Combine that with some nice cheesecake covers by Luis Royo, and you have books that almost everyone has run across at some point.

I had seen them many, many times, and I own several, but I had never actually read one, so I thought it was probably time to throw myself on that grenade. After all, these books seem to pretty much wallow in the chainmail bikini trope, so they ought to be good for some fun.

First things first, author Richard Kirk does not actually exist. “Richard Kirk” was a pseudonym used by two British authors: Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock. Now, Wells was a kind of do-anything author who churned out low-level fantasy and western novels in the 70s and 80s and wrote under a half-dozen different names. I have never read anything of his that I can remember, but who knows?

Robert Holdstock, on the other hand, gave me pause. Holdstock was a rather big name in his lifetime, and became quite a critical darling in the 80s for his Ryhope Wood series of mythic fantasy novels. He apparently collaborated with Wells on this first book, then wrote books 2 and 4 on his own, while Wells wrote numbers 3 and 5. Given his later reputation, it’s not really surprising that Holdstock’s bibliography tends to gloss over these.

I suppose the pedigree of the authors explains why Raven: Swordmistress of Chaos remains as readable as it is. I mean, it is crap, but it is at least decently written, without the awkward sentence constructions or muddled action of so many authors who try to imitate Howard or Moorcock’s more elevated prose. You can kind of tell where Holdstock is writing, because things becomes much more poetic and he generates some genuinely gripping scenes. Wells’ style is more lurid and yet has less flair.

The story concerns a girl who escapes from slavery and then is found by a patented “mysterious mentor” character named Spellbinder, who then sees to her training as a warrior and guides her along towards a “destiny” that never really gets any explanation. The problem with the story is that it has no real shape, and reads like a series of episodes awkwardly crammed together. Things just kind of happen, and there never seems to be any single motivating goal or the sense that the characters are pursuing it.

First they are trying to get to some mystic island, which is prevented by a magical storm which is one of the more vivid sequences in the whole book. Then they are captured by pirates and become friends with them, head off to find a magical skull, fight beast men, then take said skull to another city for no stated real reason, where they are captured, have a big battle, then destroy the skull and ride off. If it all sounds pretty disconnected, it is.

The problem is that the authors use the trope of the main character having a “destiny” that her mysterious mentor will not quite explain as a way to move the characters around the world and have them do things without there being any real reason for them to do them. They can just handwave and say “it’s meant to be” but that remains an unsatisfying dodge. There is a shred of personal motivation with Raven wanting revenge on the guy who killed her parents, but he’s not really given a personality besides being a dick, and the final showdown is rather bland. The book has things that happen, but no rising tension, and certainly nothing you would call a climax. The characters just go here, go there, do stuff, the end.

The main character does not even provide much of the plot impetus, and is kind of along for the ride, but there’s not any other protagonist, so for most of the book it seems like no one is really leading the action. Raven does not have much personality except to be sexy and fight things. At the beginning, when she escapes slavery she is said to be “of age” though we are given to understand she is very young, and the rest of the book takes place after she has spent a year training in warfare, but I think she is at most supposed to be sixteen, which makes her later sex scenes rather questionable. This first book came out in 1978, when standards were different, and compared to some other books of the period *coughGORcough* it comes across as almost progressive.

These books are essentially a written version of those 80s big-hair barbarian movies like Amazon Queen or Beastmaster, and if that is what you are down for, then go for it. There’s some fairly explicit sex and violence, and they are better-written than you would think. But for all that, they are aiming for cliché, and they hit it square on, so don’t expect anything that would not turn up in a direct-to-video movie from 1987 or a third-rate D&D game.