Monday, September 25, 2017

The Horn-Crowned Helm

Shan went into the forest with only her sword and a path to follow. The armies of the tyrant marched across the hills and grasslands and left a path of destruction in their wake. She followed columns of smoke and found only fire-blackened villages and scorched farms, the fire-scarred bones of those who could not escape hung from spearpoints. Always to the north she saw a pillar of smoke and ice in the sky, a marching storm that marked where her quarry stalked. She wondered what she would do when she caught him.

In the nights, when she huddled beside her fire against the unseasonal cold of spring, she wondered at herself. That she would set herself against the march of a dread conqueror from beyond death was foolishness, the dream of a child offended by death and injustice, yet the sword that dreamed beside her in the night gave the lie to that. She had forged a weapon from a shard of fire and blue-black steel. She had seen the enemies of flesh wrought by the arisen emperor. She would see what that keen edge would wreak upon them.

In old times, this land had been a desert, the hills growing more and more barren until they were naked and dry, buried in dust and bitter weeds. But the weather had changed, grown colder, and more rain fell, and the once-desolate lands that had been the center of the old empire were now forestland. The dunes became earth again, and the valleys once fit only for caravan roads were thick with trees and ran with narrow streams. She had heard stories that once the forests had dwelled only in the far northern lands, a place of colossal trees and deep vales hidden by mist. Like a waiting army, the trees had lingered until the time was right for them to return.

Shan had no horse, and only an old mail shirt for armor. She walked the forest paths with her sword slung over her shoulder, following in the wake of her enemy. Once deep in the hollow woodlands she saw fewer signs of their passage. Yet here and there she found the remains of their bonfires, and the bones of the slain they hung from the trees.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Age of the Horseclans

During the Sword & Sorcery upsurge in the late 60s and extending into the late 70s, a lot of books were published that drew on the imagery of the genre, and it was hard to walk down the SF/Fantasy aisle in a bookstore without seeing a lot of sweaty barbarians and mostly-naked slavegirls. One of the mainstays of the period, with a lot of books making for a large footprint on the shelves, were the Horseclans books by American author Robert Adams.

The Horseclans stories were an interesting mixture of 70s-style S&S with 80s-style post-apocalyptic fiction. Bloody barbarian adventure was popular, as were stories of the world after nuclear war, with echoes of the modern world mixed in with strange tribes and mutated monsters. Adams quite rightly saw cool possibilities in combining the two, and the Horseclans were born.

Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the stories centered around the titular clans, who were based rather blatantly on both Mongols and Native Americans, without making any real statement on their ethnicity. They are depicted as textbook noble savages, with a code of honor and a reliance on violence to solve problems. They ride horses and are aided in battle by domesticated sabertoothed cats. Many of the clansmen are telepathic, and can communicate directly with their pets.

As the story opens, the clans are led by their undying lord Milo Morai – a self-insert character if ever there was one. Milo is a cross between Conan and John Carter of Mars, being an immortal man who has lived for unspecified centuries. His memory dates from before the nuclear war, though he suffered a head injury in 1936 and can’t remember anything before that. He is psionic, invincible, and unkillable unless he is drowned or decapitated.

Adams was obviously very influenced by Howard, and he even adopts his “barbarism is the natural state of mankind” saw virtually word for word. The horseclans books depict all settled civilizations as inherently decadent and repugnant, though the way he goes about this makes his work largely indigestible to a modern reader. His major way of showing that civilized men were disgusting was to show them as being homosexual, and also mixing in a healthy dose of pederasty and cannibalism. The “civilized” men of this world are such ridiculous caricatures they become accidentally comical.

His picture of the horseclans as being “manly” will also make a reader wince, as a central feature of their raid-and-pillage lifestyle is rape. The first book opens with Milo taking a woman prisoner during a raid, and this is Mara, who later becomes his wife. Their relationship begins with Milo’s telepathic sabertooth reading her mind and telling Milo that Mara is eager to be ravished, and things don’t go uphill from there. Another female character is raped and then is discovered to be only twelve years old, so that’s horrible, but is met with a kind of shrug.

Adams’ style is often said to be fast-paced and violent, but a new reader will find his work actually rather dull. He dwells more on the gore element than on the inherent drama of battle, and actually he often shied away from real excitement. He is lurid in his descriptions of torture and execution, but the action itself is oddly abbreviated. The most egregious example is in the second novel Swords of the Horseclans, where he spends literally the entire book building up to an epic battle that then never happens, and the combatants just turn and go home.

A close read reveals that the Horseclans are almost the opposite of what they are sold as. You go in expecting fast and loose adventure with bloody battles and high-octane action, instead you get rather slow, talky melodrama with Milo acting as the author’s self-insert/Mary Sue to sometimes lecture about the Nature of Man and similar such bullshit. The characters are poorly-drawn, the worldbuilding is complex yet uninteresting, and the timeline between all the books is labored and confusing. What action there is does not really excite, and Adams actually has a reliable instinct for avoiding anything actually interesting and defusing drama.

A slew of good Ken Kelly covers and Adams’ own persona as a kind of modern barbarian sold a lot of books, but the works themselves don’t really bear up to scrutiny. The idea of the horseclans books remains compelling – a post-apocalyptic, retro-fantasy romp through a savage world of barbarians and telepathic sabertooths – but the lackluster execution manages to suck almost all the fun out of it, and the idea remains one as yet unrealized.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Swordmaker's Daughter

Shan lived with her father on the mountainside, and on those days when the air was clear and the sun rose clean over the hills, she could look down into the valley below and see the city of Haitu. It was one of the greatest cities in the world, set here in the forested mountains, high above the old road that led north and into the old lands of the empire.

Every morning she went into the woods and gathered wood for the forges. She did not take new-fallen branches, but old ones, watching them season by season as the wood aged and dried, and when it was ready she gathered it up and bound it together with long cords and dragged the heavy bales back with her, up the narrow trails through the wooded mountainside. She was a strong girl, though only sixteen. Her father had a great deal of work for her, as he was growing old, and his sight was failing year by year.

Beside their forge a small stream cascaded down the hillside, and there her father had made a wheel to fire his forge instead of a bellows driven by hand. Shan took the wood and chopped it into even lengths, and then she put it into the coal furnace and lit it carefully. By the time the sun came up above the mountain’s edge, the fire was going, and she packed it closed with mud from the stream and left it to cook.

Her father’s forge was bigger than their small house, but they spent more time in the forge, so it seemed fitting. She looked down the mountainside, seeing the narrow path snaking up from below, and she wondered if anyone would make the journey from the city today. Her father was famous for his swords, and now and again some wealthy man would send servants with silver to buy one from him. Her father sold them fine-looking blades, but not his best. He saved the best for the hard-bitten warriors and soldiers who came of their own. Some men saved their money for years to be able to afford what he crafted, and to them he sold his finest steel.

The city spread out beside the river below, the water bright with the dawn reflection, and the haze of night smoke still drifted over the rooftops. She looked north, to where the hills rolled green and unending. There, at the limit of her vision, she saw a shadow on the earth, and something like a dark cloud. She watched it, thinking perhaps it was a storm, but it hung too low to be a storm. It gave her a misgiving, in the hollow of her stomach, and then she turned away and went to the forge.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Tara of the Twilight


As I have said before, Lin Carter was a diligent editor and literary historian, but at best a mediocre novelist. He had enthusiasm and imagination, but his characterization was bland and his sense of action and timing were execrable, which are signal failings when one is trying to write Sword & Sorcery. Today I will eviscerate what is probably the worst book he ever wrote: the semi-infamous Tara of the Twilight.

It’s not clear, really, whose idea this was. In his forward (!) Carter waxes rather scholarly about “the erotic impulse” and so forth, while mentioning that he had never written anything that was A: from the point of view of a female, and B: meant to be porn in any way. Both of these are big warning signs of the awfulness to follow. But he also mentions Zebra editor Roy Torgeson, who can bear some of the blame for his travesty. Torgeson – an editor of some note in the 70s and 80s – worked mostly in hard SF, and it’s not clear what he was doing at Zebra in 1979.

Zebra books is an imprint of Kensington Publishing, and is very much still around. Their main focus has always been Regency Romance titles, which they still put out to this day. But there was a period from 1975-1985 when they were trying to expand their slate a bit, publishing some westerns, and even some horror novels. They don’t seem to really be proud of Tara, and it’s not hard to see why.

I stumbled on the book when I was seventeen – pretty much the ideal audience for bad porn – and I still found it all but unreadable. I did read it, mostly to see just how terrible it was, the same instinct that causes us to lance boils and look at car accidents. As porn, it was a complete failure, because it was impossible to jerk off to, even when I was seventeen.

Tara follows the tale of the titular heroine, who is a red-haired sixteen-year-old girl who has been raised by a wizard and is a sworn worshiper of a rather nebulous pantheon of gods who demand her virginity; also to be a war-maiden she has to wear no armor, and go about conveniently almost naked. Thus, Carter has an in-universe rationale for the “chainmail bikini” trope. He does, however, fall hard into the “omniscient boobs” style of writing, where all of Tara’s attributes are discussed in lavish detail and with a great deal of leering that makes no sense in a first-person narrative. Also, let us just deal with the fact that we are being invited to lust after a sixteen-year-old girl, something that simply would not fly today. Unfortunately, this is not the only highly unpleasant turn this story will take.

Far from any kind of action-adventure, the novel is simply our heroine going from one kind of captivity to another, and the vaunted warrior skills she is said to possess seem to do her no good whatsoever. She is enslaved by a succession of vile and lecherous captors, and is thus subjected to all manner of depravity without any kind of consent. Now, there is certainly a market for this kind of porn, where consent is dubious or nonexistent, but it is really rather gross to discover that Tara is essentially rape porn from one end to the other.

Tara spends the bulk of her time a captive of the barbarian warlord Hunza – a typically musclebound, illiterate, loincloth-wearing type of dude. Everything kind of crashes to a screeching halt when he is shown raping a twelve-year-old girl. Repeatedly. There’s not really a way for the book to recover any kind of sympathy after this point, as it is just far too repulsive for even ironic enjoyment. Sexually violating underaged girls is a major theme of the book, to the point where it starts to say something about Lin Carter, something more than a little distasteful.

One of the very strange contrivances of this book is that Tara never actually has regular sex. She manages to maintain her technical virginity, mostly because her various captors are too depraved to be interested in it. She has a lot of oral sex, and has anal sex (is anally raped, to be honest), but she never actually gets fucked. It has to be said that none of this is tremendously sexy, both because of Carter’s stilted prose, and because of Tara’s traumatized reactions to it. It’s not sexy to read about a teenaged girl vomiting after she is forced to suck a dick.

And in case you are thinking I exaggerate the redolent badness of the writing, let me grit my teeth and provide some examples. Lines such as “I explored the wrinkled flesh stretched tight over the twin rondures of his testicles.” or “I felt the hammerlike head of his maleness probe forcefully at the small wrinkled eye of my anus.” are like porn written by a fifteen-year-old fanfic author, not a fifty-year-old professional. To be fair, Carter’s line-by-line writing was never any good, but applying his sensibility to porn causes things to verge quickly into the grotesque.

Tara ends on an open note, clearly leading up to a sequel that would never come to be. Carter apparently published some Tara stories later on that may have been the beginnings of a full-length sequel, but there has never been a collection of them, thankfully. The book only went through one printing, and though I believe you can get a print-on-demand copy, the original paperbacks are rather valuable if they are in good shape. This is rare, as the cheaply-printed copies often simply fall apart (mine has lost the front cover, and the back cover will soon detach, even though it has not been read in almost 30 years). It seems Carter’s one work of rape porn shall remain more heard-of than read.