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.