Title: Tarnsman of Gor (Gorean Saga #1)
Author: John Norman
Published by: Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Publication date: 1966
Tarl Cabot has always believed himself to be a citizen of Earth. He has no inkling that his destiny is far greater than the small planet he has inhabited for the first twenty-odd years of his life. One frosty winter night in the New England woods, he finds himself transported to the planet of Gor, also known as Counter Earth, where everything is dramatically different from anything he has ever experienced. It emerges that Tarl is to be trained as a Tarnsman, one of the most honored positions in the rigid, caste-bound Gorean society. He is disciplined by the best teachers and warriors that Gor has to offer . . . but to what end?
I’ve tried a couple of times to read this book, but never made it passed the first chapter or so until now. It’s a book and saga that has been on my radar for a long time and I am really pleased that I managed to push past the first couple of chapters and make it through.
Tarl Cabot, the main character of Tarnsman of Gor, is a pretty normal guy, if something of a loner at the start of the book and in typically 1960s style he is rather incredulously taken from his home-world of Earth to a Counter-Earth world known as Gor. As a lead character about the most interesting thing about Tarl Cabot is his name. I’m not doing him much justice here, but he is rather one dimensional and other than mastering some kick-ass skills pretty early on he doesn’t change or develop that much, yet he is still a joy to read about for reasons I’ll go on to detail later in the review. As an protagonist Tarl is certainly acceptable but he’s not very profound nor is he the most endearing character to read about, if anything he’s a little one dimensional and cut from the cloth of ‘standard fantasy-genre hero.’ He adapts quickly to the radically different setting of his home-world and accepts the displacement easily. I admit, it is somewhat refreshing to come across a lead-character that isn’t full of complaint for the situation they find themselves in.
There are no other characters displaced from regular-Earth of note, but there are a lot of characters from Gor which I’ll return to in a moment.
Where Tarnsman of Gor shines it’s brightest is in the world-setting and creation. If you’re interesting in world-building then this is a wonderful example of creating something unique. The basics of the world is medieval. Ontop of that John Norman has built a marvel of his own. So intricate is the crafting of Gor that it is this which feels infinitely more interesting than the basic story or the character that drives it. Where I flagged with reading was during the more regular scenes of the book – character narratives and combat scenes – as I thirsted more for the world-building than anything else.
Even the name of the book, Tarnsman of Gor, hints to an aspect of the world-creation, the Tarn; a large eagle-like bird on which members of the Warrior Caste ride and fight from. Learning, along with Tarl, about the world of Gor is brilliant. From the vast regions we are shown to the cylinder cities and their home-stones and the politics between the castes within the cities. There are language elements and social constructs all of which are alien to the reader until explained and experienced by Tarl and the characters that accompany him.
One aspect to the world building that may not sit well with some readers is the 1960s view of women and elements that may be interpreted as misogyny. As a female reader, I personally was not phased by these elements. I am actually rather fascinated by the slavery aspect of the novels and accepted them with relative ease. Other readers might be insulted by the sexist world of Gor, but for me it’s just another layer to a complicated world setting of John Normans creation. I think if you’re a raging feminist then maybe the Gorean Saga isn’t for you and while some of the sentences are certainly written from a 1960’s – and cringeworthy – viewpoint I think they’re forgivable considering the age of these books and the real world era they are written with. Putting modern day values on them only sullies the work and would be dismissing them out of hand.
On that note, returning to the other characters involved in the story, Tarls father make a reappearance early in Tarnsman of Gor, after Tarl has believed him having walked out on him when he was a young boy. There isn’t much information about Tarls father, but he is the early key in unlocking the customs of Gor and a means to the first elements of world-building. Tarl makes a couple of early on friends, Torm and Older Tarl – who also help him to understand the ins and outs of Gorean Culture and to help train him in the warriors arts.
Also thrown into the mix are a couple of antagonists, Marlenus and Pa-Kur. They, like a lot of the characters in Tarnsman of Gor, are brief in their description and not overly profound. They bring something to the table and the first etchings of great personalities are there, but I don’t feel what we are given goes deep enough. I feel as though John Norman put a lot of his efforts into the world and setting of Gor and the characters to illuminate the world with came as a secondary thought.
There is a female character in the mixture, Talena. She is the character that goes through the most development and I enjoyed her scenes above the rest. Character development is a great thing and it’s an expectation that a character comes out the end of a book different to how they started. I’d say that Talena goes through a lot of conflict and resolution which is much more satisfying to read that Tarls instant mastery of many things it would take normal men on Gor years to train in; swordsmanship, tarn riding, etc.
The plot of Tarnsman of Gor is relatively straight-forward. It’s a hero vs villian fantasy type story written in the mid-60s. It’s easy to keep track of what is happening throughout the plot, even if some of the actions are questionable. There are a few jumps in the plot which we’re a little jarring and at times I eye-rolled at Tarls apparent lack of flaws and his ‘knowing best’ despite being in a completely alien setting.
I’d have liked for some of the descriptive writing to have gone a bit deeper, not of the world building, but of the characters, their actions and their thoughts and feelings. I think this would have taken Tarnsman of Gor from where it stands to the next level, it would have felt a bit more polished and rounded as a novel, rather than a fine example of world-building.
I am captivated by the Gorean Saga already and am eager to get hold of some of the future instalments in the series – as far as I know there are 35ish books in the saga – but they aren’t the cheapest books about, so I’ll bide my time until I can either find Outlaw of Gor a bit cheaper or I finish some of my current reading pile.