Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: Assassin of Gor

Book Review: 'Assassin of Gor' by John Norman
2 / 5 Stars

‘Assassin of Gor’ is No. 5 in the series, and first was published in 1970. This Ballantine Books paperback version (409 pp) was published in September 1978, and features a quintessential ‘Gor’ cover illustration by Boris Vallejo.

[‘John Norman’ is of course the pen name of the philosophy professor John Eric Lange.]

I remember buying and reading this book 'way back in September of ’78, and thereafter stowing it away in my book collection….until I recently decided to take it from the shelf and re-read it.

So, how is ‘Assassin of Gor’ when read the second time, 36 years later ?

The answer is……….not all that great.

The novel opens with a ‘teaser’ chapter, in which our hero Tarl Cabot is murdered by a cowardly attack. It is not disclosing any spoiler to say that the victim was not, after all, Tarl Cabot, but someone who resembled him enough to be the target of an assassination.

In an effort to uncover the conspiracy that arranged for his murder,Tarl Cabot decides to go undercover, assuming the guise of one ‘Kuurus’, a member of the Assassin caste. This subterfuge will allow Cabot to infiltrate the household of Cernus of Ar, the wealthiest, most influential, most cunning, and most cruel slave tycoon on the planet of Gor.

Cernus, it seems, is covertly working for The Others (the alien race that is competing with the Priest-Kings to take over Gor). Kuurus’s mission: find out what Cernus is doing for The Others….and in the course of so doing, uncover whatever role Cernus had in plotting the murder of Tarl Cabot……..

Criticizing John Norman’s prose style has been done in such completeness by the sci-fi community in the years since the Gor books first were written that for me to add any of my own complaints is utterly superfluous. 

But what strikes me after reading ‘Assassin of Gor’ for the second time in 36 years is how slavishly Norman followed the narrative style of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the John Carter of Mars / Barsoom books. Like Burroughs, Norman regularly inserts into his narrative lengthy chunks of didactic exposition on any and all topics of Gorean culture.

For example, early on in ‘Assassins’, there is an exposition on the design, construction, use, and sociological importance of Gorean locks...... that takes up nearly two pages ….?!

Elsewhere in ‘Assassins’, the description of the logistics of the transportation of a slave girl from one locale to another takes up nearly two pages of exposition. A mini-dissertation on the organization and domestic arrangments of Cernus’s household takes up nearly four pages. A didactic passage on the design of a tarn-racing course takes up nearly three pages, and is one of the most confusingly worded segments of text I ever have encountered in a sci-fi novel.

And, of course, whenever Norman turns to his favorite fetish, the slave – girl culture that underpins the Gor novels, the exposition goes on for page after tedious page….

I can understand that some degree of exposition is necessary in a fantasy or science fiction novel, as it is part of the requisite world-building that defines these genera of literature. But that John Norman should find it vital to mimic the style of novels Edgar Rice Burroughs first began publishing in 1912 is a clear signal of unimaginative literary ‘recycling’.

To be fair, there are sections of ‘Assassins of Gor’ that offer the action and adventure that are part and parcel of the so-called ‘planetary romance’ novel. But at over 400 pages in length, the book suffers from an excess of verbiage.

Summing up ? ‘Assassin of Gor’ is one of those books that was aimed at an audience of male readers under the age of 25, a readership that wasn’t – and still isn’t – looking for timeless literary quality. As such, the Gor novels were extremely successful commercially. 

But with age comes wisdom, and it’s impossible to recapture the naivete that made ‘Assassins’ tolerable the first time around……….. 

1 comment:

DeadSpiderEye said...

Used to see 'em on the shelves of the bookshop, the vibe I picked up was that they were aimed at the female market, you know the historical romance crowd, where there are plenty of buttons flying off bodices. An impression that was reinforced by the contexts I'd see the read in and by the covers, which were sort of airbrushy depictions of chicks in various states of submission. So I gave 'em a miss, it was only later, when my naivety over the controversy that arose over them was dismissed, that I formed a different impression. I gather now, that the game is up for the author, can't get a publisher to take 'em up, maybe he should come up with a pen name, something ending in James?