Books to the Sky

Recap: Tarnsman of Gor by John Norman

Posted on: September 14, 2008

Hello. I’m a new recapper, and my beat is “The Chronicles of Gor.” It’s a series of 26 books, written by Professor John Norman, which straddle the line between “so bad they’re good” and “so bad they’re horrible.” This recap is of the first book of the series, Tarnsman of Gor.

The books take place on a “Counter-Earth”– a planet purportedly in our solar system but hidden– and are infamous for egregious abuse of scifi/fantasy tropes and a depiction of women as sexually submissive and enjoying slavery.

The protagonist is a certain Tarl Cabot; after revealing that he never knew his dad and that his mom died when he was six, he elegantly explains his childhood:

Biographical details are tedious, so suffice it to say that I was a bright child, fairly large for my age, and was given a creditable upbringing by an aunt who furnished everything that a child might need, with the possible exception of love.

Yes, the text says ‘creditable’. Apparently, it means “deserving of limited praise or commendation.” The author is apparently familiar with this relatively obscure word, perhaps from publisher’s rejection letters.

We then find out that his career is as a university professor at a college in Northeastern American College. Oddly enough, the author is also a professor at a college in Northeastern America. Ready to get away from it all, our intrepid MC is dropped off in the middle of the woods by a friend, and borrows camping equipment from him; he is apparently unaware that nothing good happens to MCs in the woods. Wandering around, he finds a metallic envelope with his name on it. He opens it and finds the obligatory cryptic letter, dated 1640 for reasons that will be neither explained nor explored for the balance of the book. It indicates that SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

Tarl wonders why the hell the letter is dated three centuries ago, while the reader– not given an opportunity or a reason to be invested in the MC, let alone his absentee father– struggles to care. The MC makes a run for it, an alien ship descends, and he feels compelled to enter it.

On the other side, he finds himself in a strange environment and has a heartwarming reunion with his father:

“You are my son, Tarl Cabot.”

“I am Tarl Cabot,” I said.

“I am your father,” he said.

A mere 14 pages in, a strong female protagonist arrives on the scene:

He clapped his hands twice, and the panel slid back again. I was startled. Through the opening came a young girl, somewhat younger than myself, with blond hair bound back. She wore a sleeveless garment of diagonal stripes, the brief skirt of which terminated some inches above her knees. She was barefoot, and as her eyes shyly met mine, I saw they were blue and deferential. My eyes suddenly noted her one piece of jewelry–a light, steal-like band she wore as a collar. As quickly as she had come, she departed.

“You may have her this evening if you wish,” said my father, who had scarcely seemed to notice the girl.

Dad will, apparently, be running on a family values platform.

The author then indulges in one of the oldest and laziest tricks in the exposition arsenal:

Step one: Have one character possess knowledge the reader will be unfamiliar with, in this case the politics and society of a fictional world

Step two: Have another character who, by virtue of the plot, needs to have that same knowledge.

Step three: Pages upon pages of tedious exposition in the form of dialogue.


— Every city has a “home stone.. A military leader– called an Ubar– who allows hostiles to take the home stone of his city will be perceived as weak and fall out of power.

— Priest Kings are all purpose plot devices. They abduct people from Earth, for reasons unknown, which is how the MC got to Gor. They also forbid technology from progressing beyond a certain level; if somebody is foolish enough to use a rifle, they’ll burst into flames eventually. The weapons of war are therefore the sword and the crossbow.

— Gor is supposed to be located in our solar system, but we can’t see it because it’s always on the opposite side of the sun as Earth. Oh, and it’s invisible. And they have technology so the gravity from it doesn’t distort the orbit of other planets. Oh, and the priest kings can move Gor if they want to. Essentially, the author goes to great pains to establish an all purpose plot device.

— Our MC shows no interest in how the father managed to get a letter to Earth as a warning, or why it was dated from the seventeenth century. Sequel bait, presumably.

— On Gor, there is no such thing as foreshadowing. Instead, Gor practices the time honored tradition of forebrighthuntingvesting :

“Sometimes a… war chief wins the hearts of his men, and they refuse to withdraw their allegiance.”

“What happens then?”
“He becomes a tyrant and rules until eventually, in one way or another, he is ruthlessly deposed.” My father’s eyes were hard and seemed fixed in thought. It was not mere political theory he spoke to me. I gathered that he knew of such a man. “Until,” he repeated slowly, “he is ruthlessly deposed.”

Dad, weary from the exposition, decrees that Tarl needs to be trained and hands him over to an instructor. We learn that Gor has a caste system and slavery. Tarl then learns to fly a beast called a tarn. Their wingspan is about thirty feet, and True Warriors can fly them; tarns are another weapon of war, essentially serving as flying horses. One method of controlling them is the tarn-goad, which is basically a cattle prod that encourages the tarn to go the other way.

We then learn that the tarn itself is a Mary Sue:

“That tarn,” he said, “was bred for you, specially selected from the best broods of the finest of our war tarns. It was with you in mind that the keepers of the tarns worked, breeding and crossbreeding, training and retraining.”

Presumably, how they knew he was coming will be explained in later books. For now, Tarl can’t seem to be bothered with such trifles. Tarl never bothers to name the tarn, so I’m just going to go ahead and call it Mary Sue. Mary Sue and Tarl then, in the grand tradition of Mary Sues, race and defeat a more experienced rider who has a mile head start.

45 pages in, we’re finally done with exposition and backstory. Our MC is ready to receive… a mission! He is going to retrieve the Home Stone of a rival city called Ar. The hope is to cause the Ubar of that city to fall, and preemptively remove a threat. This is a very important mission, so they send two people to pull it off: our inexperienced MC and a slave. There’s no justification provided for this in the text; presumably, it’s that he’s expendable and perhaps not easily traced back to the city, but the MC is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s been sent on a probable suicide mission.

The brilliant plan: In the middle of a scheduled sacrifice, the MC is to fly to the tower where the stone is kept, slay the daughter of the Ubar (conveniently in heavy ceremonial robes), put the slave in the robes so the problem isn’t discovered for a few extra minutes, grab the stone, then fly back. You have my word that this plan is no more plausible or coherent in the text.

Our MC decides that he can’t bring himself to be responsible for the death of the slave, so he decides to change the plan and frees her. Determined to mar an altruistic act, Tarl casually mentions that while slavery is fine for some women, he doesn’t think it suits this particular woman; the slaves he met at the tavern, though, totally have a good deal going.

In gratitude, the slave offers to serve his pleasure. On Gor, “I was going to condemn you to a painful death, but I decided not to” is a highly effective pickup line. She cries when he drops her off, which Tarl labels “incomprehensible absurdity” and attributes it to her being a woman. I think most people would cry in this context; setting that aside, glass houses dude. We’ll soon find out that our MC is hilariously defective.

Mr. Selectively Objects to Slavery then runs into a pointless patrol and defeats three more experienced warriors. Along the way, he demonstrates an incredible skill with the longbow; from the back of Mary Sue, he can not only shoot at the opposing warriors, he can also has enough precision to disable one’s tarn instead of killing the rider. While his earlier warrior training included virtually no instruction with the longbow, he does helpfully inform us that he thought it might be useful someday, and therefore practiced with it whenever he could in his free time.

Mr. Quick Study then makes it to the tower, and struggles to figure out which stone is the correct one. Apparently, his elite exposition dump didn’t include a physical description of what he was looking for. Might want to take that up at the next staff meeting. He figures out which one is right, grabs it, takes off on his tarn, and plot complications arise!

The daughter Tarl was supposed to slay, named Talena, is clinging to the rope ladder on the side of Mary Sue, and he can’t bring himself to ignore her or cut her loose. He pulls her up, comforts her, then assures her that he won’t harm her. She promptly pushes him off. In Gor, nobody can anticipate sudden but inevitable betrayals. He falls to a Certain Death… saved only by the fortuitously placed web of a peaceful spider person who would refuse to kill a rational creature. I’ll go ahead and summarize their conversation for you:

Spider person: Hi! I saved your life.

MC: Are you here for any valid plot reason, or just to establish your race for the purpose of later sequels?

Spider person: Sequels! I’m a spider! My people are pacifists, and our existence is threatened… BY YOUR KIND!

MC: The author is now going to use me as an instrument to convey his belief that spiders are insects.

Talena: Me too! You filthy insect!

Spider: *flees to see if he can become a character in a better book*

Why is Talena part of the conversation? Well, she didn’t know how to control Mary Sue, so it rejected her, became a leader of its own wild tarn pack, and she escaped when it was close to the ground. And she apparently went all this time wearing ceremonial ten inch heels. Reading that made my toes hurt, and I’m a guy. Tarl at least has the decency to realize how absurd that was. She agrees to “submit” herself to him, because she stands no chance of survival on her own. On his way out, the spider person warns him not to trust her, but Tarl is confident there will be no problems. Three pages later, they approach a fruit tree. He wants them to go together, but she insists that, having submitted, it is her place to follow. She tries to stab him. Apparently, in the hour and three pages since she agreed to submit in exchange for protection, she decided that she could fend for herself.

They tussle, he wins, and orders her to remove her clothing. We then get a delightful glimpse into Tarl’s head:

The daughter of the Ubar feared that I would force her to serve my pleasure—I, a common soldier. But then, shamefacedly, I admitted to myself that I had, while dragging her to the trees, intended to take her and that it had only been the sudden spell of her beauty which, paradoxically enough, had claimed my respect, forced me to recognize that selfishly I was about to injure or dominate what Nar would have referred to as a rational creature. I felt ashamed and resolved that I would do no harm to this girl, though she was as wicked and faithless as a tharlarion.

Two exposition deliverers come across, get the drop on our heroes, and are delighted at the prospect of stripping, collaring and putting a leash on Talena. They strip her, but in the process of performing the latter two acts, they become distracted and the MC easily overpowers and slays them. Before this pointless plot cul-de-sac terminates, they reveal that Talena’s family is out of power and the religious caste has taken over the city

After the battle, Talena has moved beyond “trying to kill you again” mode and is back to “submissive” mode and asks for permission to clothe herself. Tarl grants it, and Talena says, “As you can see, I carry no weapons.” Tarl replies, “You underestimate yourself.” MC maintains that she seemed flattered. Frankly, he’s probably lucky she didn’t have a knife to stab him with. Finally realizing that blindly trusting her isn’t an option, he puts her in slave bracelets, collars her, hoods her, and hauls her behind him. The author subtly lets us know that the MC might be falling for her:

I laughed and held her briefly in my arms. I suddenly sensed the rush of blood in her and in myself. I wanted never to release her. I wanted her always thus, so locked in my arms, mine to hold and love.

The next day, they come across another Exposition Officer. The author uses some sleight of hand; the MC simply says, “What news of <topic>?” about whatever the author feels like talking about, then the Exposition Officer delivers it. Very handy!

The only two things you need to know:

— A massive camp is gathering to sack Ar.

— Marlenus, the ubar and father of Talena has fled.

Having served his purpose, the exposition officer challenges Tarl to a swordfight over Talena and gets wounded. Tarl refuses to kill him; if he has to suffer through this inane plot, so does everybody else. In a stunningly original twist, it turns out that since Tarl drew the blood of the newcomer– now named Kazrak– they’re sword brothers. But because he disabled Kazrak, now he has to take his place in a merchant caravan. Fine, whatever. Ostensibly as part of their cover– she pretending to be his slave– he puts a collar on Talena, refuses to let her retain the key to it, and informs her that it will be removed “if at all, when I please.” Anticipating Mr. Timberlake, she grants him permission to whip her if she misbehaves. Given how over the map the Tarl is, this may be effective reverse psychology; I have no idea.

Talena becomes a camp favorite, because she apparently picked up the skill of cooking by the campfire. Why somebody whose sole character attribute is being pampered and existing in a purely ceremonial role would know how to cook, let alone by campfire, is just one of the many Imponderables of Gor.

The next city they stop at, Talena insists on stopping by at a slave auction that, while having no bearing on the plot or themes of the book, does give the author a chance to reveal his particular brand of feminism:

“I wondered if, on my own planet, there was not a similar market,

invisible but present, and just as much accepted, a market in which

women were sold, except that they sold themselves, were

themselves both merchandise and merchant.

How many of the women of my native planet, I wondered, did not

with care consider the finances, the property of their

prospective mates? How many of them did not, for all practical

purposes, sell themselves, bartering their bodies for the

goods of the world?”

The Alanis-level abuse of ‘ironically’ is the least of Tarl’s problems. If you’ve had the displeasure to associate with bitter guys, you’ve doubtless heard the theory that marriage is simply prostitution with a long-term commitment. Tarl cheerfully takes this ‘logic’ to the next step.

Retiring to their tent with wine, Talena offers Tarl a “whip dance” or a “chain dance”– no details are given about what these might entail, and I’m rather grateful not to know. After Tarl declines both, Talena performs a “love dance” instead which, amazingly, turns out not to be a euphemism. The author then imparts Talena with some highly realistic dialogue:

“Call for the iron,” she said. “Brand me, Master.”

“No, Talena,” I said, kissing her mouth. “No.”

“I want to be owned,” she whimpered. “I want to belong to you, fully, completely in every way. I want your brand, Tarl of Bristol, don’t you understand? I want to be your branded slave.”

I fumbled with the collar at her throat, unlocked it, and threw it aside.

“You’re free, my love,” I whispered. “Always free.”

She sobbed, shaking her head, her lashes wet with tears. “No,” she wept. “I am your slave.” She clenched her body against mine, the buckles of the wide thalarion belt cutting into her belly. “You own me,” she whispered. “Use me.”

True, she started off the book hating him, and that was just a few days ago in story-time. However, since then, he’s not only not-raped her, he also not-murdered her, so it’s easy to see how she could fall for him in a hurry.

Sadly, Tarl doesn’t get time to react as a bunch of people rush into his tent and take them both prisoner.

The villiain, Pa-Kur, is of the Assassin Caste of Ar and plans to retake the city. He somehow knows who Talena is, and intends to marry her to solidify his grasp of power. How he tracked them down is the sort of question you shouldn’t bother yourself with. Talena has apparently requested that he receive a Slow and Painful, rather than instant, death. To that end, he’s strapped to the Frame of Humiliation– which aptly captures what I went through when I bought this book off Amazon– and sent down the river to his second Certain Death of the book. MC decides that Talena was only pretending to love him. While this is seemingly the least of his problems, it seems to trouble him.

After an inordinate amount of time, Tarl is snatched out of the water by a tarn and fears he will be eaten. The more cynical readers might be thinking that this will Just Happen to turn out to be Mary Sue, and that Mary Sue will save his life. Shame on you. John Norman is better than that. The tarn that pulls him out of the water is NOT Mary Sue, just some random wild tarn. I’m really glad the author didn’t go that direction, aren’t you?

This tarn is, however, killed by Mary Sue. Mary Sue recognizes Tarl and takes him to the nest. They bond by Tarl feeding Mary Sue lice from its plumage. Tarl contemplates flying Mary Sue home, but lacks the tarn-goad and frets that his control over the beast won’t be nearly as precise as he would like. Still, lacking another viable option, he takes his chances.

A few pages later, he apparently has perfect control over the tarn. He spots some campfires, decides they’re probably not hostile, flies in close to take a look, and lands to prevent somebody from getting eaten by a Gor-tiger. The guy he saves turns out to be the Uubar of Ar, Marlenus. Yes, the guy that Tarl was trying to depose and the father of Ms. Please Brand Me. It’s a small, small Gor after all.

Because they figure out he’s the one who stole the home stone, Tarl is quickly surrounded by a posse and is condemned to his third Certain Death of the book, this time by “tarn death”– being tied to two tarns and waiting for them to fly such that they rip his body in half. It’s like drawing and quartering, but on a budget. Nobody has ever escaped tarn death before… until Tarl does it, of course, through a series of impossible physical feats that I refuse to recap, lest I become stupider by repeating them.

He makes it back to Mary Sue and, instead of simply heading home, flies to Ar to reunite with the merchant caravan from earlier. He finds Karzak and they reunite. They head to the tent of the head merchant, and Marlenus is also there, showing an ability to be wherever he needs to be that would make Wolverine jealous. Oddly, Marlenus and Tarl have moved beyond the, “One of us just tried to kill the other” awkwardness, and hatch a plan: Tarl will rescue Talena, and Marlenus will take his men, raid the city, and get bogged down until the plot needs him again. On his way out, Tarl is informed that he’s the only person who has survived tarn death, and he just might be the “warrior brought every thousand years to Gor– brought by the Priest-Kings to change a world.”

Time for Tarl to gather recon! By dressing as a messenger, he can wander freely about the camp of Pa-Kur. Apparently, nobody in Gor thought of this brilliant deception before, so nobody asks any questions or challenges him in a meaningful way. Kazrak agrees to go to MC’s home city to raise a deus ex machina army to attack Pa-Kur from the rear. He finds what is supposed to be Talena in a heavily guarded tent, and is granted admission to deliver a message. Based on the voice, Tarl can tell it’s not her; Pa-Kur has hidden her somewhere, thus earning the distinction of being the first person in the book to do something sensible. Sadly, this occurs on Page 148. In a book that’s 178 pages long. Determined to ruin it, the Tarl reveals that he’s “momentarily overwhelmed with the cunning of Pa-Kur”, and that he had been “outwitted by the brilliance of Pa-Kur.” It’s just like the old saying: In the kingdom of the blind, the guy that can recognize vivid colors and large objects is king.

The religious initiates in control of Ar eventually get around to negotiating a surrender– about sixty days after the siege started– and the conditions charmingly include the thousand most beautiful woman handed over as pleasure slaves, and the healthiest and most attractive thirty percent of the remainder auctioned off with the proceeds to go to Pa-Kur. You know what this reminds me of? That time my friend used her cleavage to get a free drink on a Friday night. Additionally, the plan for Pa-Kur to marry Talena is scrapped; as a condition of surrender, the initiates requested that she be killed within the city walls. Tarl, still convinced the two of them have true love, can’t let this happen.

Tarl, once again dressed as a messenger, flies to the front of the city and persuades the guard there to let loose the “tarn wire” which, as the name implies, keeps out tarnriders. It never occurs to the guard that somebody might lie about speaking on behalf of Pa-Kur, because some things simply aren’t done, even among people who use humans as currency. The guard also lets our intrepid MC know that Marlenus is still alive but he and his men are pinned down; Tarl figures out a way to break the deadlock and gets them back in the fight.

He then gives a rousing speech to the would-be surrendering residents of Ar, who undertake a belated resistance. Somebody is about to murder Talena, but literally bursts into flames before he can do so. A rather convincing sign from the priest-kings, no? Pa-Kur then decides to swordfight Tarl over Talena’s fate. During the swordfight, the deus ex machina army arrives and, in the confusion, Pa-Kur’s army is slaughtered. Pa-Kur loses the swordfight, and plummets to a Certain Death. We’re helpfully informed that his body was Never Found. I’m sure we won’t be hearing from him again.

Talena is saved, and Tarl proposes she come back with him as her free companion. She accepts. After some charming banter about how he’d force her if she said no, he removes her single garment, drops it on the town below, and therefore forces her to endure the rest of the trip naked. In accordance with the “bridal customs of Gor,, she’s bound and helpless for the return trip. Classy as always. Hopefully, she makes it back without hypothermia.

We then find out that the entire narrative has been written from a Manhattan apartment; Tarl woke up back in the New Hampshire field where it all started, but is convinced it was real because he had the ring. No word on whether he also had a Shaquille O’Neal jersey. Marlenus was exiled with fifty of his most loyal followers, presumably so he can still be around for the sequels. Mysteriously, Tarl’s bank account has been augmented and he doesn’t have to work any more. Way back on page 2, he said that he “sometimes wonder if [the friend who lent him the camping equipment] is curious about what happened to his camp gear or Tarl Cabot.” I would wager not, since in the epilogue, it’s revealed that Tarl was nice enough to cut the guy a check to compensate him for the camping equipment, and the friend knows he’s living in a Manhattan apartment. Hopefully, it’s not the sort of apartment overrun with insects like spiders. MC expresses a desire to return to Gor, and threatens us all with a sequel. Sadly, I can’t resist. I’ll be back shortly with Outlaw of Gor. May the Priest-Kings have mercy on us all.


3 Responses to "Recap: Tarnsman of Gor by John Norman"

My apartment is overrun with reptiles like mice, and I hate it :(.

But yay recap! I want a speshul snowflake pet too. I’m sure that we will never see this “plz to brand me now kthx” ever again in this series. That would just be too nutty!

I loved your recap!! Please keep ’em coming. Your sense of humor helps to offset quirks that are the Norman novels.


I have never laughed so much in my life! MORE!!!! This is the only good recap here.

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