Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Book Review: The Outlaw of Torn
To make up for the lack of updates in the last few days I'll be kicking off a few book reviews starting with the second novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Set during the reign of England's King Henry III in the 13th Century, The Outlaw of Torn follows the adventures of Norman of Torn, a young sword fighter and outlaw who has been brought up in sword fighting and a hatred of the British by his "father" Du Vac. Unknown to Norman he is actually the kidnapped son of the King and is a pawn in Du Vac's plans to get revenge for being slighted by the king. Along the way Norman leads a group of ragtag fighters in raids against the aristocracy until he begins to question his path, especially when he finds himself falling in love with Bertrade De Montfort, the daughter of the King's rival. With his plans falling apart Du Vac leads Norman to a final duel that may cost him his love and his life.
The Outlaw of Torn has an interesting place in ERB's output as a novel that Burroughs himself claimed was one of his best but that his fans and scholars have been divided on. Written shortly after selling Under the Moons of Mars to All-Story magazine, the idea of a medieval story in the Ivanhoe vein was suggested by All-Story's editor Thomas Metcalf. However Metcalf rejected it and Burroughs spent many months rewriting it. Eventually it would see print two years later when Burroughs was a success with Tarzan of the Apes.
I get the feeling it was all that rewriting that causes Outlaw to be as disjointed as it is. Burroughs is heavily criticized for his episodic plotting and that runs through the novel as Norman and his band run from one fight to another, with only brief stops for heart to heart discussions with a friendly priest and Norman's attempts to reconcile his past with his love for Bertrade. If there is one thing that Burroughs, even at this point, had in spades was forward momentum, even in A Princess of Mars but here the constant start-stop motion begins to wear a little.
That said The Outlaw of Torn does have its moments, as all Burroughs' work does, where the reader gets swept along for the ride. The action set pieces are just as strong as in Princess or Tarzan of the Apes and Burroughs manages to capture Norman's internal struggle quite well. Burroughs also takes the story into darker territory for a "pulp" adventure, from some rather grim deaths and the message that revenge will destroy everyone, most of all those who seek it. Burroughs also manages to make his female lead a strong and forceful woman. While Bertrade doesn't pick up a sword, she manages to overcome an early abduction and even holds her captors at bay while is willing to sacrifice herself to save Norman in the climax. For those who take Burroughs to task for creating weak damsels in distress, this book puts that claim to rest.
Ultimately though The Outlaw of Torn is a mid-level Burroughs book, interesting for its setting and Burroughs attempt to move in the historical novel and away from his pulp origins. For that it gets *** alone for being a good, not great read. But I can see why Norman of Torn didn't become John Carter of Mars and spawn a classic series. So if you're open minded give it try but temper your expectations. (And for those faithful readers future book reviews will include belated reviews of Swords of Waar, that promised Tarzan on Mars review and a continuing look back at Return of the Jedi. I promise.)