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Review of The Coming of the Horseclans
This Post-Apocalyptic Saga Runs in Too Many Directions
Though the basic plot and setting are interesting Robert Adams does not focus on any particular theme or character long enough to convince the reader to care.
Set on the Atlantic coast in the twenty-seventh century A.D., the world struggles with lawlessness, barbarism, perpetual violence, and minimal technology since a series of unspecified cataclysmic events destroyed civilization over six hundred years ago. Into this vacuum comes Milo of Morai who unites the warlike horseclan nomads and leads them on a prophesied trek to a new homeland. Standing in his way is inhospitable terrain, savages that have settled in his path, and a variety of horrors that haven endured in the face of global catastrophe.
Echoes of Other Apocalypses
The setting and broad strokes of the plot are the high-points of the novel. The idea of Milo—who is essentially immortal and has telepathy—becoming a messiah figure by manipulating the religion and traditions of a ruthless, nomadic people is reminiscent of Paul Muad’Dib in Dune, another novel set in the far future. While there is less focus on the politics, Adams makes sure there is more action then in many of Frank Herbert's Dune books.
Adams also shows influences from earlier works in the genre such as Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son with its quest-based plot and telepathic cat. The setting of a devastated America will be familiar to contemporary fans given the popularity of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the videogame Fallout 3. These fundamentals make it easy to get into the novel, especially as post-apocalyptic literature has grow in popularity in recent years, particularly among young adults. Unlike The Road or Peter Heller's The Dog Stars, where much of the tension comes from the characters being dispossessed or struggling to survive against the odds of near-impossible environmental conditions, the story Adams creates is more one of an empowerment fantasy where strong men fight and conquer their way to greater power. There is little tension to be had in wondering about Milo's success since his abilities exceed those of nearly everyone else in the narrative.
Where the Novel and the World Fall Apart
Meticulous attention to obscure details and huge sections of exposition squashes most potential for characters to have meaningful interaction or grow in any way. Adams also stuffs his novel with eccentricities only to abandon them just as quickly. Readers should prepare to see but not become attached to telepathic horses and prairie cats, “The Prophecy of the Return,” Blackfoot beasts, pre-cataclysmic body-snatching vampires, and a rotating roster of suddenly introduced characters who frequently usurp the narrative. Similarly, while Milo starts as the sole immortal, he is joined by at least three more by the end making his gift and its consequences significantly less special.
For all the ideas Adams introduces only to never return to them again, he does fixate on several unfortunate elements. Sexual assault is frequent in the novel and astonishingly so given the inordinate number of children involved in the incidents—a major plot point revolves around the capture and subsequent rape of one girl. Unlike a book like A Game of Thrones wherein a sexually assaulted character deals with the lasting psychological effects, The Coming of the Horseclans uses it for melodrama and to set up Milo's status as a force for justice.
Bleak American Future
A few interesting components are not ultimately enough to salvage the lopsided plot, flat characters, and lack of narrative focus. The Coming of the Horseclans is worth reading for genre enthusiasts, but better depictions of a ruinous future with more satisfying characters exist, especially if the reader is looking for a story with more depth.
Adams, Robert. The Coming of the Horseclans. New York: Pinnacle, 1975.
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© 2010 Seth Tomko