Norman's books are technically of the "science fiction" variety, though there are a lot of the trappings of sword & sorcery fantasy in them. In the tradition of Burroughs's protagonist John Carter, Norman's character Tarl Cabot is a man of earth who is frequently brought to another planet (in this case, Gor or "Counter-Earth," a planet that shares the same orbit as the Earth but on the opposite side of the sun). On that planet he is a great warrior, or "tarnsman," trained to ride the gigantic hawk-like birds called tarns and becomes embroiled in the politics and sword-wielding adventure of that world.
Now, Norman and his books has received a lot of bile and revulsion over the years due to his subject matter; critics have panned his books for outright misogyny and gross tastelessness due mainly to its depiction of women as slaves and masochists and the "rightness" of the slave-master dynamic as a social system. I first got a sense of that from the description of the series in Fantasy Wargaming (published 1981):
Unfortunately, John Noman suffers from a deeply rooted bondage fetish which he obviously expects his readers to share, for all of these books are full of nubile slave girls who are forced to call men, "master," who are kept permanently chained and whose erotic instincts are usually aroused by a touch of a whip.
[this passage comes from the chapter on inspirational reading material for possible fantasy settings]
I'd read other reviews (prior to acquiring the book) that described Tarnsman as "the epitome of misogyny" or "having horrendous levels of misogyny." Apparently the series as a whole is responsible for inspiring a niche subculture of the BDSM community.
Well, maybe that's true of the later books, but I've only read the first one and I don't find any of that.
Yes, there are slaves, male and female. The male slaves feature most prominently as resources used during the siege of a major city. The female slaves are dealt with more explicitly because Cabot (the main character) interacts with them in the story...usually finding their treatment abhorrent and spending his time freeing them and rejecting Gorean society.
To me, the books read more as a "stranger in a strange land" type of story. The book, narrated in the first person by Cabot, often has the character not just questioning but outright rebelling against the values of an alien culture when they fail to match his own civilized Earth values, which are pretty standard 1960s American/British and male...perhaps a bit chauvinistic (though less than, say, Jack Hamm's character on Mad Men) but certainly he falls on the side of "right," decrying Gor's customs as "rude" and "barbaric" most of the time (and while he comes to take up their warrior code as his own, he is happy to question it and modify it when it doesn't suit his personal ethics).
The one female character portrayed as (perhaps) having a mild fetish for bondage is only that: a single example...and she herself is a free woman who gleefully admits to abusing her own slaves. Another female character, while accepting of her slavery as part of the tradition of Gor (whereby prisoners of wars and raids are enslaved) is still happy to have her freedom and leave her shackles behind given the chance. There's no promotion of slavery being a "happy state of affairs" by the author, speaking through the protagonist's narrative. One gets the impression that Tarl would, if permitted, attempt to overthrow those parts of Gorean society that oppress others...which is why he's returned to Earth, unhappily, at the end of the novel.
But as I said, maybe the later books are different. For me, Tarnsman of Gor is a fairly good book if you enjoy pulpy, sword-wielding fantasy, though I get tired of the first person narrative and the 1960s moralizing...again, I find Cabot to be a bit of a goody-two-shoes (more on that in a bit). For being a 45 year old book, it still holds up remarkably well...it doesn't feel as dated as say, some of Heinlein or Bradbury. And part of that has to do with the setting which, from the snatches of description provided, seems to be well-thought out and fairly rich, containing social structures and traditions, language and politics, alien flora and fauna (much more than just the giant tarns), and an interesting premise: alien "priest-kings" abduct earth humans and strand them in this Lord of the Flies situation for their own whimsical amusement.
The priest-kings...who are never actually encountered, only described through hearsay in the novel...are fascinating individuals. They provide the humans of Gor with a certain level of high technology (for example, electrical lights and lifts and doors, high caliber structural engineering, and medicine and medical advances that exceed 20th century earth medicine), but forbid the use of any weapon of greater technology than a crossbow, and do not even allow the crafting of chain mail armor. The penalties for trying to break these taboos is pretty severe: offenders are incinerated in a ball of blue fire by the unseen priest-kings.
Not a bad little mechanism for enforcing arbitrary conventions in an RPG: yeah, your magic-user can't wear armor or wield a sword because he'll be horribly and immediately destroyed by the local divinity. Nice. Despite the lack of supernatural magic, the world of Gor would make an excellent campaign setting for an RPG. The Gorean caste system is a good basis for character class archetypes (ha! there's even an "assassin caste"), and there are more than a few adventure ideas in the game. Plus, the premise provides a way to include 21st century Earth personality and morality in a pseudo-primitive/medieval setting, something that might be fun around the gaming table ("yes, you know what a car is but they don't have them: you can ride a giant bird or a giant lizard"). Oh, yeah...and impalement is the main form of Gorean justice/punishment for criminals, which I found amusing considering my own posting on the subject a few months back.
There are a couple thoughts that came out of reading this book that I'd like to elaborate on, both regarding elements of the writing/subject matter and how they apply to (role-playing) game play, but those are going to have to wait for separate posts. Tarnsman of Gor wasn't "the best" fantasy book I've ever read, but it was a good read, and the quality of the writing was a big step up from some of the other fantasy series on my book shelves (sorry, James Silke, Steve Perry...). It made me put my reading of David Chandler's trilogy on hold (I'm currently on the third book of his Ancient Blades series), though I'll probably return to that before starting Outlaw of Gor.