Monday, February 11, 2019

Conan the Liberator

It is interesting how the authors who worked hard to imitate Howard’s style and create new Conan works felt their way toward the proper way to do it. Conan and the Sorcerer was a very short novel that didn’t create much excitement, but the following collection Conan the Swordsman got back to the character’s short story roots and produced some quite good stuff. Very closely afterward it was followed by this one, which was another attempt by Carter and de Camp to move Conan into the more lucrative world of the novel.

This book describes an episode of Conan’s life that was mentioned in the original Howard stories, but never told: his usurpation of the throne of Aquilonia from the mad king Numedides. This pivotal moment in Conan’s life had never been dramatized, and one could argue it still has not, since this book is barely adequate.

The action picks up immediately after the events of “The Treasure of Tranicos” – one of Howard’s more operatically violent tales and also one of his best. Conan is picked up from the ship he escaped that story in by some old companions from his days in the service of Aquilonia, and they want him to come with them and lead a revolt and become king, just like that.

I’m not saying we needed an extended storyline where Conan doesn’t want to be king and is forced into it, but the story loses some character development by not showing Conan himself make the choice to pursue this course of action. We could have a really good scene where Trocero and Prospero sat down and put the idea to him. We could see his excitement or his trepidation, see him wonder if he could really do it. Instead it is just taken as read, passed over, and we go straight to spending the treasure gleaned in the former tale to outfit an army. It weakens the beginning, and is the first example of skipping potentially interesting episodes, as well as out-of character behavior and elements that don’t fit.

Numedides presents another problem, as a mad king could be a good foil for Conan, but the characters never encounter each other until the very last scene, and though we are told Conan served the king and knew him before, we only get the sketchiest of flashbacks. We don’t get a real rivalry between our main antagonists at all, and thus the struggle for the crown lacks personal stakes.

Instead we get the real villain supplied by Thulandra Thuu, the most generic of Generic Evil Sorcerers. He plots and weaves spells, which never seem to do as much as he wants, and so he often feels like a very weak antagonist for our hero. He spies on Conan, poisons him, and calls down a storm that does nothing more than delay a battle that then never takes place anyway. In the end he escapes, and we don’t even get to see him have his head cleaved off.

The real weakness here is the lack of action in a supposed war story. There are several battles that almost happen, but then something or other diverts events and they don’t take place. One would think Conan’s quest for the throne would be bloody and savage, like the kinds of rampaging mayhem we got in “Black Colossus” or “The Scarlet Citadel”, but no. It seems like the authors didn’t really have any interest in battle scenes, so they just skipped over them. Now admittedly, nobody can do battle scenes like Howard, but they could have at least tried.

I have to mention there is also a very weird episode where Conan makes friends with little, pug-nosed fauns in the forest and they lead him to a secret path around a roadblock. The appearance of little cute nonhumans is tonally completely wrong for the Hyborian Age, and is much more in line with the kinds of generic fantasy dross that was becoming the standard at the time. It’s a little embarrassing to read it here.

The climax is rushed, as rather than the big battle we have been building towards and hoping for, Conan instead infiltrates the royal palace in disguise – apparently without much difficulty – and strangles Numedides before taking the crown. The strangulation is weird, as it is something more like what the real Conan would do, and one senses it’s only here because Howard mentioned it and made it canonical. Left to their own preferences I would be willing to bet Carter and de Camp would have had the king stab himself or something similar, so Conan could be as bloodless as possible.

Seeming to have been penned mostly by de Camp, the prose is fine, without Carter’s tedious faux-archaisms and poor sentence construction. That said, it feels scanty and light, never digging into the blood and thunder Conan always stood for, making him more like a Saturday-morning cartoon version of himself. Again we find the titular barbarian chatty, easygoing, and timid, rather than the brooding volcano of violence and grim fatalism he should be. Of all the stories about Conan, this is the one I would most like to rewrite myself, because it deserves to be so much better than this.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The War Eagle

Tathar rose in the early light of dawn and sat on the edge of his bed. His chambers were austere and cold in the predawn chill, for unlike most of his brothers he had not moved down from the high eyrie and into the more sumptuous accommodations of the palace. He kept to the old ways, and he lived a life of war and preparation for war, and there was no place in his life for softness.

He looked at the small table where his sword lay sheathed, and then he took it up and drew the dark blade. This was the weapon he had taken from the warlord Shath, and he had never carried a finer one. It was made from the light, unbreakable metal forged by the ancients in their days of power, and it lay in his grasp like a hunting hawk, eager to be loosed. He wondered what forgotten tomb or ruin the barbarian had unearthed it from, and how long it had lain unblooded.

He felt a weight inside him when he bore it, because he had not won it fairly, not truly. The emperor had worked some spell upon the barbarian lord to bring him low, and so the victory was unclean in his mind. He thought upon the new emperor and cursed low under his breath.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Conan the Swordsman

Howard pastiches really kicked off in the late 1970s, and 1978 seems to have been a kind of watershed year. The release of the beautifully-illustrated but poorly-written Conan and the Sorcerer seems to have been the starting point, but it was quickly followed by the short story collection Conan the Swordsman that same year, which makes a much more favorable impression.

Returning Conan to his short story roots produces work much more in line with what Howard created, and some of the stories here are surprisingly good. The work here is credited largely to Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp, though I tend to think de Camp did most of it, as you can pretty much tell when Carter is writing, given his addiction to faux-archaic words and sentence constructions that make the narrative sound like Yoda is writing it. The style used by de Camp is much more straightforward, and while he never manages that fever-pitch quality Howard hit with his action, he does pretty well.

The stories here are just classic pulp workouts that are entertaining even if they are derivative. “Legions of the Dead” is a straightforward tale of brutal violence and grim savagery, while “People of the Summit” (rewritten from a story by Bjorn Nyberg) is just a great pulp story by any measure, even if it does borrow more than it should from “The People of the Black Circle”. “The Gem in the Tower” and “Moon of Blood” are similarly gripping, bloody adventures, and even the weaker stories here, like “The Star of Khorala” are readable.

One interesting feature here are the in-between-story notations about the course of the rest of Conan’s life. Carter and de Camp seemed to work at putting the events of Conan’s life as depicted by Howard into some kind of logical order and then set to filling in the gaps, as it were. For instance, Howard tells us that Conan spent a great deal of time as a pirate, but only one story - “The Pool of the Black One” - really depicts an episode of his life during this period. Other stories touch on it, but it remains an underexplored part of the character, and thus ripe for pastiche and homage. “The Gem in the Tower” is a very fine example of this, filling in a cracking adventure while still fitting into the broader continuity.

From this start, the business of detailing Conan’s life in more detail was off to the races. Entire novels like The Road of Kings and The Sword of Skelos filled in events we had only previously been told about. It set the stage for how such works are handled even today, though by now Conan has had so many adventures that one human lifetime could never have time for them all.

The upside is that this book contains some really good stories that manage to capture a lot of the feel and mood of the genuine article. Too many authors have stumbled through their Conan imitations, not seeming to really care if they get it right, but unlike the weak Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Swordsman successfully gives you a reason to keep reading.