So the book publishers in the 70s began to have a problem with Robert E. Howard – he was dead, and while dead authors don’t need to be paid, they can’t write any more books. Ever since the Lancer editions of Howard’s stories had become hits in the 60s the publishers had put virtually everything he had ever written into print in one form or another, and many of them had been printed over and over. There was a tremendous hunger for more material starring his most popular hero, Conan, to the point where authors like Carter and de Camp had been contracted to re-edit non-Conan Howard stories into Conan tales by replacing names and switching the settings.
But that can only go on so long, and so the next idea was straight-up pastiche. There was precedent for this, as some James Bond works had been written after original author Ian Fleming’s death, but it was still a bit of a gamble. Lancer had gone out of business in 1977, but Ace books stepped in and took over the lucrative series, and they started off by producing what are sometimes called the Maroto Editions, because the first four books of the series were illustrated in fine fashion by Esteban Maroto, making for rather lavish presentation, especially if you can find one of the trade printings done by Sunridge Press.
The writer tapped for the first all-new book was the prolific Andrew J. Offutt – and I have to wonder if the reason he was hired was because they were on a tight deadline. Offutt was a quick, versatile writer, but tightly-plotted action was not really his strength. In 1978 Conan and the Sorcerer was published, and a new fantasy tradition was born – the Conan pastiche.
It is not really a very good book. It’s short, at just over 50,000 words, yet it does not cram in half as much action as Howard used to fit in half the space. The action takes up just after the much-superior “Tower of the Elephant”, following a teenaged Conan on a further adventure in theft and wizardry. He sneaks into a sorcerer’s house, has the treasure he is after stolen from under him by the beautiful thief Isparana, and then he gets caught rather ignominiously by the titular sorcerer, Hisarr Zul.
The wizard steals Conan’s soul and traps it in a mirror, and says he can only get it back by returning the amulet that was stolen – the Eye of Erlik. Thus, Conan heads off, intercepts Isparana at an oasis, gets the amulet back, kills the wizard, and rides off into the sunset. That’s pretty much it. If this were a 10,000 words story it would be fine, but the extremely scanty plot really makes the book feel slight.
Furthermore, Offutt is not really that comfortable with violence, and his action scenes are pretty flat and uninteresting. He spends as much time detailing Conan spying on Isparana while she bathes as he does detailing any of the fight scenes, none of which are really integral to the story. Conan encounters and dispatches robbers, slavers, and other such nonentities, and none of it is more than a distraction from the central plot.
The real highlight of the book are the fantastic pen and ink illustrations by Esteban Maroto. Already a stalwart of the comics business, Maroto is the one who first gave Red Sonja her trademark chainmail bikini, and while he is obviously a fan of Frank Thorne, he has his own, evocative style. I have always found his color work a bit overdone, but his line work is absolutely first-rate. He evokes the Hyborean Age with strong blacks and bold pen strokes, as well as a flair for exotic, eye-catching detail. That many of these illustrations were re-used again and again for later editions of Conan stories says just how amazing they are, and they are worth the price of the book in themselves.
I just wish the actual book was half as exotic and exciting as the illustrations made it seem like it should be. Offutt’s prose is an awkward imitation of Howard’s more elevated style at best, and much of it is just tedious. He does not characterize Conan as the surly, violent rogue we all know, and he is far too agreeable and talkative. Hisarr Zul is just another cookie-cutter evil wizard in a long line of them, and the story lacks any of the drama and sweep the illustrations hint at. Conan and the Sorcerer is breezy and short, but it doesn’t feel like much of a Conan story.