Monday, June 18, 2018

Conan and the Sorcerer

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.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Those Who Haunt the Outer Dark

The halls of the kings of Hadrad burned behind them, and Ranne led his men north along the coastland, seeking out holds and holts to put to the sword. Hror had taken his army back to the sea, to return them to their homes. In answer for his failure in the attack, Ranne was to remain and ravage along the coast, so that none would forget the displeasure of the new king.

He had a hundred men, most of them survivors of the hard winter locked in the bitter ice, some new men who had been left behind as punishment. They would not return with the rest of the victorious army, not feast and drink and be given gifts as heroes. Here they would hunt through the wilderness for stragglers and deserters, butcher stolen cattle, and burn the hovels of farmers and herdsmen. What plunder they took would be heaped before Hror’s throne in Irongard, and they would not keep the least part of it.

So it was a bitter hundred who marched along the stony shore, their ships following them by sea, carrying the supplies and the thin treasure they found. They gathered the heads of the slaughtered and stripped their flesh, seared them in fires until they split and lay black and hollow. They put them in baskets and counted them, for when each man had three skulls to his name they could turn their ships for home.

They marched spread out in a line, hunting through the fields and heaths, frightening game from thickets and gathering in sheep and goats. They combed through the countryside, seeking whatever there was to find. They took what they wanted and burned the rest. They were to blight this land so Hadrad would never dare rise against them.

Monday, June 4, 2018


I have spent the first half of the year pontificating about the nature of Sword & Sorcery, but now I have decided I will go through and do some book reviews in the genre for a while. As I have already done write-ups of some of the more seminal and influential stories in the canon, now I intend to go about things rather differently. I have a large collection of S&S and pulp novels, many of which I have either not read, or not read very recently. So for these reviews I will reach into the grab-bag, as it were, and pull out a relic to consider.

Karl Edward Wagner was more influential as an editor than a writer, but his Kane books and stories remain his most well-known legacy. Kane was, rather like Elric, invented as a kind of antithesis to Conan, and Wagner detailed his adventures in three novels and a few collections of stories and novellas.

The first Kane book was published in 1970 by a small press as Darkness Weaves With Many Shades, but Wagner was unhappy with the changes the editor made to the text. It didn’t get a lot of distribution, and was eventually corrected and re-released as Darkness Weaves in 1978. Then there was the collection of three novellas released in 1973 under the title Death Angel’s Shadow by Warner Books. Warner obviously believed in Wagner, and they commissioned a full-length Kane novel and also enlisted Frank Frazetta to produce a cover for it, and the result was Bloodstone in 1975.

Despite that the character had been knocking around for years, and had appeared in book form before, this was really the first mass-audience introduction to Kane. The publisher pushed the book pretty hard, and the fact that you can still find copies to this day says they printed a shit-ton of them. And as an introduction to the character, Bloodstone is . . . odd.

Because while Kane was always depicted as an antihero, in this novel he is really a straight-up villain. The book opens with Kane acquiring a weird bloodstone ring, and then he spends some time researching it, finding out where it came from. Then we switch to him serving as a kind of spy for two opposing kingdoms, and the book spends a lot of time with him doing a kind of Yojimbo thing where he works for both and plays them off against one another. The two kingdoms are rather drab, faux-medieval realms and don’t contain any really interesting characters. It’s not exciting and we don’t really know why he, or the novel, are spending time on this.

So what Kane has done is discover that the ring is the command device for an ancient, evil intelligence called Bloodstone that lies in a ruined city inside a swamp guarded by degenerate frog-men. This angle is very Lovecraftian, as the thing is described as though it is an artificial intelligence made by aliens who later tried to destroy it, but were enslaved by its power. Other aliens chased it away in spaceships and it crashed on the world of the book, was buried in the muck of a swamp and attended by the enslaved aliens as they regressed into barbarism.

Having unlocked its power and thinking he is in control of it, Kane is essentially fomenting war between the nearby kingdoms so they won’t unite against him when he comes to conquer them. The whole plot is rather convoluted, and the small scale of the kingdoms in question makes his plot seem rather petty and sad. The last part of the novel is essentially a war between the remains of the kingdoms and Kane as he tries to hold them off until Bloodstone reaches full power. He sends his frog-men after them, and comes out wielding magic/sci-fi powers that let him shoot lasers from his ring and suchlike.

It doesn’t have much resonance or drama because the powers Bloodstone has seem arbitrary and are rather vaguely defined. The defenders marshal some of their own magic to fight him, but this is also left unclear and the source of this power is also ill-defined. So a lot of the battle scenes are just space magic MacGuffins shooting lasers at each other, and you lose the human scale and any sense of real tension, since everything just seems like it is made up on the spot and has no rules.

The end just comes when Kane realizes Bloodstone intends to enslave his mind and control him as a puppet – which seemed obvious and really makes him seem dim that he does not figure this out sooner – and he goes in to try and destroy it. He essentially does this by messing up the controls until Bloodstone explodes. Because we all know how dramatic it is fighting a computer by pushing levers.

Wagner tries to infuse some drama into this by hinting at Bloodstone’s origins and the great age of his world, sketching ancient vistas of weird races and decadent empires that would be cool to see, rather than the rather mud-intensive world he decided to detail in the novel. (Seriously, there is so much mud in this book, between the dirty, sad kingdoms and the swamp it is just mud mud mud.) Kane using this ancient power to war with a huge, mighty empire could have been awesome, also maybe having a slave race that were not frogs. Frog men are silly, not scary, no matter how hard you try.

The writing is passable, but no better than that. In the novellas Wagner showed he could write evocatively, but Bloodstone seems rushed. The characterization is weak at best, the action is bloody but unexciting, and the style has these swoops up into a very affected, elevated diction that is supposed to sound erudite but just comes across as strange. This is a weird, rather off-putting book where the ostensible protagonist is off-screen for 75% of the time, and is the straight-up villain for most of it. I get that Wagner wanted to tell a different sort of story than the usual kind of heroic fantasy, but I think he could have done a lot better than this.