Monday, June 17, 2019

Conan of the Isles


The first Conan novel – indeed, the first Sword & Sorcery novel – was Howard’s own The Hour of the Dragon, which was serialized just before and just after his death, and later put out in book form in 1950 by Gnome Press. The first post-Howard Conan novel was The Return of Conan by L Sprague de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg, also put out by Gnome. Though Gnome was a giant among fan publishers, it was a tiny press that put out less than a hundred books over fourteen years in business, and thus these made little impression on the public at large.

After Lancer and then Sphere took up the Conan business, there was more money and exposure to go around, and so de Camp and Carter tried again to create a genuine Conan novel with the 1968 release of Conan of the Isles. The novel is rather interesting, as it seeks to add the one thing Howard never got around to doing with his barbarian hero – a capstone. Every great legend needs an ending, and while Howard simply wrote tales in the order they occurred to him, without much thought toward a larger continuity, he did at least contemplate Conan’s end.

The book is set some twenty years after Conan’s usurpation of the Aquilonian throne. His wife Zenobia – who he met in Hour of the Dragon – has died in childbirth, and his son Conn is of age to take the crown. The authors clearly wanted to get Conan off his throne and back to wandering, so they cooked up a boring magical plot device called “red shadows” - phantoms who come from the sky and carry people away. Conan has a dream where he gets told only he can stop the magical bullshit and to sail west.

With that out of the way, the book actually gets kind of fun. Conan rounds up a ship and a crew and sails off into the mysterious western ocean in search of bad guys to kill. There’s a pretty vivid sea battle, and when he gets plunged underwater, he gets in the middle of a battle between a giant squid and a giant shark that is pretty bad ass.

Coming ashore, he finds he is in the mysterious Antilles, where the last remnants of ancient Atlantis built a civilization that is essentially depicted as being Aztec. It’s pretty obvious the authors did some research, and the depiction of the city of Ptahuacan is vivid and well thought-out. Conan’s crew was taken prisoner and are due to have their hearts ripped out, and so he sets off to rescue them. This mostly takes the form of blundering around in tunnels under the city, trying to find a way to the main temple.

On the way, he discovers a cave where giant lizards are kept to eat the bodies of the sacrificial victims, and turns them loose on the priests and the city in a rather gleeful scene of mayhem. He rescues his crew, they steal a ship and sail away, heading westward for new adventures. The whole “red shadows” nonsense is resolved in typical Carter fashion. The evil god who controls the phantoms is confronted by the god Mitra, who comes out of an amulet Conan got in a dream and the ensuing battle ruins the entire temple. It’s boring and stupid, and even the narrative doesn’t spend much time on it. It’s a standard Lin Carter deus ex machina where the good magic bullshit defeats the evil magic bullshit, while the hero stands and watches.

That aside, this is not badly done. Conan actually spends some time waxing melancholy about his past adventures, and we see him starting to decline a bit, physically – he’s not the iron-armed young man in his twenties any longer. The pacing is pretty good, and the action actually has some grit to it. The major problem is that it needs a silly magic plot device to get the story moving, and then uses another stupid plot device to resolve the first one, without much of any involvement from our hero.

As a pirate tale, this is agreeably breezy and entertaining. As an attempt to set an ending for Conan it fails miserably. If Howard were going to put finish to Conan’s story, he would have done it in a furious battle with rivers of blood, and Conan would go down fighting and he would fucking die at the end. You can’t tell me Howard the fatalist would have shied away from that. So de Camp and Carter get points for attempting to tie up the saga, but lose them all for not having the nerve to actually kill their hero off at the end.


Monday, June 10, 2019

The Forest of Death


Shath walked through darkness for six nights under the shattered moon, hiding from the sun by day. The desert grew more and more desolate, until he moved through a wasteland without feature or mark save barren earth and jagged stone. The stars shone down by night and by day, and there was nothing to be found of food or water or ease.

His small companion clung to him when he walked, and he gave her the last of his food and his water, knowing he could go on as far as he must. He was not a man made only of flesh and blood, but a creation of will and endurance. He would not fail in his quest because he would not allow himself to falter, and he would sustain himself upon pure iron in his heart and his veins.

On the sixth night, under the brilliant stars, they came to the place where the earth was torn, and he saw the first shadows of the trees. Ahead, across the earth baked hard as steel, the shadows rose one after another, and as they came closer he saw the familiar shapes. Like trees they thrust up from the desolate soil, metallic trunks forking again, and again, and again, until they ended in an array of glassine arrow points thrust upward to the sky.

He had never seen more than one, only the single, lone tree that had been the center of the myths of his people. The tree that did not live yet did not die. The tree that cut flesh and drank blood, that sparked like fire when touched, and whispered to those brave enough to embrace it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Conan


This was the very first of the Conan collections put out by Lancer books and began the Howard renaissance which, in a way, is still going on. Entitled simply Conan, it contains seven full stories as well as one of Howard’s letters and part of his “Hyborian Age” gazetteer which laid out the history and kingdoms of his imaginary world. This volume was, essentially, a mass market introduction to the world of Conan, and as such, some of the story choices are odd.

I would think that a proper initiation into Howard’s world would entail Howard’s own work alone, but only three of these stories are full-blooded Howard stories, and only one is what I would call first-rate. “The Tower of the Elephant” is one of the finest Conan tales, with a fast-moving setup, some exciting action, and an ending with unusual emotional range and a depth of pathos which shows the young hero displaying mercy and empathy in ways he normally didn’t. It’s also one of Howard’s most evocative tales, dripping with atmosphere.

“The God in the Bowl” is a strange story, though one I like very well, as it is so atypical for Sword & Sorcery, being essentially a locked-room murder mystery interpreted through a Hyborian lens. Some consider this a minor Conan story, and it probably is, but it moves quickly, and it has some genuinely creepy moments. “Rogues in the House” is often held up as a great story, but to me it is pretty average, detailing the rivalry between two noblemen in an unnamed city-state. Conan is more of a side-character in this one, though his battle with the ape-man is pretty badass. It’s a lot like a Yellow Peril story done Conan-style, and it sometimes seems like Howard enjoyed taking other genres and tossing his hero into them to see what would break.

“The Hall of the Dead” is made up of an unfinished fragment/outline found in Howard’s papers and completed by L. Sprague de Camp to make a pretty bog-standard Conan story. Conan goes off to find a treasure, pursued by guys sent to arrest him. Hijinks ensue, there’s a monster, blah blah. It’s pretty bland.

Better is “The Hand of Nergal”, another unfinished piece completed this time by Lin Carter. This one has some grit in it, and while I can easily tell which parts were done by Carter, I have to say this is some of the most evocative writing he ever did, and he manages to keep the atmosphere of the story pretty well intact. He screws up the ending, though, as he just has the evil artifact destroyed by the good artifact while Conan stands and watches, taking away all the drama he has built up.

The other two stories are entirely original works by the Carter/de Camp duo. “The Thing in the Crypt” is pretty good, and also seems to have been a definite inspiration for part of the movie, as it details a young Conan fleeing from hungry wolves when he slips into a hidden tomb in the wilderness and finds a dead king with a sword in his hands. Conan takes the blade, the dead guy gets up, and there’s a fight. One assumes the dead king in the movie would have gotten up for a fight if there’d been the budget for it. The closing tale, “The City of Skulls” is another Carter/de Camp work that dwells on Carter’s tiresome fixation with having his characters imprisoned. It’s a dull story that drowns in a welter of ugly, racist streotypes and does not bear much scrutiny.

Overall, the choice of stories to put in this opening collection seems strange, and I can only assume they had already decided on a run of releases, and wanted to parcel out the good Howard stories over time and not get stuck without anything of quality in the later books. Some of the pastiche work is pretty decent here, and it’s obvious this is one of the collections Oliver Stone read when he was working on the Conan the Barbarian film script a decade later. Maybe not a great collection, but a seminal one.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Lost Tribes


Ashari rode to the city beside the sea like a queen upon a pilgrimage of fire. The sea of Azar glowed blue like a jewel in the red sun, the shadows of its waves violet as imperial porphyry. The stars reflected in the waters and the sails of the ships that crossed it shone white as wings. She smelled the water so close and breathed it in, an air so different from the great eastern sea beyond the empire.

On the white shores the city of Irdru rose like an idol carved from living ebony, the walls and towers gleaming black and polished so they shone. The city spread along the seaside in a great expanse she would not have believed had she heard the tale. It was as large a city as the imperial heart at Zur, though not so well-fortified. It looked like a city that lived and breathed, rather than a fortress of conquest. The towers were rounded and tipped by graceful spires, and she liked the look of them.

The road to the great gates was white stone, and thronged with the crowds of people who came and went and scattered before her. Astride the great form of her Mokol, she reared high above any who they encountered, and men and beasts alike hastened from their path. Her dragon left a trail of scattered flames on the road, as his burning venom dripped from his jaws. His heavy tread shook the earth, and she heard the screams of children and of beasts as they beheld her coming.

In her wake rode the Horane warriors astride their long-necked beasts of war. Eager to enter the city in their finery, they wore their richest war-gear, hung with gold and polished bone, their spears glittering in the sun. Behind them came the rest of the clan, moving with the pack animals and a vanguard around the women and the aged. The chief himself rode at the center of them, as a man in a dream.

They came to the gates, and the crowds parted to escape her path. A line of soldiers was there to bar her way, spears held read and tall helms drawn down over their faces. She sensed the fear in them, as did her steed, and he gave a growl of belligerence that shuddered the stones of the gatehouse and he spat fire upon the stone where it burned like a brazier beneath his dagger-toothed jaws.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Conan of Cimmeria


A product of the early period of the Howard renaissance, this is the second volume in the original Lancer series, first printed in 1969 and republished many times since. This book collects an interesting hybrid of original Howard works alongside pastiches and bastardizations to produce a book that is more entertaining than it has a right to be.

The book features three genuine Howard stories about Conan – the classic “Queen of the Black Coast” alongside the lesser work “The Vale of Lost Women”, which is a rather inconsequential tale that is far from Howard’s best. The third one is the inexplicably popular “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”, which has a reputation as a great Conan story when it is really not, and coasts by almost entirely on atmosphere. These are the only complete Howard stories included that are his work from beginning to end.

The table of contents is filled out with a variety of other works. Three of these are straight-up original stories by the usual team of Carter and de Camp. “The Curse of the Monolith” is a quick little tale with some nice macabre details and an interesting premise, though it is more of a Lovecraft tale than a Conan one. “The Lair of the Ice Worm” is a pretty darned good story, with some nicely bloody action and a satisfyingly menacing ice worm. There’s nothing especially Conan-ish about it, and it could star any barbarian and be pretty much unchanged. That said, it’s one of the best works by the Carter/de Camp team.

“The Castle of Terror” is a decent story, again with more horror than action. Conan is less a protagonist in this than an observer, which weakens it, but the monster is a suitably gruesome one, and the tale at least moves quickly, even if it is the second story – after “Ice Worm” – that features Conan sleeping through danger as a major plot point.

The last two stories are “posthumous collaborations”, which really means rewriting Howard’s work, or adapting it. “The Bloodstained God” is a fun, violent action story that feels like a real Howard tale because it is – de Camp just took one of Howard’s contemporary middle-eastern adventures and altered it into a Conan story. I may dislike this practice, but it makes for a fine story, and I can’t even say it’s not something Howard himself would have done, since he did things very much like it on more than one occasion.

A more uneven effort is “The Snout in the Dark”, which has a bad title and comes off as more than a bit of a hack job. The first part of the story was left as an unfinished draft by Howard, showing Conan caught up in palace intrigues of the African-styled kingdom of Kush. However, he had only just appeared in the story when Howard stopped working on it, and so Carter and de Camp set about to finish it. The draft showed tremendous potential, but they wasted it with a rushed, poorly-done final act. It retains a good bit of momentum simply from Howard’s opening and from the exciting, vividly-drawn setting.

Overall this is one of the better collections that is not 100% Howard. Carter and de Camp both seemed to have a better grip on Sword & Sorcery, and on Conan in particular, when they stuck with the short story form, and didn’t try to pace out a full novel. I suppose it’s possible they were not particularly bad at writing Conan, but were maybe just bad at novels in general. Still, the inclusion of one undeniable classic and some decent pastiche work makes this one a good bet.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Forgotten Tombs


Shath rode across the mountains under a black sky tormented by storms, and then he descended into a land of silent forests that dreamed of other ages. It was strange to him to ride beneath the canopy of trees and not to see the sky. To feel the cool breeze upon his face and hear nothing but the drone of insects in the deep night. This was a land unlike any he had ever seen, and it made him wary.

That was well, for on the second night the roots of a tree ripped loose from the earth and encoiled his spare mount and dragged it down screaming. He woke to the forest moving around him, branches waving in no breeze, and then he learned why the forest was so silent. He learned to see the bones buried beneath the leaves and to know why the trees rustled and shifted when there was no wind.

So he rode on, and on, day and night, not resting, until his zhar died and he drank its blood and left the body for the hungering forest, and then at last he emerged from the forest and stepped into the empty lands beyond. This was the country known only to legends. A land of death and the dead, and what else he could not know. It seemed fair to him, a land of gentle grass and small gatherings of woodland that clustered beside the streams and lakes. He knew it was not so gentle.

He crossed into the death lands alone, beneath the star-scattered night, and he went with a sword in his iron hand and watchful, for he knew there was terror in this place. He did not find it for many days. He crossed the rolling grasslands, and he waded the shallow streams, and the air was sweet, yet he saw no signs of men, and no beasts save small vermin in the undergrowth. He slept in the open, looking up at the broken moon, and by day he went west.

When he came to the river, he knew it was poisoned, as the banks were black and layered with bones, and the weeds that grew in the shallows were red and writhed in the sun. He looked across the water to the desolate land beyond it, and he saw bare rock and ancient metal and piles of skulls, and he knew he had come, at last, to the place men feared.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Conan the Buccaneer


I have been kind of randomly picking my way through a number of the Conan pastiches, seeing what there is to see, especially with the benefit of time, since all of the ones I have reviewed have been old. I have not found any of them to be especially good, with the exception of The Road of Kings, but this time I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one that is pretty universally considered to be terrible. Conan the Buccaneer was published in 1971, another collaboration between Carter and de Camp, and I have seen it mentioned in several places as being one of the worst of them. Curiosity led me onward.

Overall, I have to say I don’t think this is that awful. I was expecting some kind of wretched crapfest, since so many of the pastiches have been bad enough, how bad would this have to be to be worse? But while this is not great by any stretch, it is still a cut above garbage like The Sword of Skelos. The plot is bog-standard, and Conan’s characterization has undergone the bowdlerization that is pretty typical for the way Carter and de Camp wrote him, but there is some cool stuff to be found.

This is likely mostly the work of Carter, as it shows his tendency to start the plot with secondary characters and then bring Conan in later. We start with a Zingaran duke who is plotting with a Stygian wizard and the pirate captain Zarono (who would turn up again in “The Black Stranger”) to seize the throne with a complicated plot involving using magic to control the king and force the princess to marry him. Princess Chabela proves a better protagonist than most when she tries to escape from this plan, only to have her ship overtaken and be captured by Zarono.

Conan kind of accidentally gets involved in this, and it’s a real weakness that he doesn’t have any clear motive for being here. They all end up on a lost island featuring a cursed temple of the serpent men and a stone idol that comes to life. Conan has to lure said idol into jumping off a cliff in a rather cartoonish sequence, but the expected confrontation with Zarono never materializes.

There’s a lot of additional hugger-mugger with Conan going ashore in the Kushite kingdoms, meeting an old friend and former mercenary who has become a chief, and then getting captured by a depraved Amazon queen. Carter was always having his heroes get captured, and then had them spend a lot of time being held prisoner and not trying to escape for no discernible reason. It always stops the narrative dead when he does this and it happens again here. The authors here and there try to mitigate the essentially racist nature of this episode, but they don’t really succeed, and the depiction of the primitive tribespeople of the “black kingdoms” is cringe-worthy at best.

Both Carter and de Camp had a habit of building up to battles and then finding excuses to not have them, and initially I thought this book would keep the tradition, but the final conflict does actually deliver a pretty good battle, with Conan and his pirate crew battling away at the supporters of the rebel duke. There’s a good amount of blood and guts, even though Thoth-Amon and Zarono escape in rather ridiculous fashion, just because the authors needed them to survive for subsequent episodes.

It’s not that bad. Conan spends too much of it as essentially a side character, motivations are weak, and the plot meanders more than the plot of a 50,000-word novel ought to, but it’s not as dull as some of de Camp’s work, nor as breathless and embarrassing as a lot of Carter’s. Rather than the worst of the Conan pastiches, I would put it rather solidly in the middle, if only because the quality of them overall is so iffy. You could do worse.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Place of Winds


It was still dark when Tathar set out from the shore in the slender, hidebound boat. Suara, dark against the dark, helped him push the light craft into the incoming waves as the tide receded from land, and then they both climbed in as the sweep of the current pulled them out to the sea. Each of them had a slim paddle, and he bent his back to rowing with more strength than skill. He was not accustomed to crawling across the surface of land or sea, but rather soaring above them.

The dark was cold, and the wind blew chill spray in their faces as they fought the waves and headed out into deeper water. He took care to row evenly, not threshing the surface. If their strokes were uneven they would seem like a wounded animal and attract hunters from below. The sky overhead was half-covered by tattered clouds, but through them shone the jeweled scatter of the stars and the glow of the broken moon like a silver chain rising from beyond the horizon.

Ahead of them the offshore island loomed like a black mountain. Tathar admired it as they fought closer to the base of the cliffs, seeing the sheer dark sides above the white glimmer of the surf. It was splendidly placed, unassailable from the land, and if it held caves as he hoped it did, then it might be home to many eagles like his own. This was the season for hatched eggs and hungry young, and the birds would leave the nest early to seek food. That was why he and Suara were seeking to cross the water before the sun rose. He wanted to be ashore before the hunters took wing.

It was hard, cold going, but they reached the rocky base of the island just as the horizon turned to silver. The rocks were jagged and rose from the sea like columns from some ancient ruin, and it was not easy to make their way among them. They warded off the rocks with oars as best they could, and then a wave heaved them against the cliff and the small boat splintered open.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Black Stranger/The Treasure of Tranicos


Howard wrote a lot of stories that never saw daylight in the course of his tragically short life, and the history of his publications is full of stories printed long after his death and with tangled editorial histories. One of the best, and one with a complicated lineage, is “The Black Stranger”, also known as “The Treasure of Tranicos”.

Howard probably wrote the story in 1933 or 1934, and it is a toss-up whether it started life as a pirate tale or a part of the Conan canon. At the time Howard was regularly selling Conan stories to Weird Tales, but he was also trying to branch out and get a foot in the door with the better-paying adventure pulps. (They also paid on time, something Weird Tales always struggled with.)

The story originally existed in two versions, both with the same title of “The Black Stranger”. One was a pirate adventure starring Howard’s corsair hero “Black” Terence Vulmea, and one was modified to be a Conan story. It’s not entirely clear which version existed first, though since the Conan version is 5,000 words longer, I tend to suspect it was the second one. He sent the Conan version to Weird Tales and it was inexplicably rejected. Then he cleaned up the pirate version a bit and retitled it “Swords of the Red Brotherhood” and sent it to Otis Kline Associates to act as agent for it.

We don’t have many details past that. Otis Kline may have placed the story with Golden Fleece – a historical adventure magazine – but then they closed, and sent the manuscript back to Kline. By that time Howard was dead, and all activity on publication came to a standstill.

The story didn’t see print at all until 1953, after being edited and somewhat rewritten by the ubiquitous L Sprague de Camp. At the time, a Conan story was far from a sure sell, and so he edited it rather heavily to make it go down easier, and he changed the title to “The Treasure of Tranicos” because he felt Howard used the word “black” in his titles too much – a judgment that a cursory examination of Howard’s bibliography will bear out, though I still think de Camp’s new title is weak. Lester Del Rey didn’t like the new title either and published the story as “The Black Stranger”. Later, de Camp went back and did another edit with a much lighter hand, mostly just tweaking the story to make it fit the overall continuity he and Lin Carter were building for the character. That version was published as The Treasure of Tranicos in book form by Ace, heavily illustrated by Esteban Maroto.

I have gone through both versions side by side, both the book version and the Ballantine/Del Rey “original” version in their collection The Conquering Sword of Conan from 2005. You can readily tell where de Camp added stuff, as his great sin was overexplaining everything, rendering his prose dense and lifeless. Howard could evoke an entire nation and age with a few sketched, vivid sentences, while de Camp belabored everything.

The story itself is a cracking piece of storytelling, with a mad count in self-imposed exile on a desolate coast, and a pair of cutthroat pirates who turn up wanting a treasure rumored to be hidden somewhere nearby, while murderous Picts lurk in the primeval forest. Interestingly, it is the count’s daughter Belesa who serves as our viewpoint character for these initial stages of the tale, and the opening sections are a cascade of storms, battles, and relentless double-crossing as everyone vies for whatever they are after, everyone at cross-purposes on a field of shifting alliances and circumstances.

Then Conan shows up in the middle of it all, and it’s like throwing rocket fuel on a campfire, as now we have an even more dangerous, dynamic rogue in the mix, one who the pirates already know and despise, though they also fear him. He also serves as the only male character in the piece who is not a total piece of shit.

Added to this is the supernatural element, revealed to be that the count is in hiding because he made an enemy of a sorcerer who has summoned a demon to hunt him down and kill him. In the end it all culminates in an epic action sequence of the kind only Howard could do so well. The Picts attack and a savage battle erupts around the fort, even as the count is strangled by the demon and the manor house catches fire. Conan has to rescue Belesa amidst scenes of slaughter and flame, hacking his way through and battling a supernatural enemy.

The second de Camp edit is still pretty good, and the book version with the Maroto illustrations practically every other page is a feast for the eyes. Few pen and ink illustrators have ever mastered pulp sword & sorcery as well as Maroto. The ending is weak, with de Camp having a bunch of Aquilonian malcontents show up in a ship to get Conan so they can go off and have Conan the Liberator, but it makes no sense for them to look for him where he is. The original ending, with Conan taking command of a pirate ship and sailing away to rejoin the Red Brotherhood, is far more effective.

Still, despite its tangled history, this is an exciting and effective story, and both the Conan and Vulmea versions are worth your time. Fast-paced, tense adventure with buried treasure, betrayals, demons, wizards, and an ending in fire and brutal violence. Sword & Sorcery does not get much better.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Savage Lands


Ashari walked in and out of days, passing like a shadow beneath the canopy of the high forest. As time passed she grew stronger, more inured to the heat and the constant rain, and every day she ate what she could find and was glad of it – berries, fruits, fungi, insects, lizards – whatever she could catch was her dinner. She chafed inside, remembering platters of rare meats and carefully roasted fruits, of delicacies and sweets. Again, she told herself, she would live like a queen again.

The mountains sloped downward for days, the rain slackening, the ground becoming harder and rockier. It was not long before she saw the red blaze of the sun through the thinning trees, and then she stepped forth from the shadow of the jungle and onto the edge of a seemingly endless grassland. Low mountains lay to the south, and ahead of her the land rose up and up in a series of gentle waves, fading into hazy distance studded with the towering boles of scattered trees.

She saw no sign of civilization, and yet she knew she was on the edge of the Thran kingdoms. It was said to be a decadent, dangerous place too far over the mountains and jungles for the reach of the empire to have ever fallen upon it. It was a place spoken of in stories, but she had never met anyone who had been here. If she traveled west far enough, she would come to the shores of the Sea of Azar, where ancient cities were said to cling to the coast like jewels beneath the nighted sky.

Almost nothing remained of her clothing, and she wore little more than the straps that held her weapons and the shining bronze-red of her bare skin. It did not concern her. She was a Sheda, who had once been a race of great and terrible warrior-kings and sorcerers. Hardship was forging her into something more like her ancestors, making her harder and tougher, grinding away weakness and leaving steel behind.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Conan the Rebel


It is amusing, with all the years of disdain heaped on Howard’s style by snobby critics, to see writer after writer fail at imitating it. Poul Anderson is certainly the most celebrated writer to ever take up a pen and write a Conan novel. One of the luminaries of the Golden Age of SF, Anderson won seven Hugos and three Nebulas in his lifetime, along with a SFWA Grand Master award and a slew of lesser-known accolades. I expected something interesting, at least, but this book is a terrible chore to have to wade through.

Conan the Rebel delves into one of the more interesting periods of Conan’s life – when he sailed with Belit, the deadly Queen of the Black Coast. The original story is divided into two parts, and a lot of action is elided and alluded to, but not shown in between them, so there is a place for a broader tale. I only wish it did any kind of justice to the material at hand.

Concerned primarily with a rebellion in Stygia, the book is atrociously slow to start, spending the first three chapters doing little but show us scenes of characters talking to each other. The story opens with the villain, the Stygian wizard Tothapis, having a vision sent by Set that he has to stop Conan, and then we spend a lot of time with him talking to other Stygians about what that might mean. Then we get a whole chapter where Belit fills in her backstory, which we didn’t need.

The characterization of Conan is all right here, not really accurate, but not as bad as Offutt usually made him. The characterization of Belit, however, is fatally off. In the original “Queen of the Black Coast”, Belit is depicted as a woman who was really more than a little insane. A blood-hungry madwoman who commanded her warship in the nude and took no prisoners, evoking a superstitious awe from her crew. She was also the one real love of Conan’s life in the canon, and he never loved again after her death.

This Belit is far too well-adjusted and chatty, but that doesn’t matter as much, because if you thought this book would be Conan and Belit carving a path across Stygia, you would be wrong. Instead Belit gets left behind on her ship and we don’t even see her again until the end, all while Conan makes goo-goo eyes at a young chief’s daughter who we have never met before. It is a sad waste of one of Howard’s great characters, and yet another silly attempt to make Conan Fall In Love with the damsel of the week. It’s even less explicable because his one great love interest is right there.

The plot is a muddled tangle on nonsense where Conan is supposed to go and get a sacred axe of Mitra to use against the Stygians, and there are express elements of divine intervention which do not fit the Conan universe at all. Gods, like magic, are never present as real, tangible deities in Howard’s fiction, they are often spirits or monsters who are worshiped as gods, but are not anything of the sort. The quest for the axe plotline is a standard, high fantasy trope, and it doesn’t fit Conan at all.

Anderson’s prose is perfectly good, but he lacks any lightness or sense of adventure. The plot slogs along at a deathly slow pace, and it seems much, much longer than its 75,000 word length. The characterization of the hero is weak, and he spends a lot of time bantering with his band of scrappy misfits and being rescued from things the real Conan could have handled himself. All of these early pastiche writers completely lacked the sense of Conan’s primal, savage vitality and iron will. Conan won many battles just because he refused to give in, because he could endure pain and hardship no civilized man could withstand, and because his willpower enabled him to overcome sorcery and treachery.

None of that is in evidence here, and while I was expecting this one to be a bit better than the standard pastiche, it is really much, much worse. A dull, dragging bore of a book.


Monday, April 1, 2019

The Bones of Kings


Through storm and cruel seas, Shath the Iron-Handed dragged his boat to the shore and then climbed over the battered gunwale and set his feet upon the lands of his birth. This was no soft land for soft men, but the bitter realms of volcanic glass and poisoned fume that had long guarded the Horned Clans from invasion. Cruel winters had forced them southward, away from their homelands, until this had become their home. Harsh and cruel, where the soil itself was made of glass daggers and the rains burned flesh.

He stood knee-deep in the cold waters and pulled the meager supplies he still had from the boat, and then he let it go and saw it washed back out into the dark that clung to the waters before the red dawn. The night sky was alive with thousands of stars as well as the shards of the broken moon, and the light was silver upon the sky, while the land lay mired in shadow.

He carried a small bag slung over his shoulder, a little food tucked within along with the rolled, scraped skin of a sea monster. He carried two long knives sheathed in his rope belt, and he bore two hunting spears over his broad shoulder. His muscles ached from three days of battles with the sea, while his new right arm felt nothing. He waded up from the waters until he stood on black sands above the mark of the high tides, and he drove both spears into the sands and then knelt down and kissed the earth. Now he was returned, he would find the remains of his people, and he would gather them once more into an army.

Shath knew where his people would go, for there was one holy place where they would gather if they were driven away. He turned his head to face true north and walked, careless of rest and contemptuous of weakness. He was of the Horned Clans, and he would not give way before his own privations. He was made of iron and of wrath; he was a son of wind and cold and the howls of war. He feared nothing, not death nor pain nor the devils of a thousand ages.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Conan and the Spider God


Book number five in the Bantam series is the colorfully titled Conan and the Spider God, which at least leaves us no questions as to what it will be about. This episode of Conan’s life is once again placed outside any kind of sequence, as the events occur after The Sword of Skelos, but before The Road of Kings. So this is still the early period of Conan’s life when he was dicking around in the eastern parts of the Hyborian map, places that roughly correspond to the Medieval Middle East.

This is another de Camp novel, this time without the overheated aid of Lin Carter, so the prose and the story are both measured and professional, because while de Camp was no Howard, he was certainly a pro. We start with Conan a mercenary again, this time in service to the king of Turan. In the process of trying to bang his superior officer’s mistress, he gets caught, kills the man, and then has to make his escape.

Said escape leads him to the kingdom of Zamora, and the city of Yezud, known as a holy city of Zath, the titular spider god. Here he takes on an assumed name, gets a job as a blacksmith, and spends the middle third of the book dating a temple dancer. The opener is rather lively, but once Conan gets to Yezud he stays there, and things slow down to a crawl. His overwrought romance with the dancing girl Rudabeh is dull, both because she is not very interesting, and because we don’t for a second believe Conan will give up his adventuring life for a woman. It seems to have been a common thread for Carter, de Camp, and Offutt to have Conan get feelsies for the hot girl, and to insist that no, really, this time he’s actually In Love. It’s silly, and not in accord with Conan’s character from the original stories.

There’s a plot about the queen of Turan being held hostage by the priests of Zath, and spies from Turan come looking for her, and the threat of some kind of sorcerous doom the priesthood threatens to unleash, but none of it gets much focus, and Conan doesn’t care about it much, so neither do we, despite that it is the main plot of the book. Rather than being a focal point of the action, Conan wastes his time with mawkishness and mooning over his girlfriend.

The end, when it comes, seems rather arbitrary. Conan breaks into the temple, intending to steal the jewel eyes of the spider god’s idol, but ends up in the temple catacombs encountering the giant spider the cover promised us. Zath is big, but not terribly formidable, it would seem, as Conan eludes what turns out to be a her in the tunnels long enough to find a cave filled with pony-sized spider babies. This is the promised doom the high priest was planning on, and I have to say, the idea of a spider apocalypse is pretty awesome.

Sadly, it does not happen, and Rudabeh is dispatched by the hungry spider just as Conan kind of accidentally sets the temple on fire and incinerates the spider spawn. Big mama spider escapes the basement, and there is a rather cool battle on the steps of the burning temple. The spider dies, Conan rides off into the sunset, roll credits.

There’s not enough to it. Even at a scanty 60,000 words there is room for more plot than what we get here. Once again de Camp’s Conan is too friendly and not violent enough, though at least we are spared the endless talking of the Offutt version of the character. Overall I find this one better than the average, but after the rip-roaring action of The Road of Kings it is a pretty big letdown.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Blood of the Lost


Tathar flew southward, away from the city and the borders of the empire he knew. For days he passed over the lands he had helped to conquer, and he looked on the scarred earth and the empty villages and felt a shame he would not have expected. He had gone to war for the old emperor, defeating armies, and sending his Skylords across wide expanses of territory to burn and ravage. He had always believed that the people driven from their homes would return, like vermin, yet they had not. He had never been back to see, and now he felt himself the perpetrator of a crime.

He saw fallow fields and wandering animals, unfenced and unherded. When Zakai hungered they flew low, and the great bird blooded his talons and feasted on meat. He saw no sign of humanity, no well-kept roads, nor any huts or keeps that were not burned out and empty, blackened by years. The red sun blazed down on abandoned country, and he wondered at it. Surely not all of the inhabitants of this place could have been slain.

After many days he flew across a great river, and he began to look less and less behind him. He had feared that the rest of the Skylords would pursue him, and he well knew that Kurux would command it. But he was only one bird and rider in a vast land, and now he flew over lands where the empire had never held sway. The ground rose higher, away from the open grasslands, and became jagged and stony, with sharp ridges and peaks jutting up from the soil. He saw the remnants of the ruins of the ancient ones. Places where the ground was scarred in straight lines and rusted steel columns thrust up toward the sky.

On the seventh night, under the blazing stars and the jagged shards of the shattered moon glowing silver, he smelled the sea, and he turned Zakai slightly eastward to seek it. It came in sight like a vast, roiling shadow, the shore glimmering red with a spectral gleam. He saw the shadows of sea-beasts swimming beneath the surface, and falling stars flashing on the water like diamond cuts. Beyond, rising up from the waters like a skull, there was a dark island, towering like a castle above the waves.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Conan: The Road of Kings

 
Number four in the Bantam Series is the first real saving grace we have had since the very first book. The Road of Kings was published in 1979, and interestingly has no continuity with the books that came before it, and is usually placed chronologically after Conan and the Spider God, which was published right after. It again focuses on Conan in his earlier years, though not so youthful as he was in Sword of Skelos. This seems to have been right before he headed out to sea and became a corsair, leading to the events of “Queen of the Black Coast”.

It is obvious from the very beginning of the story that we are, thankfully, in the hands of an adventure writer who knows what the fuck they are doing. Karl Edward Wagner commences literally in the middle of a fight, with Conan dueling with a notorious guard captain. His wanderings have led him to Zingara – Howard’s rough analog of Imperial Spain – and he is once again a mercenary. After killing the captain in bloody fashion, he is summarily arrested and chained in the dungeons to await execution. Zingara, you see, is ruled by your textbook cruel tyrant.

We are only six pages in when Conan and his fellow prisoners are led to the gallows to be hanged, and he makes friends with a bookish revolutionary named Santiddio, whose friends launch a rescue attempt mid-execution. The action here is expertly done, with the rebels hacking through the guards, the crowd running and trampling itself, chaos in the air, all while the hangman continues his work, strangling one prisoner after another, and even falling across the mechanism and killing one last prisoner as he dies, in a nicely macabre detail.

Conan and his new friend are rescued by Mordermi, a kind of king of thieves in the city of Kordava. Wagner lays out a fantastic setting for his book, with the central part of the city built over the ruins of an earlier city wrecked in an earthquake, creating an entire undercity hidden from the sunlight. There the swashbuckling Mordermi holds court in a buried manor house over a population of cutthroats, beggars, whores, and thieves.

Conan falls in with them, lending his strength to their finesse, and the setup is so good it almost begs for more books about it. However, Wagner is not shy about skipping ahead in time to get to the parts of his story he wants to tell. Normally the use of time skips is a big tension killer, but he always manages to crank it back up again.

The thieves stage a daring robbery of the king’s costume ball, netting a vast treasure but also drawing too much attention, and their refuge is attacked. They turn for help to a feckless half-Stygian wizard, who is able to conjure up an army of undead stone soldiers from a sunken crypt offshore, and with that they are able to fight off the enemy and then seize the kingdom itself. At that point, we’re only halfway through the book, and the character’s troubles really start.

It says a lot that my only real complaint about this book is that I wish it were a trilogy, as Wagner has to elide past a lot of story beats to get to the ones he wants to land on. As a general, Conan conducts a whole military campaign to subdue the countryside, which I would have liked to see more of, and the early period when they are all just being bandits in the hidden city is so cool I could have done with a lot more of it. The action is intense and bloody, from the brutal street fighting when the Pit is attacked to the savage slaughters worked by the stone-skinned Final Guard.

Wagner doesn’t pull punches, and he doesn’t try to make things family-friendly. Death is easy, life is cheap, and violence is bloody and imaginatively gruesome. I really, really wish this was not Wagner’s only Conan pastiche, because it is far and away the best one I have read yet.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Whisper


South of the city, the land became a marsh, thick with twisted trees and hanging moss, the sky hidden behind a layer of mist. The only roads through it were causeways lifted above the mire, and these Ashari avoided, for even now she often heard the horns of the legions as they marched, and she had to believe there were others seeking her with more stealth and guile.

So she haunted the wild lands, crawling through the muck and the tangled vines until her clothes were only a remnant and she was streaked with dirt. She had to cut her way through with her sword until the edge was all but worn away, and gradually she left the swamps behind and began to enter the Slannu Jungles themselves, the twisted and tangled wilderness that marked the southern edge of the Empire’s reach. It was bitter to her to flee as a half-naked fugitive, and she did not sleep well upon the bare earth, when she was accustomed to silk and comforts.

Here the land began to climb upward from the muddy river bottoms and into the highlands where mist filled the air and the trees stood tall and blocked out the feeble sun. She climbed, seeing broken jumbles of stone that had once stood as some kind of edifice, and then, as she pressed more deeply into the forest, she began to see true ruins. Broken towers jutted from the earth and loomed over her, trailing vines and bursting with fecund overgrowth. She saw spars of metal that lay impervious to corrosion, and she took a length of it and carried it as a spear, used it to pick her way in among leaning remnants of a bygone age.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Conan: The Sword of Skelos


In case anyone is wondering, I am going through these in a kind of order. As a tender, young 11-year-old fantasy fan, I obtained the six books in the Bantam Conan pastiches all at once and commenced to try and read through them. I was well-acquainted with numbered fantasy series, but I had no concept of the history behind Conan or that these were simply numbered books in a publishing run – not in any chronological order. Imagine my confusion. Nevertheless, this served as my introduction to the character, and it would be many years before I obtained original Howard stories and learned what the fuss was about.

The Sword of Skelos was printed after Conan the Liberator, and has a big number three printed on the spine, but it is actually a continuation of the story Andy Offutt began in Conan and the Sorcerer. This is actually the third book a story arc that was continued in Conan the Mercenary, never mind that this book was published before that one. Once again we are involved with an escapade from early in Conan’s life, taking place when he is about twenty, roaming around the eastern lands as a thief and robber.

This story opens with a prologue that sets up the titular sword and the wizard who creates it. Zafra is an unusual sorcerer for a Conan tale in that he is not old, but a young man flush with the power his magic gives him. He enchants a pair of swords for the Khan of Zamboula that when commanded will come alive and kill by themselves – a fairly pulpy idea, and one that fits in all right.

Then we get to Conan, and his encounter with a man named Kassek who is seeking the Eye of Erlik – the amulet Conan stole from Isparana in Conan and the Sorcerer. Offutt thinks the plot of that story was really important, since Kassek essentially only exists so Conan can spend an entire chapter summarizing that book for him, and he is killed as soon as that’s done with. I can’t imagine what could have happened in Conan the Mercenary, but it must be so unimportant as to be not worth mentioning, nor does it have any effect on the plot.

Once again all the flaws in Andrew Offutt’s Conan tales are in full force. The plot is linear and unexciting, Conan is talkative, sentimental, and hardly gets to kill anybody. Elements and characters are introduced that go nowhere and do nothing but waste time. There’s almost nothing resembling the gut-ripping violence that characterizes the real Conan, and he spends more time bantering with Isparana and getting feelsies for her. They take the Eye to the Khan, he turns on them, Conan has to fight the magic sword but doesn’t actually fight, he just runs away from it. The Khan is deposed by his rival, and Conan rides off into the sunset. That’s it.

There’s almost nothing here worth mentioning, barely even a story, and the characterization of the Cimmerian hero is completely off. Already, Conan has largely been reduced to a wussy, family-friendly version of himself, who seems to have very little to do with the brooding, aggressive, impulsive hero Howard wrote. There are no good characters, no good action, and a general feeling of not much happening, as seems to be the usual in Offutt’s work. This is almost 30,000 words longer than Conan and the Sorcerer, and yet it seems like less happens in it.

I remember that by the time I read this one I was completely bored and confused by this series. I didn’t understand what was supposed to be going on, I didn’t know who these characters were or why I should care, and despite the action I had been led to expect from stories about a sword-wielding barbarian, there was almost none to be found. I probably would have quit entirely had it not been for Karl Edward Wagner, who wrote the next book in the sequence and gets us back on track with The Road of Kings. Next time, we finally get some action.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Serpent's Shadow


Shath struggled alone along the iron shore of the gray sea, alone and hungry and all but naked. He hunched among the misty rocks when he heard the cries of the war eagles above him, hiding himself from their sight. He knew Emperor Kurux sought him with all his power, but he would not be taken again. He swore to himself he would die before he let himself be recaptured.

The coast here, north of the city, was barren and forbidding, with jagged, stony cliffs lashed by cold waves. The stones were embedded with fragments of steel left over from the wars of the ancients, and so the black stone bled under the crush of the waves, corroded metal seeping down into the water. Shath hid among the dagger cliffs and ate raw shellfish scooped from the tidal pools. Here and there lay the bones of dead sea-beasts, turning black in the perpetual twilight, and far out, over the waves, he heard the calls of the monsters of the deep.

He knew that somewhere beyond the iron waves lay the ruined city of legend – the black cenotaph of the elder age. Close by was the isle of Ixur, the accursed place where Kurux had been born to his exiled house, and always the inhabitants lay beneath the shadow of the Dead City. The seas here were blighted, filled with ruined engines of war and the bones of uncountable dead.

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.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Slave of the Black Tower


Ashari dwelled in her gilded world of silken curtains and perfumed nights, looking at the stars in the black sky, watching them fall in trails of fire while she breathed dreaming smoke and brooded on her future. She walked the halls surrounded by her coterie of followers and sycophants by daylight, but when the red sun set she was alone, and glad for it. The harem was a beautiful cage, but a cage nonetheless. She had not felt the bars so keenly before, but now they seemed to close in upon her.

She had been the old emperor’s favorite, and had warmed his bed on many nights, using all her powers to please him, and in return her status within the palace was assured. No other girl could compare with her, nor would she ever bear the master a child. She was a perfect plaything, for her race were durable and long-lived, gifted in ways no human could match. She did not fear that age would steal her beauty.

But now the emperor was dead, and she felt a coldness in the air. Kurux was a new element, and thus far she had not been able to charm him as she had hoped to. He had not sent for her, nor for any of the women kept here for his pleasure. She had called to him with her dreams, as she was able to do, but he had not come. At court she wore her finery, all her jewels and silks, and paraded herself with her coppery flesh showing all she had to offer. She polished her horns and her hooves, painted her face, but nothing seemed to attract his eye.

Already some of the other lords of the court had made polite overtures, and she knew it was an accepted thing for past favorites to leave the harem and become concubines of lesser nobles, but she bristled at the prospect. She had enjoyed a place of prominence no other could match, and now it was gone, and she bitterly refused to simply relinquish it.

Only now she had done something unforgivable. Now, in a fit of anger at Kurux, she had freed his war-prize, the barbarian Shath, and she feared he would discover she had done it. She had watched as he sent guards pouring into the catacombs, seeking some sign of the escaped prisoner, and she had to wonder if someone had seen her that night, if someone would whisper her name.

She would not cower. She was a daughter of the Shedim, a race now almost extinguished, but who had once ruled their great southern empire with fire and blood. She had courage and strength no human could guess, and powers they only dreamed of. She would not be afraid.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Tides of War Ebook!


The ebook is here!  Collected are all 25 stories from last year's saga, all in one ebook with one low price.  Smashwords lets you download in any format you want with no DRM to get in your way, so there's no reason not to grab it.  You can buy the book HERE.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Iron Hand


The red sun burned in the skies above the plain of R’sharr on the third day of battle, and the smell of blood crawled in the shadows. The ground was black glass scourged by some ancient blast of fire, and the razor edges cut men where they fell. Iron relics of another age jutted from the ground like teeth. The cursed earth would drink no blood, and so it ran down the dagger channels and gathered in pools beneath the sky.

There on the deadly ground the armies of the empire clashed with the war-hosts of the horned clans. The legions stood in their rigid ranks, shields locked and spears uplifted, and again and again they withstood the charge of the mounted enemy. The warriors of the clans towered above their foes, faces hidden behind their horn-crowned helms. They rode their black-scaled beasts to the attack, howling blood-mad to the black sky.

Again their charge crashed home, and at their head rode their battlemaster, Shath the Iron-Handed. He came at the tip of the wedge, like the keen point of a spear himself. In his hand flamed his ancient sword and his shield was like a wall of steel. Larger than any man, he surged into the ordered lines of his enemy and plunged into the madness of battle. He hewed around him, cutting down men to either side, and the black armor of the legionnaires could not stay the bloody edge.

All around him the armies clashed, and red ran over the glassy earth that spurned it. The legions held to their lines, stabbing in with spears from behind their wall of shields, while the men of the clans sought to batter their way through, hacking with swords and axes, their reptilian war-beasts clawing a path through before they were speared and brought down. The line where the foes met became again a welter of blood and bodies, and the war-cries of each mixed with the screams of the wounded and the dying.

Shath’s beast was cut from beneath him, coughing out a tide of blood through its tusks as it fell with a dozen spears embedded in its flesh. He set one foot upon the carcass and battered the enemy back with his shield, using his weight to dash them off their feet and then cutting them down with his sword, splintering spear-hafts and shields alike. He looked up, beyond the battle-line, to the place where black banners flew over the dark form of the emperor himself, seated upon his massive, armored war beast in a saddle draped in black and crimson. Shath pointed his sword at that distant shadow and swore he would spill the tyrant’s blood.