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.