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.