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.

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