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.