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.

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