Monday, April 29, 2019

A Place of Winds

It was still dark when Tathar set out from the shore in the slender, hidebound boat. Suara, dark against the dark, helped him push the light craft into the incoming waves as the tide receded from land, and then they both climbed in as the sweep of the current pulled them out to the sea. Each of them had a slim paddle, and he bent his back to rowing with more strength than skill. He was not accustomed to crawling across the surface of land or sea, but rather soaring above them.

The dark was cold, and the wind blew chill spray in their faces as they fought the waves and headed out into deeper water. He took care to row evenly, not threshing the surface. If their strokes were uneven they would seem like a wounded animal and attract hunters from below. The sky overhead was half-covered by tattered clouds, but through them shone the jeweled scatter of the stars and the glow of the broken moon like a silver chain rising from beyond the horizon.

Ahead of them the offshore island loomed like a black mountain. Tathar admired it as they fought closer to the base of the cliffs, seeing the sheer dark sides above the white glimmer of the surf. It was splendidly placed, unassailable from the land, and if it held caves as he hoped it did, then it might be home to many eagles like his own. This was the season for hatched eggs and hungry young, and the birds would leave the nest early to seek food. That was why he and Suara were seeking to cross the water before the sun rose. He wanted to be ashore before the hunters took wing.

It was hard, cold going, but they reached the rocky base of the island just as the horizon turned to silver. The rocks were jagged and rose from the sea like columns from some ancient ruin, and it was not easy to make their way among them. They warded off the rocks with oars as best they could, and then a wave heaved them against the cliff and the small boat splintered open.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Black Stranger/The Treasure of Tranicos

Howard wrote a lot of stories that never saw daylight in the course of his tragically short life, and the history of his publications is full of stories printed long after his death and with tangled editorial histories. One of the best, and one with a complicated lineage, is “The Black Stranger”, also known as “The Treasure of Tranicos”.

Howard probably wrote the story in 1933 or 1934, and it is a toss-up whether it started life as a pirate tale or a part of the Conan canon. At the time Howard was regularly selling Conan stories to Weird Tales, but he was also trying to branch out and get a foot in the door with the better-paying adventure pulps. (They also paid on time, something Weird Tales always struggled with.)

The story originally existed in two versions, both with the same title of “The Black Stranger”. One was a pirate adventure starring Howard’s corsair hero “Black” Terence Vulmea, and one was modified to be a Conan story. It’s not entirely clear which version existed first, though since the Conan version is 5,000 words longer, I tend to suspect it was the second one. He sent the Conan version to Weird Tales and it was inexplicably rejected. Then he cleaned up the pirate version a bit and retitled it “Swords of the Red Brotherhood” and sent it to Otis Kline Associates to act as agent for it.

We don’t have many details past that. Otis Kline may have placed the story with Golden Fleece – a historical adventure magazine – but then they closed, and sent the manuscript back to Kline. By that time Howard was dead, and all activity on publication came to a standstill.

The story didn’t see print at all until 1953, after being edited and somewhat rewritten by the ubiquitous L Sprague de Camp. At the time, a Conan story was far from a sure sell, and so he edited it rather heavily to make it go down easier, and he changed the title to “The Treasure of Tranicos” because he felt Howard used the word “black” in his titles too much – a judgment that a cursory examination of Howard’s bibliography will bear out, though I still think de Camp’s new title is weak. Lester Del Rey didn’t like the new title either and published the story as “The Black Stranger”. Later, de Camp went back and did another edit with a much lighter hand, mostly just tweaking the story to make it fit the overall continuity he and Lin Carter were building for the character. That version was published as The Treasure of Tranicos in book form by Ace, heavily illustrated by Esteban Maroto.

I have gone through both versions side by side, both the book version and the Ballantine/Del Rey “original” version in their collection The Conquering Sword of Conan from 2005. You can readily tell where de Camp added stuff, as his great sin was overexplaining everything, rendering his prose dense and lifeless. Howard could evoke an entire nation and age with a few sketched, vivid sentences, while de Camp belabored everything.

The story itself is a cracking piece of storytelling, with a mad count in self-imposed exile on a desolate coast, and a pair of cutthroat pirates who turn up wanting a treasure rumored to be hidden somewhere nearby, while murderous Picts lurk in the primeval forest. Interestingly, it is the count’s daughter Belesa who serves as our viewpoint character for these initial stages of the tale, and the opening sections are a cascade of storms, battles, and relentless double-crossing as everyone vies for whatever they are after, everyone at cross-purposes on a field of shifting alliances and circumstances.

Then Conan shows up in the middle of it all, and it’s like throwing rocket fuel on a campfire, as now we have an even more dangerous, dynamic rogue in the mix, one who the pirates already know and despise, though they also fear him. He also serves as the only male character in the piece who is not a total piece of shit.

Added to this is the supernatural element, revealed to be that the count is in hiding because he made an enemy of a sorcerer who has summoned a demon to hunt him down and kill him. In the end it all culminates in an epic action sequence of the kind only Howard could do so well. The Picts attack and a savage battle erupts around the fort, even as the count is strangled by the demon and the manor house catches fire. Conan has to rescue Belesa amidst scenes of slaughter and flame, hacking his way through and battling a supernatural enemy.

The second de Camp edit is still pretty good, and the book version with the Maroto illustrations practically every other page is a feast for the eyes. Few pen and ink illustrators have ever mastered pulp sword & sorcery as well as Maroto. The ending is weak, with de Camp having a bunch of Aquilonian malcontents show up in a ship to get Conan so they can go off and have Conan the Liberator, but it makes no sense for them to look for him where he is. The original ending, with Conan taking command of a pirate ship and sailing away to rejoin the Red Brotherhood, is far more effective.

Still, despite its tangled history, this is an exciting and effective story, and both the Conan and Vulmea versions are worth your time. Fast-paced, tense adventure with buried treasure, betrayals, demons, wizards, and an ending in fire and brutal violence. Sword & Sorcery does not get much better.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Savage Lands

Ashari walked in and out of days, passing like a shadow beneath the canopy of the high forest. As time passed she grew stronger, more inured to the heat and the constant rain, and every day she ate what she could find and was glad of it – berries, fruits, fungi, insects, lizards – whatever she could catch was her dinner. She chafed inside, remembering platters of rare meats and carefully roasted fruits, of delicacies and sweets. Again, she told herself, she would live like a queen again.

The mountains sloped downward for days, the rain slackening, the ground becoming harder and rockier. It was not long before she saw the red blaze of the sun through the thinning trees, and then she stepped forth from the shadow of the jungle and onto the edge of a seemingly endless grassland. Low mountains lay to the south, and ahead of her the land rose up and up in a series of gentle waves, fading into hazy distance studded with the towering boles of scattered trees.

She saw no sign of civilization, and yet she knew she was on the edge of the Thran kingdoms. It was said to be a decadent, dangerous place too far over the mountains and jungles for the reach of the empire to have ever fallen upon it. It was a place spoken of in stories, but she had never met anyone who had been here. If she traveled west far enough, she would come to the shores of the Sea of Azar, where ancient cities were said to cling to the coast like jewels beneath the nighted sky.

Almost nothing remained of her clothing, and she wore little more than the straps that held her weapons and the shining bronze-red of her bare skin. It did not concern her. She was a Sheda, who had once been a race of great and terrible warrior-kings and sorcerers. Hardship was forging her into something more like her ancestors, making her harder and tougher, grinding away weakness and leaving steel behind.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Conan the Rebel

It is amusing, with all the years of disdain heaped on Howard’s style by snobby critics, to see writer after writer fail at imitating it. Poul Anderson is certainly the most celebrated writer to ever take up a pen and write a Conan novel. One of the luminaries of the Golden Age of SF, Anderson won seven Hugos and three Nebulas in his lifetime, along with a SFWA Grand Master award and a slew of lesser-known accolades. I expected something interesting, at least, but this book is a terrible chore to have to wade through.

Conan the Rebel delves into one of the more interesting periods of Conan’s life – when he sailed with Belit, the deadly Queen of the Black Coast. The original story is divided into two parts, and a lot of action is elided and alluded to, but not shown in between them, so there is a place for a broader tale. I only wish it did any kind of justice to the material at hand.

Concerned primarily with a rebellion in Stygia, the book is atrociously slow to start, spending the first three chapters doing little but show us scenes of characters talking to each other. The story opens with the villain, the Stygian wizard Tothapis, having a vision sent by Set that he has to stop Conan, and then we spend a lot of time with him talking to other Stygians about what that might mean. Then we get a whole chapter where Belit fills in her backstory, which we didn’t need.

The characterization of Conan is all right here, not really accurate, but not as bad as Offutt usually made him. The characterization of Belit, however, is fatally off. In the original “Queen of the Black Coast”, Belit is depicted as a woman who was really more than a little insane. A blood-hungry madwoman who commanded her warship in the nude and took no prisoners, evoking a superstitious awe from her crew. She was also the one real love of Conan’s life in the canon, and he never loved again after her death.

This Belit is far too well-adjusted and chatty, but that doesn’t matter as much, because if you thought this book would be Conan and Belit carving a path across Stygia, you would be wrong. Instead Belit gets left behind on her ship and we don’t even see her again until the end, all while Conan makes goo-goo eyes at a young chief’s daughter who we have never met before. It is a sad waste of one of Howard’s great characters, and yet another silly attempt to make Conan Fall In Love with the damsel of the week. It’s even less explicable because his one great love interest is right there.

The plot is a muddled tangle on nonsense where Conan is supposed to go and get a sacred axe of Mitra to use against the Stygians, and there are express elements of divine intervention which do not fit the Conan universe at all. Gods, like magic, are never present as real, tangible deities in Howard’s fiction, they are often spirits or monsters who are worshiped as gods, but are not anything of the sort. The quest for the axe plotline is a standard, high fantasy trope, and it doesn’t fit Conan at all.

Anderson’s prose is perfectly good, but he lacks any lightness or sense of adventure. The plot slogs along at a deathly slow pace, and it seems much, much longer than its 75,000 word length. The characterization of the hero is weak, and he spends a lot of time bantering with his band of scrappy misfits and being rescued from things the real Conan could have handled himself. All of these early pastiche writers completely lacked the sense of Conan’s primal, savage vitality and iron will. Conan won many battles just because he refused to give in, because he could endure pain and hardship no civilized man could withstand, and because his willpower enabled him to overcome sorcery and treachery.

None of that is in evidence here, and while I was expecting this one to be a bit better than the standard pastiche, it is really much, much worse. A dull, dragging bore of a book.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Bones of Kings

Through storm and cruel seas, Shath the Iron-Handed dragged his boat to the shore and then climbed over the battered gunwale and set his feet upon the lands of his birth. This was no soft land for soft men, but the bitter realms of volcanic glass and poisoned fume that had long guarded the Horned Clans from invasion. Cruel winters had forced them southward, away from their homelands, until this had become their home. Harsh and cruel, where the soil itself was made of glass daggers and the rains burned flesh.

He stood knee-deep in the cold waters and pulled the meager supplies he still had from the boat, and then he let it go and saw it washed back out into the dark that clung to the waters before the red dawn. The night sky was alive with thousands of stars as well as the shards of the broken moon, and the light was silver upon the sky, while the land lay mired in shadow.

He carried a small bag slung over his shoulder, a little food tucked within along with the rolled, scraped skin of a sea monster. He carried two long knives sheathed in his rope belt, and he bore two hunting spears over his broad shoulder. His muscles ached from three days of battles with the sea, while his new right arm felt nothing. He waded up from the waters until he stood on black sands above the mark of the high tides, and he drove both spears into the sands and then knelt down and kissed the earth. Now he was returned, he would find the remains of his people, and he would gather them once more into an army.

Shath knew where his people would go, for there was one holy place where they would gather if they were driven away. He turned his head to face true north and walked, careless of rest and contemptuous of weakness. He was of the Horned Clans, and he would not give way before his own privations. He was made of iron and of wrath; he was a son of wind and cold and the howls of war. He feared nothing, not death nor pain nor the devils of a thousand ages.