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.

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