Monday, May 27, 2019

Lost Tribes

Ashari rode to the city beside the sea like a queen upon a pilgrimage of fire. The sea of Azar glowed blue like a jewel in the red sun, the shadows of its waves violet as imperial porphyry. The stars reflected in the waters and the sails of the ships that crossed it shone white as wings. She smelled the water so close and breathed it in, an air so different from the great eastern sea beyond the empire.

On the white shores the city of Irdru rose like an idol carved from living ebony, the walls and towers gleaming black and polished so they shone. The city spread along the seaside in a great expanse she would not have believed had she heard the tale. It was as large a city as the imperial heart at Zur, though not so well-fortified. It looked like a city that lived and breathed, rather than a fortress of conquest. The towers were rounded and tipped by graceful spires, and she liked the look of them.

The road to the great gates was white stone, and thronged with the crowds of people who came and went and scattered before her. Astride the great form of her Mokol, she reared high above any who they encountered, and men and beasts alike hastened from their path. Her dragon left a trail of scattered flames on the road, as his burning venom dripped from his jaws. His heavy tread shook the earth, and she heard the screams of children and of beasts as they beheld her coming.

In her wake rode the Horane warriors astride their long-necked beasts of war. Eager to enter the city in their finery, they wore their richest war-gear, hung with gold and polished bone, their spears glittering in the sun. Behind them came the rest of the clan, moving with the pack animals and a vanguard around the women and the aged. The chief himself rode at the center of them, as a man in a dream.

They came to the gates, and the crowds parted to escape her path. A line of soldiers was there to bar her way, spears held read and tall helms drawn down over their faces. She sensed the fear in them, as did her steed, and he gave a growl of belligerence that shuddered the stones of the gatehouse and he spat fire upon the stone where it burned like a brazier beneath his dagger-toothed jaws.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Conan of Cimmeria

A product of the early period of the Howard renaissance, this is the second volume in the original Lancer series, first printed in 1969 and republished many times since. This book collects an interesting hybrid of original Howard works alongside pastiches and bastardizations to produce a book that is more entertaining than it has a right to be.

The book features three genuine Howard stories about Conan – the classic “Queen of the Black Coast” alongside the lesser work “The Vale of Lost Women”, which is a rather inconsequential tale that is far from Howard’s best. The third one is the inexplicably popular “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”, which has a reputation as a great Conan story when it is really not, and coasts by almost entirely on atmosphere. These are the only complete Howard stories included that are his work from beginning to end.

The table of contents is filled out with a variety of other works. Three of these are straight-up original stories by the usual team of Carter and de Camp. “The Curse of the Monolith” is a quick little tale with some nice macabre details and an interesting premise, though it is more of a Lovecraft tale than a Conan one. “The Lair of the Ice Worm” is a pretty darned good story, with some nicely bloody action and a satisfyingly menacing ice worm. There’s nothing especially Conan-ish about it, and it could star any barbarian and be pretty much unchanged. That said, it’s one of the best works by the Carter/de Camp team.

“The Castle of Terror” is a decent story, again with more horror than action. Conan is less a protagonist in this than an observer, which weakens it, but the monster is a suitably gruesome one, and the tale at least moves quickly, even if it is the second story – after “Ice Worm” – that features Conan sleeping through danger as a major plot point.

The last two stories are “posthumous collaborations”, which really means rewriting Howard’s work, or adapting it. “The Bloodstained God” is a fun, violent action story that feels like a real Howard tale because it is – de Camp just took one of Howard’s contemporary middle-eastern adventures and altered it into a Conan story. I may dislike this practice, but it makes for a fine story, and I can’t even say it’s not something Howard himself would have done, since he did things very much like it on more than one occasion.

A more uneven effort is “The Snout in the Dark”, which has a bad title and comes off as more than a bit of a hack job. The first part of the story was left as an unfinished draft by Howard, showing Conan caught up in palace intrigues of the African-styled kingdom of Kush. However, he had only just appeared in the story when Howard stopped working on it, and so Carter and de Camp set about to finish it. The draft showed tremendous potential, but they wasted it with a rushed, poorly-done final act. It retains a good bit of momentum simply from Howard’s opening and from the exciting, vividly-drawn setting.

Overall this is one of the better collections that is not 100% Howard. Carter and de Camp both seemed to have a better grip on Sword & Sorcery, and on Conan in particular, when they stuck with the short story form, and didn’t try to pace out a full novel. I suppose it’s possible they were not particularly bad at writing Conan, but were maybe just bad at novels in general. Still, the inclusion of one undeniable classic and some decent pastiche work makes this one a good bet.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Forgotten Tombs

Shath rode across the mountains under a black sky tormented by storms, and then he descended into a land of silent forests that dreamed of other ages. It was strange to him to ride beneath the canopy of trees and not to see the sky. To feel the cool breeze upon his face and hear nothing but the drone of insects in the deep night. This was a land unlike any he had ever seen, and it made him wary.

That was well, for on the second night the roots of a tree ripped loose from the earth and encoiled his spare mount and dragged it down screaming. He woke to the forest moving around him, branches waving in no breeze, and then he learned why the forest was so silent. He learned to see the bones buried beneath the leaves and to know why the trees rustled and shifted when there was no wind.

So he rode on, and on, day and night, not resting, until his zhar died and he drank its blood and left the body for the hungering forest, and then at last he emerged from the forest and stepped into the empty lands beyond. This was the country known only to legends. A land of death and the dead, and what else he could not know. It seemed fair to him, a land of gentle grass and small gatherings of woodland that clustered beside the streams and lakes. He knew it was not so gentle.

He crossed into the death lands alone, beneath the star-scattered night, and he went with a sword in his iron hand and watchful, for he knew there was terror in this place. He did not find it for many days. He crossed the rolling grasslands, and he waded the shallow streams, and the air was sweet, yet he saw no signs of men, and no beasts save small vermin in the undergrowth. He slept in the open, looking up at the broken moon, and by day he went west.

When he came to the river, he knew it was poisoned, as the banks were black and layered with bones, and the weeds that grew in the shallows were red and writhed in the sun. He looked across the water to the desolate land beyond it, and he saw bare rock and ancient metal and piles of skulls, and he knew he had come, at last, to the place men feared.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Conan the Buccaneer

I have been kind of randomly picking my way through a number of the Conan pastiches, seeing what there is to see, especially with the benefit of time, since all of the ones I have reviewed have been old. I have not found any of them to be especially good, with the exception of The Road of Kings, but this time I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one that is pretty universally considered to be terrible. Conan the Buccaneer was published in 1971, another collaboration between Carter and de Camp, and I have seen it mentioned in several places as being one of the worst of them. Curiosity led me onward.

Overall, I have to say I don’t think this is that awful. I was expecting some kind of wretched crapfest, since so many of the pastiches have been bad enough, how bad would this have to be to be worse? But while this is not great by any stretch, it is still a cut above garbage like The Sword of Skelos. The plot is bog-standard, and Conan’s characterization has undergone the bowdlerization that is pretty typical for the way Carter and de Camp wrote him, but there is some cool stuff to be found.

This is likely mostly the work of Carter, as it shows his tendency to start the plot with secondary characters and then bring Conan in later. We start with a Zingaran duke who is plotting with a Stygian wizard and the pirate captain Zarono (who would turn up again in “The Black Stranger”) to seize the throne with a complicated plot involving using magic to control the king and force the princess to marry him. Princess Chabela proves a better protagonist than most when she tries to escape from this plan, only to have her ship overtaken and be captured by Zarono.

Conan kind of accidentally gets involved in this, and it’s a real weakness that he doesn’t have any clear motive for being here. They all end up on a lost island featuring a cursed temple of the serpent men and a stone idol that comes to life. Conan has to lure said idol into jumping off a cliff in a rather cartoonish sequence, but the expected confrontation with Zarono never materializes.

There’s a lot of additional hugger-mugger with Conan going ashore in the Kushite kingdoms, meeting an old friend and former mercenary who has become a chief, and then getting captured by a depraved Amazon queen. Carter was always having his heroes get captured, and then had them spend a lot of time being held prisoner and not trying to escape for no discernible reason. It always stops the narrative dead when he does this and it happens again here. The authors here and there try to mitigate the essentially racist nature of this episode, but they don’t really succeed, and the depiction of the primitive tribespeople of the “black kingdoms” is cringe-worthy at best.

Both Carter and de Camp had a habit of building up to battles and then finding excuses to not have them, and initially I thought this book would keep the tradition, but the final conflict does actually deliver a pretty good battle, with Conan and his pirate crew battling away at the supporters of the rebel duke. There’s a good amount of blood and guts, even though Thoth-Amon and Zarono escape in rather ridiculous fashion, just because the authors needed them to survive for subsequent episodes.

It’s not that bad. Conan spends too much of it as essentially a side character, motivations are weak, and the plot meanders more than the plot of a 50,000-word novel ought to, but it’s not as dull as some of de Camp’s work, nor as breathless and embarrassing as a lot of Carter’s. Rather than the worst of the Conan pastiches, I would put it rather solidly in the middle, if only because the quality of them overall is so iffy. You could do worse.