My History With Conan Pastiches; Plus: Conan the Bold

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Fans of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian have little affection for the Conan pastiches, i.e. any Conan story by another author. I can’t blame them—few of these short stories, novellas, and novels are much good. Howard was singularly suited to writing about the barbarian hero, and without his peculiar combination of skills and his relentless authorial drive, it’s tough to capture anything matching the same excitement. Non-Howard Conan is just another muscular fantasy barbarian who’s really good at splitting open skulls and drinking. That can be fun, but it’s not really Howard’s Conan.

But I owe some of where I am today to the Conan pastiche novel, specifically the long series Tor Books published from 1982 to 1997 (with one extra book popping up in 2003). I got my start as an online writer and book/movie essayist by writing about the Tor Conans—because nobody else apparently wanted to. In the early 2000s, while wasting time at a mind-killing day job at a commodities firm, I often posted on some of the Conan forums. I noticed other posters occasionally asking if anybody could recommend some of the Tor novels, which usually got the response of, “Don’t know, I haven’t read them.”

I thought I might make a name on the forums and have some fun as “The Guy Who Reads the Conan Pastiches So You Don’t Have To.” It was enjoyable for a stretch, and it was how I met John Chris Hocking, author of one of the Tor novels, Conan and the Emerald Lotus. He wrote to me saying he liked my reviews and wondered if I had read his Conan novel. I hadn’t, but I answered that I’d take care of this oversight immediately.

I was afraid that I’d dislike the book and have to attempt to say something pleasant to him without outright lying about my opinion. Wow, was I relieved when I discovered that Conan and the Emerald Lotus was the best of the Tor novels I’d read. And It still is. Hocking’s second Conan novel, Conan and the Living Plague, may finally appear this year thanks to Perilous Worlds, and I’m eager to at last get to read that.

To shorten the distance from then to now, it was Chris who introduced me to Howard Andrew Jones, who then introduced me to John O’Neill at Black Gate, and by 2008 I was officially writing for a major website. I started off my regular posts at Black Gate writing about, yep, Conan pastiche novels. Hey, I had my niche. Here’s the first one, Conan the Raider.

The niche closed up when I eventually burnt out on the things. After doing five Tor pastiches, I stopped and moved on to other topics. I became an Edgar Rice Burroughs/Godzilla/John Carpenter-focused blogger. Never anticipated that shift.

Recently, I’ve delved back into Conan and Robert E. Howard because of my work at Perilous Worlds, which owns the intellectual property rights to Howard’s characters. An old twitch came back: I wanted to go to my hidden, dusty stack of old Tor Conan books and read one for old time’s sake

Let me check on how long it’s been since I visited Pastiche-Conan (yes, I keep a database and catalog of books) … Crom, it’s been since 2009! December 2009, to be exact, and it was Conan the Unconquered by Robert Jordan. I must have written a review of it for Black Gate … ah, here it is. Oh, the review is referenced on the Wikipedia page for the novel. Strange when my reading habits of almost a decade ago become a matter of public record. The Wikipedia entry at least doesn’t misrepresent my view of the book through selective quotations.

Okay, so almost a decade since I’ve picked up one of these, and the one I pulled out of the mahogany chest (or cardboard box) stuffed at the rear of the Stygian treasure chamber (or walk-in closet with my old zoot suits from the swing dancing era) was Conan the Bold by John Maddox Roberts, first published in 1989. I’ve found Roberts’s pastiches higher than average quality for the series. As a writer, he has a good flair for sword-and-sorcery style without doing a forced imitation of Howard. He creates fine supporting characters and drives his stories toward exciting conclusions, which is something other pastiche writers rarely do.

Conan the Bold intrigued me—it wasn’t a random pick—because it features one of the youngest versions of Conan. He’s around sixteen years old and leaving Cimmeria for the first time. The only writer who’s presented Conan younger is Harry Turtledove in Conan of Venarium, last of the Tor novels, where Conan is twelve years old at the sack of Venarium, an event Howard often referenced. (By the way, “Venarium” is spelled twice as “Vanarium” in Conan the Bold. I don’t think Tor’s editorial office expended much effort on this series.)

Conan the Bold isn’t a “Young Conan Adventure” story. The Tor Conan settled into a standardized version, and no matter his ostensible age, he feels pretty much the same from book to book. Aside from mentions of Conan’s unfamiliarity with towns and cities, this Sweet Sixteen Conan feels no different than a full adult Conan from other pastiches.

I like Roberts’s writing style, which is crisp, lean, and evocative. He puts it on good display, but the story just isn’t there to support it. Conan vows to avenge himself on the raiders who murdered a Cimmerian family he was staying with. His wrath is focused on the leader of the raiders, an ambitious Keshian named Taharka, who rapidly churns through men and replaces them as he hops from scheme to scheme. Conan pursues Taharka and picks up another avenger to join his quest, the Aquilonian girl Kalya, who is after Taharka’s companion Axandrias to repay him for burning out one of her eyes and murdering her mother.

There’s enough story for a solid novella, but not for a novel. Stretched out over 280 pages makes the long pursuit become weary and lose its force. For most of the book, Taharka isn’t even aware of the two people chasing him and is more concerned with running slave-fighting rings and organizing new banditry enterprises. Axandrias gets to display more fear and also develops an addiction to magical berserker pills, but he’s not enough to keep the fires of urgency going.

By the time events reach the edge of Stygia and the minor supernatural element at last has an impact on the story (something about Taharka and Conan as the chosen combatants of Ancient Gods), I was merely reading to get the book over with. I appreciate a good sword battle, and Roberts excels at describing the gore-soaked effects of having a large pointy object thrust through parts of the human anatomy, but it all peters out before the midpoint. One more fight, much like the others, and we’re out.

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The cover art by Ken Kelly (“Attack From Above”) is his usual magnificent work. It’s also a lie: Conan never fights a Pterodactyl-like creature in the book. He never fights any monster, which is a disappointment. Monsters are one of the simple pleasure of my life, and sword-and-sorcery delivers them regularly. I’m accustomed to deceptive covers, but any thirteen-year-old who bought this off a bookstore shelf in 1990 because of the cool cover would have good reason to feel gypped. “Hey, you promised me a dinosaur!” Sorry, kid. I feel for you. I got tricked the same way a few times. Covers in the 1980s: caveat emptor. Now covers just don’t have anything on them! I guess that keeps monster expectations in check.

Although it was refreshing, for a while at least, to go back in time to the Conan pastiches, Conan the Bold reminded me why I originally stopped reading them, even as review fodder: there isn’t much to say about them. I could squeeze pages of analysis out of REH’s short stories, but I exhausted most of what I could ponder about a complete novel by another writer in just a few paragraphs.

There’s is one topic more to discuss. Something that interested me about this book was its reputation as Apocrypha according to the chronology Tor and Conan Properties Inc. used at the time. The history of trying to construct a cohesive timeline for the Conan stories goes back to the 1930s. Today, these outlines have mostly been tossed aside as unhelpful when studying Robert E. Howard, and I agree. (I have an article coming up in Perilous Worlds that goes into details about the evolution of the chronologies.) Since a sixteen-year-old Conan going on an adventure that takes him through Nemedia, Ophir, Koth, and all the way to Stygia doesn’t match up with other early entries in the bloated Tor chronology, some declared Conan the Bold as non-canon. I’ve seen an argument it can be fit into the chronology, but I don’t care about any of this. Howard never set out to create a coherent Conan timeline, and as far as I’m concerned all additional works by later writers are add-on fantasties existing in a different realm from Howard’s. If Roberts wanted to send this version of Conan on a country-spanning adventure for his sixteenth birthday, fine. It would be just as “canon” to me if he changed Kalya to Molly Ringwald’s character Sam from Sixteen Candles.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to read some of Howard’s Kull stories for a Perilous Worlds article.