Conan and the Amazon
John Maddox Roberts (Tor, 1995)
You may have noticed that in my series of reviews of Conan pastiche novels, I have yet to review an entry from Roland Green.
That is correct. I have not. Noted. Moving on. . . .
Of the authors of the long-running Tor series of novels, which started with Robert Jordan’s Conan the Invincible in 1982 and concluded with Roland Green’s Conan and the Death Lord of Thanza in 1997, with Harry Turtledove’s Conan of Venarium as something of a “coda” in 2004, John Maddox Roberts is the most consistently entertaining. (I love the novels from John C. Hocking and Karl Edward Wagner, but as each man unfortunately wrote only a single book, the sample is much smaller.) Roberts was the first new author to take over when Robert Jordan retired from the series after seven books published over only three years. In the eight novels that Roberts wrote, he shows deft ability with storytelling and action scenes, and a thankful tendency not to overplay his hand and try to ape Robert E. Howard’s style. His first Conan novel, Conan the Valorous, is one of the best of the Tor series, and shows a superior handling of the barbarian’s homeland of Cimmeria than Turtledove would achieve in Conan of Venarium.
However, Roberts had his down moments, and alas he stumbled at the finish line.
Conan and the Amazon is the last of Roberts’s Conan novels. It’s also his poorest, although a plot description, the salacious promise of the title, and a great cover with a super-croc would indicate it has sword-and-sorcery joys aplenty inside.
A quick summary of the story: After working as a mercenary to a Brythunian lord in a failed rebellion, Conan comes to the crossroads town of Leng. (Not Lovecraft’s Leng, I’m afraid.) There he joins with the company of Achilea, former queen of the warrior-women Amazons. Her group makes the hazardous journey through Zamora, Koth, and Khauran into the unclaimed deserts. At an oasis, Conan learns from a local Teller of Tales of the Omri tribe that Jangar angered the gods and a great battle was fought between the city wizards and the gods. Together Conan and Achilea find Jangar, a city of inhuman perfection, curses, and masked warriors and who loathe the sun and live entirely in a great city beneath the old one.
Sounds good. But what went wrong? Fatigue is my guess. It appears that Roberts finally gave into the weariness that defeated Jordan, and would only a year later defeat the whole Tor series. After ten years and eight novels, Roberts seemed to have finally run out of enthusiasm for the Cimmerian here. Although it’s above average for the Tor novels, Conan and the Amazon is a disappointment for its author. It moves too slowly, and the action is jumbled into a hasty mess at the conclusion. The promise of sexual bantering and competition hinted at in the title never amounts to much either.
Roberts still retains his most important skill: he writes competent, easily read prose. He never makes overt attempts to copy Howard’s style, and ironically ends up reading more like Howard than most other authors with his simple, effective descriptions. He also has a solid grasp on Conan’s character, and the Cimmerian gets excellent dialogue. I often found myself thinking when Conan spoke, “That’s something Howard might have had the character say.” It’s one of pleasures of the book to have the character treated with this sort of respect. Also, in contrast with most of the Tor pastiches, Conan is the focus of ninety-percent of the book. Very few scenes cut away from our hero to deal with the supporting characters and villains. Conan and Achilea dominate the novel.
If only Achilea were worthy of this attention! Listen to the praise that Conan heaps on her at one point: “Achilea, you are the greatest woman I have ever known. Not just great in size and strength and courage, but in heart.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. According the chronology used for the novels at this time, Conan has already encountered Bêlit at this stage in his career—and Achilea is no Bêlit. She isn’t Valeria either, although written as a conscious combination of the two famous Howard heroines. She works adequately, and far better than most helpless wenches in the pastiches or the lizard/zombie/elf-women Perry puts in his books, but the sexual tension that should boil between the two leads only simmers for most of the story. Conan and Achilea spend the novel at arm’s length and it’s disappointing considering the expectations you might have based on a title like Conan and the Amazon.
The plot of the novel trudges along slowly, and there is scant action or intrigue until the finale, when Roberts unfortunately dumps some huge speeches into the supporting characters’ mouths that add all the complications that he should have introduced gradually throughout the plot. In general, there is too much chatter and speeches, although some of the endless storytelling is written with a decent ear for the rhythms of folklore, with occasional bits of self-parody. Take for example this funny statement from the Teller of Tales of a desert tribe: “My friend, the desert is full of lost cities. I myself have seen over a hundred.” This attitude perfectly fit the Conan pastiches, with their endless parade of vanished metropolises. Roberts seems to be poking gentle fun here; however, he takes a serious tone toward the city of Jangar itself, and makes an effort in the scene between Conan and the Teller of Tales to add folktale verisimilitude to the hoary premise of the lost city. It is one of the more pleasing sequences in the book: a real conversation about the building of stories.
As for Jangar, it feels more like a city from either a Michael Moorcock novel, with its cosmic importance in the balance of wars between powerful entities and men and time-stopping curses, or one of the lost jungle cities from a Tarzan adventure, with decadent mad queens and pseudo-scientific gadgetry (gas jets, primitive industrial machinery). It doesn’t feel like Conan at all, but the difference is rather intriguing. The scenes beneath Jangar are also the only ones with interesting action sequences: the gladiatorial combat, which combines the casual death of some major supporting characters and a fight with a thirty-foot Stygian crocodile, is the suspense highlight of the novel. No wonder it nabbed the cover illustration.
The massive-scaled ending comes very rushed, and although it finds a fitting conclusion for our two heroes, it makes a poor finale for the Jangar story, which turns extremely complex and metaphysical in the last fifty pages only to stop cold, occurring “off-stage.” I can almost imagine Roberts suddenly getting tired of everything in the story except Conan and Achilea, and he simply dashed through the last few pages to type “The End.” But the coda between Conan and Achilea reads wonderfully. This is an ending of which Howard would have approved. It is unfortunate that what has passed between the two characters before does not adequately build up to this send-off. At least John Maddox Roberts ended his career with Conan with an excellent scene, even if the novel is his most minor.