Our fearless leader, John O’Neill, has been reviewing entries in Wordsworth’s Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series: with emphasis on the supernatural end. So…I figured I’d look at one of the mystery entries.
Sherlock Holmes: The Game’s Afoot, offers twenty new tales of the world’s first private consulting detective. The real mystery is why I couldn’t find a single reference to this book anywhere on Wordsworth’s website. Curious, indeed.
Sherlockian pastiches are meant to emulate the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales. As opposed to parodies, which spoof Holmes.
With the explosion of self-publishing, the quality of pastiches has come to vary wildly. There is quite a bit of dreck out there and the days of buying every Holmes story listed on Amazon are long gone.
The eleven authors who contributed to this collection worked hard to create the same kind of atmosphere Conan Doyle did. David Stuart Davies is the editor of this Wordsworth series and is a well-respected Sherlockian. He includes three of his tales. June Thomson, John Hall, Dennis O. Smith … there are some well-respected Sherlockian names in this collection.
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Well, not quite. That title was just to grab your attention. But Elric’s creator did set a tale at London’s most famous address, 221B Baker Street. And it’s a pretty ‘normal’ Holmes tale; which you might not expect from the guy who created Stormbringer.
I enjoyed Fletcher Vrendenburgh’s post last week on Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. I devoured the tales of Corum, Hawkmoon, Erekose, and of course Elric in my middle-school years.
Being a Dungeons and Dragons player, these books were awesome. I think I even used Rackhir the Red Archer in a game. If you’ve not read significant parts of that saga, your fantasy education is lacking.
Moorcock’s work encompasses much more than just the Eternal Champion tales. I’m a Christian and I was fascinated by the premise of The War Hound and all the World’s Pain (an excellent read: the sequel, not so much).
I even wrote a paper on the idea for a high school religion class. That got me an invite to see the teacher, a priest, after class.
Back in 1995, Moorcock wrote “The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger” as a privately printed chapbook which he let friends of his, who were opening a hotel on Dorset Street, give away to their first guests.
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Despite the title, this article is not intended as a forum for a continuation author to lament how unforgiving his critics are. Bad reviews are an inevitability and, in this instance, I’m the one bad-mouthing another continuation writer. I do not feel pangs of guilt, since the author in question is not only talented, but very successful and lauded in his industry. In other words, I’m an insignificant mouse picking on an elephant and that hopefully protects me from charges of betraying one of my own.
I recently read Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, the first Philip Marlowe continuation novel in nearly 25 years. I can think of only one nice thing to say about the book and that is at long last Robert B. Parker need no longer be disparaged as the man who wrote the two worst Philip Marlowe mysteries. I am a fan of Black’s original historical mysteries, but my familiarity with his work did nothing to convince me he was a good choice to revive Raymond Chandler’s classic private eye hero, particularly when a talent such as Ace Atkins is active in the field writing new Spenser mysteries that do justice to the originals.
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As I write this, April is just around the corner, and now that Hollywood’s best and brightest studios no longer know how to calculate the beginning of summer, I smell blockbuster season ripening fast on the vine. Just think, in mere weeks, we can all flock to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Wolverine, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Elysium, and Man of Steel.
What do nearly all of these movies have in common? I’ll tell you, spoiler-free: the fate of the world will hang in the balance.
Which is why I shall be staying home –– again –– for blockbuster season. If I have learned anything in all my forays into drama, it is this: cinema offers no more boring subject, no greater snoozefest, than global peril.
Heresy, I know.
But I’m right. Here’s why.
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Conan the Renegade
Leonard Carpenter (Tor, 1986)
Salutations, lovers of blood and thunder and me babbling about Frederick Faust! This week marks my second anniversary as a blogger on Black Gate. I’ve now held down the Tuesday spot for two years, and I believe that this missive you are now reading is my 104th post (I missed one week, but did a double-post another week during an REH birthday celebration).
Do you know what I am going to do to celebrate? I’m going to do the exact same thing I did on my first post . . . review a Leonard Carpenter Conan pastiche novel! Because I pride myself on my ability to change and adapt with the times.
Leonard Carpenter debuted on the Conan series with Conan the Renegade, which can be summed up in two words: “mercenary adventure.” Military action takes precedence over magic and wonder; most of the story unfolds in a small area around Koth and the bordering kingdom of Khoraja (seen in “Black Colossus,” which Conan the Renegade closely follows in the chronology that Tor Books was using for the pastiches at the time), and Conan’s adventuring mostly occurs within his role as a military leader and tactician. Carpenter does toss in a few horrific fantasy events, such as an unusual combat sorcerer and an ancient dungeon copied right out of “The Scarlet Citadel,” but readers who want a dark fantasy Conan should look elsewhere. Like, uhm, “The Scarlet Citadel.”
The warfare tale follows Conan to the Kothian city of Tantusium where he joins the Free Company of the mercenary captain Hundulph. Hundulph’s men are in the pay of Ivor, a Kothian prince who has risen in revolt against his uncle King Strabonus. Among the other mercenary captains rides the enticing warrior woman Drusandra, who leads an all-female band. Conan has suspicions of Ivor’s sorcerer Agohoth, a Khitan-trained wizard. This is very weird, since Conan never has suspicions about sorcerers.
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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.
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Conan of the Isles
L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (Lancer, 1968)
So far in the entries of my informal tour through the Conan pastiches—with a great guest shot from Charles Saunders on Conan the Hero—I’ve focused entirely on the “Tor Era,” the longest and most sustained period of new novels about Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age hero. Because of the sheer volume of books in the Tor line, which ran uninterrupted from 1982 to 1997, as well as most readers’ and reviewers’ indifference toward them, the Tor Era provides fertile ground for fresh criticism. It contains a few gems as well among the factory-line production schedule.
But I’ve neglected the earlier Conan pastiches, from publishers Lancer (Sphere in the U.K., later Ace in the U.S.) and Ballantine. Before Tor started its Conan factory with Robert Jordan’s Conan the Invincible, the world of Conan pastiches rested mostly in the hands of two men: L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. They filled in a “Conan Saga” that they had imagined through a constructed timeline, and this framework extended into the Tor Era as well, although turning more overstuffed and inconsistent as the books piled up and eventually the whole series put itself to sleep and Howard burst back into print.
One of the results of de Camp and Carter’s addenda to Conan’s history is the odd, uncharacteristic, yet hypnotically entertaining Conan of the Isles. Years ago I wrote a detailed review of this 1968 novel for a forum posting. I’ve pulled up that old review and done some dusting, revising, and re-thinking to present the first “Pastiches ‘R’ Us” installment that examines the controversial First Responders of the neo-Conan world.
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Conan the Unconquered
Robert Jordan (Tor, 1983)
Moving on with my Conan/Robert Jordan double-feature. . . .
With Conan the Unconquered, Robert Jordan’s third book in the series, the author seems settled with his style of writing the Hyborian Age. Some the flaws in Conan the Defender are subdued, although the story is the average “meat ‘n’ potatoes” Conan pastiche material. The book has a feeling of comfort food: neither challenging nor surprising, but providing decent sword-and-sorcery entertainment.
The plot of Conan the Unconquered follows the Middle Eastern fantasy playbook, set around the Vilayet Sea in the Kingdom of Turan, with an excursion across the waters to Hyrkanian lands. Conan is not yet in his twenties, and has arrived in the Turanian city of Aghrapur. A compatriot from his thieving days, Emilio from Corinth, approaches Conan with the offer to join in stealing a necklace from a compound outside the city. The compound belongs to the Cult of Doom, whose members may be responsible for many assassinations occurring in the city. (The Cult of Doom sounds as if Jordan is swiping from the recent movie Conan the Barbarian.) Emilio’s lover, Davinia, is the one who wants the necklace stolen. Conan no longer wants to dabble in thievery, but after the astrologer Sharak casts a chart for the barbarian, he changes his mind and seeks out Emilio from the stewpots of Aghrapur.
As usual with pastiches, Conan has slender reason to stay in the story; the device of Sharak’s chart is a flimsy one (and Sharak as a plot device hangs around far longer than he’s needed) to keep Conan interested in the Cult of Doom and its necromancer leader Jhandar. Jordan manages to coax Conan into the story faster than in Conan the Defender with some slight-of-hand that makes both Conan and Jhandar believe that the other must die for them to live. Conan allies with a vengeance-minded Turanian sergeant, a group of Hyrkanians chasing after Jhandar for the desolation he brought to their land, and the beautiful Yasbet who keeps her parentage a secret.
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Conan the Defender
Robert Jordan (Tor, 1982)
I’ve had some requests on the site and in emails to my own blog from people who have enjoyed previous installments of “Pastiches ‘R’ Us” to look at Robert Jordan’s novels. I’m here to serve. This week and next I’ll feature two of the famous fantasy author’s Conan novels.
Robert Jordan, the pen name of James Oliver Rigney Jr., is the best-known of the stable of writer on Tor’s long-running and now defunct Conan pastiche series. After writing six consecutive books (and the novelization of Conan the Destroyer), Jordan turned into one of the most popular authors of epic fantasy with his “Wheel of Time” series. Unfortunately, Jordan’s career ended early with his death in 2007 from cardiac amyloidosis, only a month before his fifty-ninth birthday.
How does Jordan’s work on Conan stack up? He’s not consistently the strongest of the Tor group—I think John Maddox Roberts deserves that title—but when Jordan first started writing Conan, he created some fresh and energetic material. His first Conan novel, Conan the Invincible (also the first of the Tor series), is pulpily exciting and one of the few pastiches from the Tor books that I recommend to people who normally avoid non-Howard Conan.
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Conan the Hunter
Sean A. Moore (Tor, 1993)
You know I’m getting busy in other parts of my life when I pull out another Conan pastiche review for you here at Black Gate. (I store them up in a locked chest to be used in emergencies.) I’ve so far looked at a book each from John Maddox Roberts, Leonard Carpenter, and Steve Perry. So now it’s time for one from Sean A. Moore.
First, a prologue. (Almost all Conan pastiches have prologues, so why not start a review with one?) There is a moment in Conan the Hunter where a palace gardener beats our hero unconscious. Incredibly, the book is not as completely horrible as that absolutely ridiculous statement would make it sound. But it just has to be one of the most unbelievable moments I’ve read in any Conan story. Go ahead, read that statement again. By Crom, I dare you not to laugh.
Now that I’ve set the tone, it is time to dive into the meat of Conan the Hunter, or at least the gristle.
This is the first Conan novel from Sean A. Moore. Like John C. Hocking, Moore came late to Tor’s pastiche series, and went on to pen a two more before the line went on hiatus. Judging from this outing, Moore’s strengths lie in crafting a clever, dense plot with immense, epic scope, and populating it with an imaginative flood of action and monsters. This novel bursts at the seams with supernatural menaces and crimson battles: A leech beast in the sewers. Hordes of gargoyles. Repugnant, horror-laden traps everywhere. An invincible demon-sorceress trying to revive her race. A cramped duel to the death in the corridors of a palace. A henchman with a magnetic lodestone for a shield. Nifty stuff all around, candy for a heroic fantasy reader.
Yet for all this material, Conan the Hunter can make for miserably slow going. Moore demonstrates two tremendous flaws that impede the novel and make it only sporadically entertaining and otherwise a chore to read.
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