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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Conan the Free Lance
Steve Perry (Tor, 1990)
Let’s see… I’ve reviewed a Conan pastiche novel each from Leonard Carpenter and John Maddox Roberts. So next up, Steve Perry.
If there’s one word I would used to describe Steve Perry’s Conan novels, it’s goofy. Perry has a reputation among Conan fandom for overkill and general silliness. He apparently loves high fantasy. Perhaps he loves it too much. His Conan books burst at the seams with fantastic monsters, strange races, and weird magic… and not in an ideal way. Although Perry has an enormous imagination, it gets away from him and creates a world that has almost no resemblance to Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. It’s not so much that these elements are silly, but that they seem so when placed in Howard’s setting. They would work fine in the Star Wars universe—and Perry has written some good Star Wars novels to prove it; I’ll admit I enjoyed his Shadows of the Empire, even if LucasFilm tried shoving it down my throat first. But in the grittier, more-historically centered Hyborian Age, where magic is rare and sinister, Perry’s style feels like someone trying to write a Forbidden Realms novel who accidentally wandered into Robert E. Howard-land.
Conan the Free Lance (yes, two words, not one, according to the actual title page—Conan isn’t picking up occasional assignments for The New Yorker) won’t change anyone’s mind about Perry’s style. The story occurs in an overt wonderland akin to high fantasy. Its villain and the instigator of our plot, Dimma the Mist Mage, lives in fortress on a bed of sargasso weeds in a Karpash Moutains lake. He needs a talisman to restore his body to its solid form, and so he sends his shapeshifting servants the selkies to fetch it from the Tree Folk. Conan, while on his way to Shadizar, rescues Cheen, a medicine woman of the Tree Folk, from the draconian hunting beasts of the reptilian-descended Pili. (Okay, we already have far too many demi-human races running around.) Conan helps the Tree Folk repulse the selkie attack, but the selkie leader Kleg escapes with the talisman—the ‘Seed’ which the Tree Folk need to make their tree homes grow. He also kidnaps Cheen’s young brother, Hok. Conan joins the Tree Folk in the quest to save Hok and recapture the Seed.
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Conan and the Treasure of Python
By John Maddox Roberts (Tor, 1992)
My first post on Black Gate’s blog was a review of a Conan pastiche. I would feel untrue to myself if I didn’t return to this rich vein of material from time to time. This go-round, I’m paying a visit to one of the most interesting of the Tor novels from the most consistently successful of its stable of authors, John Maddox Roberts. Even if you’re not a fan of Conan novels that don’t come from the pen of Robert E. Howard, Conan and the Treasure of the Python has something to offer you: a take on one of the classic adventure novels of all time.
The editors should have renamed this book Conan and the Treasure of King Solomon’s Mines. This isn’t a case of borrowing or inspiration the way that, for example, Forbidden Planet borrows from The Tempest, or The Warriors draws inspiration from Xenophon’s Anabasis. No, this novel is literally King Solomon’s Mines: John Maddox Roberts copies the exact plot of the classic H. Rider Haggard 1885 adventure novel and recasts it as a Conan story, with the legendary barbarian starring in the Allan Quatermain role. The story similarities are striking, pervasive, and go far beyond coincidence or subconscious borrowing. The overall structure of both books is beat-for-beat identical.
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Conan the Raider
By Leonard Carpenter (Tor, 1986)
So here I am on the Black Gate blog, your “Tuesdays with Ryan.” I’m already a blog addict, and I’ve run my own extensive blog for two years (after two years of running a sloppy, more personal-blathering journal at a dreadful blog service). I write science-fiction and fantasy, mostly aimed at teenagers (I am an adamant supporter of YA genre literature, and for various reasons I may talk about in another entry, it is the genre niche where I feel the most at home), but I’m also an extensive nonfiction author fascinated with the history of speculative fiction and the stranger corners of it that don’t often come to light. And, in case anyone cares, I am a damned good lindy hoppin’ swing dancer with a love of period clothing.
Now, how to begin blogging at Black Gate? The answer arrived easily. I’ve chosen to return to my “origins” as an online reviewer, and review a Conan pastiche novel. Ambition!
I have a long association with the “Conan pastiche,” here defined as any story about the legendary sword-and-sorcery hero coming from a writer other than Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard. When I first started reading Howard’s Conan stories in the early ‘90s, the only place I could easily locate them was in the paperback series that mixed pastiche stories among Howard’s originals. I was therefore “trained” to accept the pastiches as having as much validity as Conan stories as Howard’s originals, an attitude I now completely reject. But I was young and eager for more of this sword-and-sorcery goodness, so when I finished off the Howard canon, I decided to peek into the other novels from Ballantine and Tor. Most Howard fans would never touch them, but Conan novels were, at the time, one of the few places to buy genuine sword-and-sorcery at a standard chain bookstore.
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