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.
I first started to write Internet book reviews with my critiques of Conan pastiches on the official Conan site back in 2003, so in many ways my current on-line existence owes something to the neo-novels of the Cimmerian hero. I had noticed a dearth of information about the non-Howard books, so I took upon myself the burden of reading them and reporting back. This has caused me plenty of pain, but the art of book analysis always gives me pleasure, so my periodic returns to these novels are enjoyable—even if the individual book usually aren’t.
None of the pastiches could match Howard, and the majority of them are poor work-for-hire that feel cranked out without much passion. The long series from Tor, which lasted from 1982 to 1997, and made a brief return in 2004, gets the most critical drubbing. The late Robert Jordan got his fantasy start writing the first seven of the Tor novels—now collected in two trade paperbacks—and after him a rotation of new authors shared the responsibility.
Among much of the pastiche garbage, a few dull gems emerge. In the earlier pastiche series, I enjoy the lunacy of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s Conan of the Isles. Karl Edward Wagner, an author whose own temperament most suited Howard’s, produced my favorite of all second-era Conans with Conan: The Road of Kings. From the Tor series, Jordan’s first novel, Conan the Invincible remains worthwhile, as are most of John Maddox Roberts’s books and the one entry from John C. Hocking, Conan and the Emerald Lotus. (I’ve never heard of this John C. Hocking fellow. Any of you know anything about him?)
Leonard Carpenter, author of my current pastiche read Conan the Raider, is the most hit-and-miss of the Tor stable. Maddox’s and Jordan’s novels are usually decent-to-good, Steve Perry’s are the weirdest and least like Howard’s, and Roland Green’s are flat-out bad. Carpenter wanders the middle of the road, but often falls into anti-climaxes. Conan the Raider is one of Carpenter’s earliest, his second after Conan the Renegade, which focused on Conan’s military exploits and had less interest in the fantastic (although it has an impressive military spell called “The Sword Dervish”). Conan the Raider heads into Indiana Jones territory, and is basically an Egyptian tomb-robbing adventure in a fantasy setting. It’s a mix of mummies, the undead, traps, and scantily-clad court dancers.
The two other Carpenter Conans that I’ve read, Conan the Renegade and Conan the Gladiator, both suffer from lukewarm endings. Conan the Gladiator is one of the more unusual of the pastiches in that it has no overt fantasy elements aside from the mythical setting. It’s also one of the most disappointing of the pastiches I’ve encountered, since the promise of Conan standing up against everything a gladitorial arena can throw at him never actually occurs. Conan the Renegade works better, but it also loses its way before the ending and whimpers out.
However, I can happily report that Conan the Raider marks the best Leonard Carpenter entry in the series I’ve yet read. It actually has the opposite problem from the first two: it starts weakly and episodically, but slaps together a busy and exciting conclusion.
The tale occurs entirely in Shem, Howard’s Hyorian Age version of the ancient Levant. In the unforgiving desert, Conan pursues a thief who stole the gem the Star of Khorala from him. This makes Conan the Raider a sequel to Howard’s “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula,” first published in Weird Tales in 1935 as “Shadows in Zamboula.” Conan finds the thief, but not the jewel, and faces death when his water runs out. However, he comes across a caravan of tomb-robbers, led by a Vanir named Otsgar. Isaiab, a Shemitish man who knew Conan in the city of Arenjun, welcomes the Cimmerian into their company, which includes the gorgeous Stygian woman Zafriti and young Shemitish rebel Asrafel.
The tomb robbery chapter that follows is a bit of pulpy enjoyment with deathtraps and an attack from crocodile-headed tomb guardians that wipes out everyone except the characters already provided with names. However, this initial adventure is emblematic of the problems of the first three quarters of the novel: episodic action only loosely strung together. This tomb-robbery has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
Having stolen only a few baubles, the group of disappointed thieves heads toward Isaiab’s city of Abaddrah, where King Ebnezub is building a magnificent tomb for himself at the behest of the wandering prophet Horaspes, an exile of Stygia across the river. King Ebnezub may soon tenant his new tomb if the poisonings of his consort Queen Nitokar continue on course.
Events of the story now wander through the court of Ebnezub and the band of thieves making various attempts on the complex new tomb, which covers even older catacombs. Conan has dalliances with Zafriti and Princess Afrit, gets captured and forced to duel with a man who uses snakes as weapons, and pokes around the catacombs trying to find a more efficient way to plunder the place. The action here is all well managed, the sex scenes are surprisingly steamy, but the story doesn’t have much pull. Carpenter also lavishes descriptions on sections that don’t merit them, like a funeral procession that goes on and on to no effect.
Once the prophet Horaspes unveils his sorcerous scheme, the book starts to find its feet. With sixty pages left to go, Conan the Raider has the potential to have an exciting finale. I remained skeptical, but—Crom!—it actually happened. Armies of the grotesque dead, a huge battle for the city of Abaddrah, Conan escaping a trap in a scene lifted from an old serial, and a pleasing duel to the death. Of course, Conan will eventually get the Star of Khorala back, since Carpenter has to link the story to L. Sprague de Camp’s own sequel to “Man-Eaters of Zamboula,” “The Star of Khorala.”
Conan the Raider is so far Carpenter’s best outing with the Cimmerian, despite the scattershot beginning and the derivative tomb-robbing plot. It has a touch more horror to it than other pastiches, and I always appreciate a pastiche writer willing to dig down into the more horrific side of the Weird Tales legacy.
Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is currently available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Los Angeles. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla in interviews.