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.
Both novels concern an expedition to locate a missing man who vanished into an African wilderness while hunting for a lost treasure. In both novels, the character who wants to find the vanished man is his brother, who also hopes to discover the lost ancient treasure that his brother had set out to seek. Both novels start with a search party making an overture to the main character, a hardened veteran of the ‘African’ brush country, to hire him to lead them into the wilderness. Both stories have a native guide who joins the party and later reveals himself as the rightful monarch of the hidden African kingdom in which the party finds themselves imprisoned. Murderous tyrants who usurped their thrones from their brothers and use witchdoctors to subjugate the populace rule both kingdoms. A key suspense sequence in the two books deals with a race to waterhole in the wastelands before the characters drop dead from thirst. Roberts does develop a believable Hyborian Age adventure from Haggard’s outline, but anyone who has read King Solomon’s Mines will have a difficult time shaking the shade of Allan Quatermain and will see every plot twist coming across the African/Kush plains from miles away.
Mind you, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. King Solomon’s Mines had a tremendous impact on all adventure literature, and Robert E. Howard owes a significant debt to Haggard’s rugged tales of exotic exploits (as do Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; they could never have made Raiders of the Lost Ark if Haggard hadn’t paved the way). And even nearly a hundred and twenty-five years after its first publication, King Solomon’s Mines holds up as a smashing piece of adventure literature. So the story fits Conan like a custom-tailored loincloth. This literary foundation also gives Conan and the Treasure of Python a dash of genuine old-fashioned colonial adventure and a pleasant familiarity. The familiarity goes beyond Victorian adventure novels: this Conan tale could easily exist in the world of Tarzan.
Even though Roberts has to face comparison with two titans of heroic literature, Howard and Haggard (sounds like a publishing firm, doesn’t it?), he acquits himself well here. The novel has less action than you might expect, but it never takes a turn for the boring. Roberts pulls the readers into the story with the first chapter and keeps them involved throughout, even during the long stretches of the journey from Asgalun to the secret valley. The action he parcels out in the early sections sometimes feel artificial: an early sea-battle with corsairs reads well, but it exists as a “potboiler” sequence designed to throw in a few thrills without affecting the plot. Roberts compensates for the scarcity of action with good characterizations. He writes believable, often witty, dialogue, and has a knack for putting words into the Cimmerian’s mouth that sound like they actually belong there. Conan is in fine form as wilderness tracker. The supporting cast is strong, with the exception of the bland female lead Malia. The talkative scholar Springald adds to the effectiveness of the story rather than detracts from it as most comic relief characters do. Goma, the equivalent of the noble African warrior Umbopa from King Solomon’s Mines, make a strong secondary hero. Not enough Conan pastiche writers have realized the importance of a co-hero; since Conan’s literary creator laid out a specific destiny for him, the character cannot get involved in surprising developments or change drastically in any of the pastiches, so providing a second hero who can suffer horrible reverses (and possibly die) increases the drama and suspense.
When the serious action does arrive, Roberts doesn’t let the eager reader down. The last quarter of the novel pulls out all the stops for excitement and makes up for the earlier slower passages. Roberts combines classic Weird Tales horrors with an all-out battle scene that lets Conan shine as a tactician (at this stage in his career — late thirties — Conan is a full military genius). The finale has a few parts that don’t make complete sense, particularly regarding the Lovecraftian lake monster and Sethmes’s convoluted scheming, but it is such a pleasure having a pastiche end with a rip-snortin’ sequence that most readers won’t notice the other deficiencies.
Roberts has an invisible writing style that works to his advantage when writing Conan. Of all the pastiche authors — Tor or otherwise — Roberts crafts the most clean and readable prose. He never draws attention to his style with outlandish words or misplaced and clumsy dialogue. His writing may never reach beautiful Olympian heights or grisly Stygian frights, but he never trips himself up and keeps the reader flowing along with him. He shows a knack for the pseudo-African location: the savannah and its abundant wildlife are well envisioned, and the vivid natural setting feels different from the usual Conan stomping grounds. Roberts does spend a bit too much time here, and the crossing of the wilderness and the mountains constitutes the slowest portions of the book. However, the naturalism that Roberts creates in the scenes in Central Africa (a.k.a. “The Black Kingdoms”) keeps the reader involved on some level; it feels as if this story could actually take place in our world, which makes the fantasy elements more striking when they do appear.
John Maddox Roberts once again provides the fun adventure I’ve come to expect from his Conan stories, even though he cannot take credit for the plot: that goes to H. Rider Haggard. But Roberts knows to borrow from only the best.
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.