Ryan Harvey has graciously allowed me to make a foray into his “Pastiches R Us” with some thoughts on Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Hero, which was published by Tor Books in 1989. Amazon.com reviewer “raif10” characterizes the novel as “Conan in Vietnam,” hence the title of this post. To anyone familiar with the United States’ involvement with the Vietnam War, the allegory is abundantly — and sometimes painfully — clear.
But the Vietnam connection wasn’t what initially attracted me to this novel. Instead, it was the inclusion of Juma, a Kushite who is a fellow recruit with Conan in the Turanian army.
It should be noted that Juma is not a Robert E. Howard-created character. The Kushite was the product of the imaginations of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Juma first appeared in “The City of Skulls,” a de Camp-Carter story in Lancer Books’ Conan. Conan and Juma bond because they are both outsiders: physically powerful barbarians at odds with, yet attracted to, the opulent civilization they serve with their swords. Although Conan is a white man from the northern land of Cimmeria and Juma a black man from the tropics of Kush, that difference in background is of no consequence to their friendship.
Juma also appears in the de Camp-Carter novel Conan the Buccaneer. After years of separation, the friends are reunited, with Conan now a pirate and Juma king of a burgeoning tribal nation. Juma helps Conan in a quest for an artifact called the Cobra Crown. But the Kushite’s reappearance is just one of many incidents in the novel.
In Conan the Hero, however, Juma is one of the main characters, as the action in the novel occurs during the two barbarians’ stint in the Turanian military. They become enmeshed in multiple skeins of political and sorcerous intrigue, with several sub-plots reflecting Carpenter’s Vietnam motif.
The stand-in country for Vietnam is a tropical land called Venjipur. The distant empire of Turan seeks to impose its rule on the equivalent of Southeast Asia; the Venji are not amenable. Under their leader, a wizard named Mojurna, a group of insurgents called the Hwong make life difficult for the occupying force.
Reviewer “raif10” accuses Carpenter of loading Conan the Hero with “every Vietnam cliche in the book.” Well, one reviewer’s “cliche” is another reviewer’s “trope.” All I’ll say is that the Vietnam references are far from subtle, beginning with Venjipur’s endless acres of rice paddies.
The Red Garrottes are an unflattering analogue to the Green Berets. Elephants take the place of tanks. Like the Viet Cong, the Hwong blend seamlessly with the local peasant population. The Americans called the Viet Cong “gooks”; the Turanians refer to the Hwong as “monkeys.” A drug trade undermines the Turanian forces. The Turanian House of Seers, a sorcerous counterpart to the Pentagon and Defense Department, devises elaborate spells that fail to function as planned. Political intrigue abounds in the court of Emperor Yildiz in Aghrapur as an anti-war movement gains momentum …
So, where do Conan and Juma fit in this maelstrom of machinations? It seems Yildiz has gotten the notion that he can boost public acceptance of the Venji War by extolling a heroic figure who would embody the valor of all Turanian troops fighting in a far-off land. Even though Conan is a foreigner, and only 19 years old, Yildiz picks the young warrior because of his proven prowess on the jungle battleground.
But other Turanians, in both the capital and Venjipur, aren’t all that happy with the Emperor’s plan. So Conan, with Juma watching his back, must beware not only the Hwong, but also some of his fellow troops, including certain officers who are more jealous than zealous.
The storyline alternates between Turan and Venjipur. In one strange sequence, Conan, suffering from a serious leg wound, is trapped in the palace of Phang Loon, the Warlord of Venjipur. In a drugged daze, Conan apparently sees Juma lying dead from torture; a Turanian friend named Babrak hopelessly addicted to the black lotus; and his Venji love interest Sariya held captive and crazed with abject fear.
With the aid of an elephant, Conan escapes Phang Loon’s grasp. In the next chapter, we see that Juma, Babrak and Sariya are alive and well even as Conan recovers from the effects of his wound and the drugs, which must have been a Hyborian-age equivalent of LSD and magic mushrooms.
Therefore, what Conan saw in Phang Loon’s palace had to have been a series of hallucinations — the mother of bad trips. But neither Conan nor his friends make any reference to his belief that they were dead and captured, and the reader is left to cling to unconfirmed assumptions.
Ultimately, Conan and Juma end up in Aghrapur, along with a mysterious gift from the Venji. An attempted coup against Yildiz fails, thanks to Conan. And the “gift” is not what it appears to be.
Shaken but still secure on his throne, the Emperor decides to stop the Venji War. Conan and Juma are rewarded for their heroics, but the end of the story proves bittersweet for the Cimmerian.
The friendship between Conan and Juma comes across as realistic, unlike certain contrived “interracial-buddy” movies. Conan is the more impetuous of the pair. Although Juma enjoys carousing, he has a prudent streak that sometimes irks the Cimmerian. Their ambience is similar to that between the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk, minus the racial bantering.
Conan the Hero shows Carpenter’s strengths in writing action and detail. But sometimes, the plot of the novel hangs by the slenderest of threads. Were it not for the Conan-Juma element and the Vietnam allegory, this book would not stand out in the crowd of Conan pastiches. As it is, it only rises about half-a-head above that crowd.