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Legion from the Shadows by Karl Edward Wagner

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_9192021nLnODdJxFor those raised in this day of pure unadulterated Robert E. Howard texts, it may interest you to learn that once upon a time a flourishing industry of pastiche publication existed. There were only so many Howard stories to satisfy hordes of swords & sorcery fans, so the powers that were created more. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the masterminds as it were, behind the pastiche industry were either greedy exploiters of Howard’s legacy or passionate fans who saw the need for further Howardian adventures. As a fan myself at the time, I was quite happy to buy and read a lot of them. Most weren’t better than alright but they scratched an itch.

De Camp (who fiddled mercilessly with Howard’s own short stories) and Carter wrote some of the weakest pastiches. For all his involvement with Howard’s fiction, de Camp never seemed to understand its nuance and why it worked. By education he was an engineer, and the need for things to be logical and systematic undermines his fiction. Carter, sadly, just didn’t have the talent to mimic the writer whose work he loved so dearly.

Unknown Swedish author, Bjorn Nyberg wrote The Return of Conan (1957). Decades later famous authors such as Poul Anderson and Andrew Offut tried their hands at the game. Howard Andrew Jones wrote a good piece on the pasticheurs a while back. Eventually a critical mass of fans and academics rose up, rightly so, to decry the inferior copies — and really, most were — of Howard’s creations.

There’s one Conan pastiche novel I remember truly liking: The Road of Kings (1979) by Karl Edward Wagner. It was good; equal parts dark and exciting. You can read Charles Rutledge’s review from a few years back here.

Wagner wrote another Howard pastiche, continuing the adventures not of Conan, but of the Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn. Called Legion from the Shadows (1976), it starts with the destruction of the Roman IX Legion in second century Caledonia under the blades of the savage Picts. My love of all things Wagner, my fond memory of The Road of Kings, and my review of The IX last week (a sci-fi take on the legion’s disappearance), combined to make me grab LftS off the shelf.

I picked up this book with stars in my eyes for all the reasons I just mentioned. It seemed destined to be my next read and my next great find. It’s by someone I like and it’s got a terrific cover by Jeff Jones. There are lots (and lots!) of books I haven’t yet read. Some of them are bound to be great. A few might even be true lost treasures. Legion from the Shadows is not one of those.

oie_9191638Q9yMOV13 (1)Wagner’s novel is a direct sequel to Howard’s own Bran Mak Morn story, “Worms of the Earth.” If for some reason you haven’t yet read it, you should. Published in 1932, it’s one of the ur-texts of S&S. To avenge his tribesman, crucified at the behest of the sadistic Roman governor, Bran secures the aid of the titular Worms of the Earth, a monstrous race of degenerate subterranean semi-human creatures. It all ends in bloody death and horror, and Bran realizes some forces are too hideous to use even against one’s most hated enemy.

Relying on dark forces to win your fights also comes with a price, as Bran learns in this book. He has awoken a power that has been slumbering and now it has its own plans to put into effect. It’s made clear that willing or not, the Pictish king will honor his debt.

Buried in Wagner’s 250 page novel is a decent shot of heroic fiction. Bran comes face to face with the descendants of the vanished IX Legion. There are battles in dank, pitch black places under the ground. Bran’s sister Morgain is a great character and the chapters told from her perspective are more exciting and disturbing than those starring the king himself.

The author’s talent as a horror writer shines through several times, creating creepy atmosphere and shivers for at least a page or two:

Pale faces crowded the hallway beyond the door to Morgain’s chamber. Someone held a lamp high, peering open-mouthed within. Reeling away, a maidservant sputtered in sickness. Bran thrust them all aside and flung himself into his sister’s room.

The endless scream came from the throat of Helta, Morgain’s maidservant, although it took a second for Bran to recognize the fear-distorted face and the eyes that stared wide with madness. Her stark gaze centered on the shape that sprawled obscenely upon the fur robes of Morgain’s couch.

Bran groaned through clenched teeth. Veins stood out from his blood-caked brow. Staring at the object on Morgain’s bed, the king of Pictdom swayed dizzily, black rage roaring in his brain.

Nestled in the depression in the furs where Bran’s sister had lain was a shape of horror beyond any human depravity. The young girl’s skin had been meticulously flayed from her body — cunningly sewed together again. The lamplight made the skin translucent, so that Bran could see the hollow skin had been stuffed with hundreds — many hundreds — of human eyes.

That’s one of the most horrific images I’ve encountered reading S&S in quite some time. If there was more of that, more of the desperate fights in the tunnels — if Bran was as compelling as Morgain — then Legion from the Shadows might have been a good book.

Instead, there are long stretches of exposition, backstory, history, and more exposition. Nearly whole chapters are given over to detailing the story of Howard’s Picts, who occupy the entire span of his invented history, from the tales of King Kull of Valusia in 100,000 BC to the Bran stories in 200 AD. Similar excruciating attention is given to the Serpent Men, so that there is absolutely nothing left unsaid about these ancient foes of humanity.

Wagner does a decent job presenting Howard’s fictive history. In it, pseudo-history meshes with our reality, and ancient races rise and fall, battling other races, degenerate, in-bred and utterly evil. It’s interesting, and great background for the story, but it has no more plot than an encyclopedia article.

oie_10055435eX3xmEUThen there’s the lack of action. When it does come, it’s delivered with Wagner’s usual, bone-crunching, neck-snapping style, but there’s not enough of it to give LftS any real momentum. A character with potential for excitement will show up and then fizzle out. Bran himself spends what feels like half the book in chains or a cage. When he gets to lead an army into battle, the battle doesn’t even happen.

LftS never feels like a completely organic book. I think Wagner had a decent story idea in mixing together the aftermath of Bran’s adventure in “Worms of the Earth” with the fate of the IX Legion. To pad it out to novel length he ladled on the sections of faux-history. But then he also added in pages filled with explanations and conversations bereft of action. It all seems fit together poorly, with the only goals being to get more “Howard” in front of the fans while making it long enough be considered a full-length book.

And there are other problems. Anachronisms in characters’ thoughts and speech would jar me out of any sort of atmosphere that had finally managed to form. The worst is when Bran, wondering how another character can see so well in the dark, shrugs off his concerns thinking “(she) was obviously not one of those afflicted with nyctalopia.” I doubt very much a 2nd century barbarian thought the 17th century medical term “nyctalopia.”

There is no book I’ve reviewed at Black Gate that I’m sadder to be unable to recommend. I had no qualms about warning readers off Lin Carter’s first two Thongor books. But Carter wasn’t a skilled, original writer like Wagner. Wagner is one of the most important S&S writers ever. Better than anyone, he brought out the darkness in the genre. He was also an important voice for the presentation of unadulterated Robert E. Howard. He was my gateway to swords & sorcery. And none of that matters in Legion from the Shadows. So if you don’t own it already, you don’t need to pick up a copy. If you do own it, there’s no great urgency to read it. You haven’t missed anything.


  1. I think this was the only Conan pastiche I ever read. Like Rutledge, I would have preferred if Wagner had written another Kane novel.

    Interesting how neither you nor Rutledge nor anybody else mentions Robert Jordan! *That* bad, huh?

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - March 10, 2015 12:12 pm

  2. Well, for one thing, I think there’s a qualitative (and quantitative) difference between the early pastiches — the De Camp/Carter/Nyberg stuff, plus the six books from Bantam (including Road of Kings, plus volumes from Andrew Offut and Poul Anderson) — and the nigh-endless reams of Conan books that Tor was pumping out later in the 1980s & 1990s, at which point I’m not sure if any actual Howard Conan was even in print. The earlier stuff at least had the slight advantage of presenting itself as people building on Howard’s foundation.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 10, 2015 12:50 pm

  3. I recommend John Maddox Roberts’ ‘Conan the Rogue.’ It incorporates a lot of Dashiell Hammet’s ‘Red Harvest’ which is a classic hard boiled novel. Roberts did a nice job mixing the two genres. I think it was the best of the Tor books I’ve read so far.

    I didn’t mind the six Jordan books (not counting the movie novelization). I’ll probably read them again some day. I definitely don’t say that about some of the Tor ones.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 10, 2015 1:21 pm

  4. I TRIED to read the Jordan Conans. There’s a link in the article that leads to an article that describes my reaction…

    My favorite pastiche, above even Road of Kings, is Conan and the Emerald Lotus, reachable through a link in the preceding link. Or here:

    Fletcher, I too had been looking forward to reading Legion From the Shadows, and have been saving it for some appropriate time. Like an airplane flight. I’m glad for your review, which lays bear exactly what’s wrong. You’ve saved me the bother.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - March 10, 2015 1:22 pm

  5. I’ll second Bob’s comment on the worthiness of John Maddox Roberts’ Conan books.

    After I wrote my pastiche article I read all of the Maddox Roberts Conans but the one Ryan Harvey named the weakest (Conan and the Amazon). Of those, four are definitely good reads: Conan the Rogue, Conan and the Treasure of Python (a riff on King Solomon’s Mines), Conan the Marauder, (basically Conan meets up with a Genghis Khan like conqueror and his horde), and Conan and the Manhunters.

    Leonard Carpenter’s “Conan the Raider” is fun, and his strongest.

    Of the Offutt Conan’s, the first is the best, and worth a look: Conan and the Sorcerer. The second one isn’t quite as good but is still head and shoulders above most. The third one was going along at a nice clip until Conan raped a woman who’d been trying to kill him, which was when I stopped reading. I suppose we might assume Conan would do that at some point given his plans in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” but it just wasn’t very pleasant to read about. And it could be argued that REH never showed him having sex without consent. Conan does have a rough moral code, after all.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - March 10, 2015 1:40 pm

  6. @Aonghus – I forgot to mention Jordan but I also never read them. By the time they appeared I wasn’t reading much S&S.

    @Joe H – I think you’re right. At some point the pastiche writers seem to have been riffing more on their immediate predecessors and the movies than REH.

    @Bob – I keep hearing good things about the JMR books – I’ll have to keep my eyes open for them.

    @Howard – and I’ll keep my eyes open for JHocking’s as well. I’ve always meant to read the Offutt trilogy, so thanks for the heads up about the third one. From the article here it’s pretty clear Offutt had some serious issues regarding sex and violence.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - March 10, 2015 2:44 pm

  7. Fletcher, I almost mentioned that. Knowing that put an even worse spin on the scene, because that article came out only days after I put the book down.

    I tried to read the Poul Anderson novel and some 60 pages in it didn’t seem to be going anywhere very fast. There were some good action scenes but I wasn’t attached to any of the people in them. Also, Conan had barely made an appearance yet. So I figured I had better things to do with my time, reading wise. I’ve read and really enjoyed some other Poul Anderson — some of his historicals are real blood-and-thunder — so I was a little surprised.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - March 10, 2015 3:22 pm

  8. @Howard – Last year or so I’d been planning on reading Conan the Rebel until you wrote about your inability to get into it. I think his fantasy writing is even better than his sci-fi so that was disappointing to read.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - March 10, 2015 5:20 pm

  9. I wonder if that’s one of the Great Blunders (right after that bit about a land war in Asia) — Never write a Conan novel by just basically writing the sort of historical fantasy you’re already known for, but then set it in the Hyborean Age and have the big guy make an appearance …

    (Next on the list: Never write a Conan novel when all you know about the character is what you remember from the photonovel of Conan the Destroyer.)

    Comment by Joe H. - March 10, 2015 6:21 pm

  10. it’s only fair to mention that even REH didn’t hit a home run every time he wrote about Conan – some of the stories are just routine.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - March 10, 2015 6:31 pm

  11. Oh, some of Howard’s stories, Conan and otherwise, are downright bad. I don’t think it’d be possible to write as much as he wrote, as fast as he wrote, without some stinkers in the bunch.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 10, 2015 7:03 pm

  12. Aw, I gotta defend Anderson’s Conan the Rebel. I’ve read it twice.

    Yes, it’s pace falters a bit here and there, and yes, there are a number of plot elements that are less than Howardian.

    But it takes the Cimmerian to the oft-referenced lost Stygian city of Pteion, involves Conan with some good villains, has a number of solid action scenes (including the memorable hijacking of a sorcerous boat on the river Styx),and there is a unique example of sympathetic/voodoo-style magic being used on our hero.

    I cannot but admire the fact that Anderson wrote this novel to fit between chapter one and two of Howard’s mythic short story, Queen of the Black Coast, and tell the story of Conan’s life with the pirate queen Belit.
    That was a brave thing to do.

    And c’mon guys, the fellow won seven Hugos and three Nebulas, aren’t you curious to see how he did even if it isn’t perfect?

    Comment by John Hocking - March 10, 2015 7:30 pm

  13. @John H – (said a bit ashamedly) well, I do have a copy and I do like Anderson very much, so I guess I could still try it. 😉

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - March 10, 2015 7:40 pm

  14. I’ve read several Conan pastiche’s including one Howard mentioned. They’re all terrible. I can remember getting one at a book store even in the early 2000’s where Conan meets up with some cave men who invent beer. I can’t remember the author or name of the book, but it seemed obvious they had never really read any of REH’s originals much. I also blame these terribly written books for S&S almost vanishing after the 80’s.

    Comment by CMR - March 10, 2015 9:16 pm

  15. I usually agree with you on issues of old school S&S, but this time, I gotta disagree. This story is by far the best REH pastiche I have ever read. It captures Howard’s bleak, dark setting and tone that makes Worms of the Earth so good. True, it is padded out to novel length, no doubt to please the pulishers, and would be better as a novella. But no one comes closer than KEW to capturing Howard’s feel in a pastiche, at least from what I have encountered; I really like this book. Anyone who likes REH or KEW should give it a shot and judge for themselves!

    Comment by thedarkman - March 11, 2015 12:43 pm

  16. @CMR – I think the success of doorstopper series did more to kill S&S than REH pastiches. What publisher’s going to keep putting out 150 page books that sell alright when they can put out bigger, pricier ones that sell loads of copies?

    @darkman – I admit, much of my dislike of the book more is due to having high expectations from KEW. Like I wrote, there’s a good novella inside Legion, but the padding hurts. If you’ve read any REH before you’ve read all same fake history before. If this book had been written by Lin Carter I might have been much kinder to it.

    And hey, you like Drake’s The Dragon Lord (essentially, another REH pastiche) more than I did too 😉

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - March 11, 2015 9:56 pm

  17. I don’t think S&S outright vanished after the 80s — it just mostly moved into the licensed fiction shelves; the Forgotten Realms and Warhammer books &c.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 11, 2015 10:29 pm

  18. Hey Joe, I have never tried any Warhammer or other books tied into gaming(I am not a gamer, alas!). What ones echo old time S&S? Any suggestions? Always looking for more sword swinging sword and sorcery to fix my itch!

    Comment by thedarkman - March 11, 2015 10:47 pm

  19. Darkman — The most obvious suggestion I can think of is William King’s Gotrek & Felix books (starting with Trollslayer) — they’re Warhammer novels. These days King also self-publishes some really solid non-tie-in S&S novels.

    I honestly haven’t read a lot of the D&D Forgotten Realms books myself; R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt books are probably the best-known of the bunch, though.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 11, 2015 11:06 pm

  20. thedarkman,

    My favorite Warhammer include some of the Gotrek & Felix (the middle ones are stronger) the Brunner collection by C.L. Werner, and Nathan Long’s Blackhearts omnibus, as well as Nathan Long’s Ulrika books.

    As far as I’m concerned, Brunner and Blackhearts stand RIGHT up there with some of the best sword-and-sorcery ever written, above even really good tie-in. They really ought to have a wider audience. I haven’t yet read the third Ulrika or the rest of Gotrek & Felix to be able to comment upon the entire series, but they’re quite strong.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - March 12, 2015 7:03 am

  21. […] on a great post by Fletcher Vredenburgh about Karl Edward Wagner’s Bran Mak Morn novel (over at Black […]

    Pingback by On Conan and Writing | Howard Andrew Jones Howard Andrew Jones - March 16, 2015 11:36 am

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