I usually grab one of the three excellent Del Rey volumes (which Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward entertainingly went through – here’s the first installment) and get a quick fix. For a little more reading, I snag one of the Ace/Lancer series edited by L Sprague De Camp (with some help from Lin Carter). And less often, I find one of the Tor paperbacks that I haven’t gotten around to yet and try one of them.
As I mentioned in this post on what qualifies as Conan Canon (say that five times fast!) back in 2015:
‘From 1982 through 2003, eight authors (though primarily four) cranked out 43 new Conan novels for Tor. At two per year, the quality varied wildly, as you can imagine. John M. Roberts’ Conan the Rogue is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and one of my favorite Conan books. Steve Perry’s Conan the Indomitable is one of the worst fantasy books I’ve ever read (even though it is a direct sequel to Perry’s Conan the Defiant, which I liked).’
I have maybe two-thirds of the Tor books and have read two-thirds of those (What: I’m channeling Yogi Berra now?). Some of the Tor titles give you at least a bit of an idea what the story is about, such as John M. Roberts’ Conan and the Treasure of the Python and Leonard Carpenter’s Conan of the Red Brotherhood.
But the majority are all titled Conan the (insert vague word here). It’s a litany of titles like Conan the Valorous, Conan the Defiant, Conan the Great, Conan the Formidable: you get the idea. You’ve got to read the back cover to get some clue what the story is about.
The Tor books, pushed out at a punishing pace, are very much a mixed bag. And my experience so far is that more often than not, they fall into the “meh” or worse category.
It’s Not Robert E. Howard
Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain and a LOT of people write stories about the great detective. Quite a few of them, myself included, try to emulate the voice and tone of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Naturally, there are mixed results. A relatively small number of authors, such as Hugh Ashton, Denis O. Smith and June Thomson, do a masterful job of emulating Doyle.
And there are a fair number of folks who write stories in which you can at least get some sense of Doyle’s style. If they have a reasonable amount of skill at plotting and narrative, those can be a good read. Finally, there are a lot of pastiche writers who either have no clue how to write like Doyle, or simply don’t care and don’t bother to try. Those are usually not among my favorites.
As I’ve indicated with this post, and this one and this one…I’m a huge fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. And I’m flattered to be able to say that some folks have told me they’ve read some of my own Wolfe writings and thought that they were actually Stout’s.
Coming from this mystery background, where a lot of effort is made to emulate the original author’s style, something that has struck me about the Tor series is that the pastiche authors didn’t try to write like Robert E. Howard.
Now, I happen to think that Howard is as of yet unsurpassed as the greatest fantasy writer of all time. I don’t think anybody puts words together and tells the story as well as he did. The actual writing (not plotting, whatever, but the way he uses words and the order he puts them in) often makes me pause and admire it. I can’t think of any other author I can say that about.
So, I don’t know to what degree the Tor authors would have been able to emulate Howard successfully. But we are talking about professional fantasy writers and they certainly could have done so to some extent. I am a big fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and he wrote the first six Tor books (I’m discounting the ‘we’ll make it fit, even though it doesn’t’ tie-in to the Conan the Destroyer movie). I like the Jordan Conans, though I know quite a few folks who don’t. But from what I remember of them, he wrote much more like Jordan than Howard.
Ooh – I think I’ll use either Jordan Howard or Howard Jordan as my pen name for a Conan pastiche! Okay…back to reality.
So, we’ve got some forty-ish Conan books that don’t read like Howard. I won’t call it jarring, but I absolutely do not feel like I’m reading the authentic Conan with the Tor series because there’s not much Howard in the writing style.
So You’ve Got ‘Sort of Conan’
Of course, some of the books are better Conan tales than others. I mentioned the Dashiell Hammett influence of Conan the Rogue earlier, which I really enjoyed. Hammett, of course is the master of the hard boiled school of mystery fiction and Roberts does a very nice job of incorporating Hammett’s Red Harvest (one of my favorites) into a Conan story.
And Chris Hocking’s Conan and the Emerald Lotus may be the best of the Tor bunch. But the storytelling varies wildly across books and even authors. In this review of Harry Turtledove’s Conan of Venarium, I wrote about how I thought his take on Cimmerian society was completely off. But I found the picture painted by John Maddox Roberts in Conan the Valorous to be quite believable.
Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the (Tomb) Raider wasn’t particularly outstanding in its Conan characterization, but it was a pretty fun fantasy novel and one I rather like.
So, when you pick up a Tor Conan, you have books which don’t emulate the original author’s style; that were written in a hurry; that vary in the author’s take on the character; and that also vary widely in quality of plotting and just plain old writing ability. That is absolutely the recipe for a mixed bag of results! And my experience has definitely ranged from a pretty good book to absolutely terrible.
Unfortunately, while finding a good one isn’t quite as rare as finding a pearl in an oyster, as a whole, the line is not a major work of fantasy.
Roland Green wrote seven Conan books for Tor and I’m pretty sure I have read his Conan and the Gods of the Mountain. While I like Valeria of the Red Brotherhood (A Howard character), I thought that the book was rather weak (assuming I’m not confusing it with another, which is not beyond my capabilities). But I decided, rather than grab a Leonard Carpenter or a Steve Perry, I’d try a Green.
Conan the Relentless is set in the Border Kingdom. This is a wild, untamed area in the vein of Golarion’s The Stolen Lands from the Pathfinder world setting. There are no large cities and the titular King Eloikas, is fighting off the upstart Count Szyambry. The twenty-three year old Conan is just passing through on his way from Cimmeria to Nemedia, where he was going to look for wine, women and gold. He’s coming off his adventures involving the Frost Giant’s daughter and the ice worm.
SPOILERS FOLLOW – YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN
He runs into some bandits who are about to ambush a caravan of the king. While he originally intends to aid the bandits, he discovers that the caravan is led by his former lover and sword companion, Raihna, who we had already met in Conan the Valiant. Mid-ambush, Conan switches sides and leads Raihna’s bunch to victory. He truly is a one man force.
Conan sticks with Raihna, whose mercenary band agrees to aid King Eloika against the County. Neither side has a very large force and Szyambry is courting a local tribe, the Pougoi, to aid him. The tribe includes some powerful magic users, the Star Brothers, who have summoned some powerful creature. It might be something from out of space or an ancient time, but it lives at the bottom of a lake, like Tolkien’s watcher in the mere outside Moria, and the Star Brothers sacrifice victims to it.
There’s some Tom Bombadil-like character named Marr the Piper who plays a set of magical pipes, which has power against the creature in a defensive sort of way.
The muscular Conan is, of course irresistible to the opposite sex and in short order sleeps with Raihna, a princess and the beautiful tribal maiden. Though overall, this one is relatively low on the Conan sex scale.
Conan leads a rescue mission that results in a confrontation with the creature and then a rather well-written battle and climax between the King and the Count. As usual, Conan is offered a position with the winning side, but declines and continues his trek to Nemedia, having established order in the Border Kingdom.
Aybas was a warrior working for Szyambry and essentially his diplomat to the Pougi. I thought that he was an interesting character, offered the redemption motif and he definitely got his share of page time. Raihna is a suitable companion for Conan and can more than hold her own as a female lead. However, she did not appear in a third story.
Having liked Conan the Relentless, I decided to double up on Green and went with the more descriptively titled Conan and the Mists of Doom. As is often the case with the Tor series, one good book did not lead to another. Here, we have a Conan of some thirty-five years, travelling through the desert between Zamboula and Khauran, with a small band of loyal Afghulis (fierce tribesmen).
It’s a bit roundabout, but Conan ends up agreeing to aid Khezal, a companion from his Turan days, even though the man has hunted down Conan’s band, killed some of the men and taken Conan prisoner.
The Lady of the Mists, a powerful sorceress, served by obedient warrior Maidens, is stirring up trouble in the Kezankian Mountains. She has the ability to use the dark magic of ancient Acheron and Khezal, who has lands in the area she is kidnapping villagers from, enlists Conan’s help to stop her.
This one was a sloooow read and I struggled to stick with it to the finish. Simply put, it wasn’t very interesting. The many sections that focus on the Lady and her captain, Muhbaras, weren’t compelling. And the Conan-centric parts were all basically the same: flights and fights in the desert terrain. I wasn’t really invested at all in this book.
Green does get Conan’s dislike of sorcery correct. And the Cimmerian is loyal to his band of tribesmen, leading them through thick and thin. But the plot didn’t grab me and outside of Conan, there wasn’t really a character I cared about. I wasn’t even worried about how things turned out with Muhbaras.
Usually, when I read a good Tor and it’s followed by a bad one, it scratches my itch for the series and it’s a while before I try another one. I’ve re-read the REH and Ace/Lancer books more than once, even though I still haven’t gotten to quite a few Tor books.
Chronologically, the next story is better: it’s Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow (Xuthal of the Dusk).”
But these two Green books are representative of the Tor series. The quality of the story varies widely and even in the ones I like, I’m quite aware that I’m reading an imitation Conan – not something that makes me feel like it’s almost Robert E. Howard’s creation. Again: writing like REH is a tall order, but an attempt would have been nice. I did like Conan the Relentless and it’s probably in the upper half of the Tor books. But Conan and the Mists of Doom is definitely not.
12/19/17 UPDATE – NEW PASTICHES COMING
As I wrote here, 2018 will see the first of a line of new pastiches based on Robert E. Howard’s characters. Not only will we see the first new Conan pastiche since Turtledove’s 2002 Venarium book, but other REH characters should see a return as well. I’m hoping El Borak, Solomon Kane and Steve Harrison will make the cut.
1/4/2018 UPDATE – MORE ON TOR’S PASTICHES
I kicked off the new year with a post on some of the better Tor pastiches, with some help from Howard Andrew Jones and Ryan Harvey. And I do a bit of the usual roaming around, though still in the Conan pastiche field.
Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March 10, 2014 through March 20, 2017. He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.