By Crom: The Tor Conan – Quality May Vary…

By Crom: The Tor Conan – Quality May Vary…

Conan_RogueEvery so often, I get the hankering to read a tale of Conan the Cimmerian (better known as ‘The Barbarian’ thanks to Ah-nuld Schwarzenmuscles).

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

Conan_REHSherlock 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’

Conan_JordanOf 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

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_RelentlessConan 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.


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.

Conan_MistsHaving 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.


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.


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.

He founded, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV and V and VI.

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James McGlothlin

“Now, I happen to think that Howard is as of yet unsurpassed as the greatest fantasy writer of all time.”

Whoa! Big claim! I would claim that REH is the greatest sword and sorcery writer of all time but I’m still partial towards Tolkien as holding the main title. However, the more I read REH, the more I’m struck with his poetic style and pacing. I for one think that REH’s poetry needs MUCH revisiting for it holds a key, I believe, to seeing the genius of his prose.

Major Wootton

Tolkien and Howard both wrote “fantasy,” but in most important respects they are so different that debating which is greater is like asking which is better, oranges or algebra. They’re not trying to write the same sort of book, just as Dickens wasn’t trying to write the same kind of book as Harlan Coben. Tolkien had not interest in writing the sort of story Howard wanted to write — a narrative much of whose effectiveness depended on the reader not paying close attention, as is the case, say with Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” Conversely, I have read LotR a dozen times or so, and haven’t yet uncovered all its riches, I’m sure.

Amy Bisson

I remember many years ago reading an interview with Steve Perry where he mentioned that his Conan books were written for specific purposes, so he gave them private nicknames like “Conan because the Car Needs a New Transmission” or “Conan because my Kid Needs Braces”. Ironically enough, I believe the interview was published while he was deep in the writing of his Alien tie-ins.


I hate to nitpick but Conan and the Emerald Lotus (which I agree was a decent pastiche) was written by JOHN Hocking, not Chris 🙂

I read Karl Edward Wagner’s pastiches after hearing they were pretty good but despite liking Wagner’s other work, I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t like the pacing, something most Howard pastiches struggle with since Howard was so relentless, and I thought Wagner was sort of condescending toward Conan, although I can’t recall specifically why.


I recently bought a big stack of the Tor Conan books and I’ve been working through them.

Howard really is vastly underrated as a stylist. But he really wrote so powerfully, and with such a unique voice, that I think attempting to emulate his voice would likely end in disaster.

I’m surprised, but not displeased, that the authors didn’t try to copy Howard on a more superficial level. In the six books I’ve read thus far, I think I’ve seen the word “thews” exactly twice.

What is troubling is that the authors simply don’t “get” Conan as a character. Nor do they really try to.

Jordan’s first Conan book is mediocre, but the other two from his first omnibus are excellent. Conan the Defender I remembered very well despite having first read it 20 years ago.

John Maddox Roberts’ Conan the Champion is really good. He “gets” Conan better than Jordan does, even if Jordan is overall the better storyteller. Steve Perry’s Conan the Fearless is atrocious.

John Hocking

Hey Andy, don’t jab Bob too hard about my name.
I’m John Christopher Hocking. John in most official capacities and Chris to my family and friends.
So it’s all good.


I have finally collected all 43 of the Tor novels (and doubled up on those published in oversized pb). Yes, they are not Howard, but they serve a great purpose in giving us new tales of the Cimmerian. Much like Savage Sword and all the comics, many fans simply want more, more, more. Howard’s originals spoke to keeping the tales going – no specific end. Very much open-ended. The tales could go on forever filling in the gaps in the timeline.
I truly wish the license was open again for a new wave of authors to try their hand at the story.


The Tor Conan series was good for new and relatively unknown fantasy writers. The quality definitely varied and maybe Conan shouldn’t be the character to cut your teeth on. But de Camp, as one of the editors/advisors, was pretty good about letting new writers get a shot and making sure they got a fair shake. Darrell Schweitzer told a story about a Conan pastiche he wrote around the same time the series ended and de Camp made sure he got paid for his work. I’d like to see a new Conan novel about once a year. I think the market could support that. The tendency to over saturate bothered me.

John Hocking

Nice look at the pastiche world, Bob.
Yeah, it’s all over the map in terms of style.

For my own part, I tried to duplicate some of REH’s effects without trying to actually duplicate his prose style.
I think it worked okay, if kinda sporadically. But making the prose Howardian really seemed of less than central importance.

To my mind, writing a pastiche was not an attempt to simply make “more Conan”—more stories that would fit into what was already a ragged and contradictory saga.
It was an attempt to pay homage to an author, a character and an era that I had loved since childhood. Seriously, my pastiche was less a story than a salute.
So everything from pulpy turns of phrase, to references to other tales, to assigning the book a place in the character’s history was done with an eye to reminding a reader of REH, of Conan’s adventures both canon and pastiche, and especially of the glory days of the pulps in general and Weird Tales in particular. As a novel, I think the book suffers for this, but if you’re of a similar turn of mind then maybe it has a little something extra for you

Nice article and discussion.

I don’t know that I’ve ever claimed myself that REH was the greatest fantasy writer, but I HAVE said he’s one of my three favorite writers (Lamb and Brackett are the other two). I think in recent years I’ve added some additional favorite writers, but those may still be my top three.

Anyway, he had the right stuff, and that lovely, sweeping way with words. I’m in full agreement with what James M said up above about Robert E. Howard’s poetry being worthy of more appreciation and being a key to understanding the power of his prose.

A good poet makes every word count because there’s so little room inside a rhyme scheme to fudge and waste space. All those poems, all that thinking in meter absolutely had an impact on how REH approached the crafting of his prose.

I’m in full agreement with everdayshouldbetuesday, writing that so many writers don’t get Conan. It’s a danged shame. I love the character, and what makes him great seems fairly obvious until you trip over thousands of pages of prose and comics where people clearly didn’t get what made him tick, or what was cool about the Hyborian age, and so on. For instance, I think people took Roy Thomas for granted. Even in those instances when he wasn’t writing a top-notch Conan story, at least Conan acted and sounded like the real thing.

I bounced off of the Jordan Conans. I tried a few of them and it just didn’t feel like Conan. You make me wonder if maybe I didn’t give up too soon. Here are the ones I read and loved. Some of the writers I didn’t explore deeply, having heard from others whose opinions I trusted that they were fairly dreadful:

Joe H.

The thing Howard and Tolkien and Lovecraft have in common is that so many of their would-be inheritors clearly just don’t get what made them tick — they get caught up too much in the surface details (the reaving or the tentacles or the Dark Lord) without any kind of deeper understanding.

Mick Gall

I would love a numbered, ranked list of favorite Conan pastiches, from best to worst. That way I would know how to best utilize that $5 bill at the used bookstore!

Tony Den

Cool article. I have read a few but surely not all the pastiches, most actually published via sphere books but end of the day same story. Have a few of the Tor ones as well. One I always recall enjoying was Conan the Marauder by John Maddox Roberts, where he was with the Kozaki.

John Hocking

“John Chris Hocking’s ‘The Emerald Lotus’ is another that has nary a bad word said about it.”

While that is very kind it is also very far from the truth. Lotus has been given plenty of critical hammering.
Just check out the Amazon reviews.
Better yet, check out the reviews on Amazon Canada, where Conan and the Emerald Lotus received this headline:
“Dreary poorly plotted rubbish”.

I can still find reasons to be proud of the book, but it certainly didn’t set any records for popularity or critical esteem.


Here are my very favorites, ones that I will likely re-read, which is my benchmark any more.

Hocking: Conan and the Emerald Lotus
Roberts: (not sure how to rank them)Conan and the Treasure of Python, Conan the Marauder, Conan and the Manhunters, Conan the Rogue
Wagner: The Road of Kings
Offut: Conan and the Sorcerer
Carpenter: Conan the Raider

Mick, Bob’s right in that Sorcerer is the first part of a trilogy. But don’t let that dissuade you. It’s pretty loosely connected. I didn’t mention the second book in the trilogy because it’s kind of talky, and the third because I object to it for probably the same reasons as Bob.

In Sorcerer, though, Offutt has Conan acting like he should and having a pretty enjoyable adventure. There’s one thread of that book that doesn’t get resolved until the next, and a character that reoccurs in the third book, but I still held onto the first book after I parted with the first two, thinking I’d like to re-read it some day.


Actually you should than Marvel Comics for Conan “the Barbarian” not Arnold.


I have a soft spot for Poul Anderson’s Conan the Rebel, though my favorite pastiches remain Wagner’s Road of Kings and John Hockings’ Emerald Lotus. The Stackpole novelization was *much* better than the movie, by the way.


I recently purchased this:

It is not “authorized” and really just a tribute as it were, but it is still something new. It is a quick read, an enjoyable take and worth the effort. Sure, it isn’t amazing literature, but it was a quick night’s read with a glass of good bourbon and an old friend.
Sometimes that is all we need.

Scott, sell me on Conan the Rebel. I was about 60 pages in and had barely glimpsed Conan and couldn’t find it in me to care about the characters who WERE on the page. Does it get better from there?


It does, I believe, but if you’re not on board by page 60 it’s not going to be your cuppa. It’s definitely Anderson’s Conan and not REH’s, but the uprising in the desert, the faux-Egyptian setting, and the ghoul horde really spoke to young Scott. I recall poring over Anderson’s battle scenes, dissecting them and looking for ways to make my own scenes ring more true.


I’ve had a hankering lately for picking up some of these books, – I guess I’ve got maybe a 1/3 of them.
I really like to see some of the big authors of today take a shot, I would think Abercrombie or Mark Lawerance, would have a pretty wild take on Conan


Bob, I know the rights holders are aware of it, but I’m not sure why it’s still being sold. I’m curious about that, myself.

I’d like to see an anthology of Hyborian Age short stories, from the likes of Howard Jones, Keith Taylor, John Hocking, etc. That’d be awesome!


I also would like to chime in on the covers of the Tor novels – the majority were fantastic. I love the oversized pbs and am trying to collect all of those – does anyone have a complete listing of those versions?

The cover art can very much play a part in what one buys. Look at the Horseclans series – the actual stories are very hit and miss, but the Ken Kelly artwork i s phenomenal and whay i have the entire collection.

Joe H.

As opposed to the eBook editions of the Horseclans, where the covers are frankly horrific. Like, bad, horsey romance horrific.


indeed, Joe H. Those covers are atrocious. What a disservice. I also need to track down the Whelan John Carter and Elric paperbacks. I have read all the tales, but those overs are iconic.


Regarding the covers, Robert Jordan said that Tor figured out that the Conan books featuring some exposed buttcheek–male or female–always sold better than those that did not.


I am totally behind the idea of some new pastiche works, Conan or otherwise. I think Paradox/Cabinet dropped the ball on the last books by having them written as trilogies rather than stand alone novels (why does every thing have to be a trilogy?). I have not read all of the Tor pastiche books, but I liked all the John Maddox Roberts and the Hocking novels best. None that I read were in the “style ” of REH, but I understand that was deliberate. I would like to see someone give it a try with a Conan short story, and I bet Sott Oden or Keith Taylor could pull it off, based on their previous works. I myself have tried a Conan short just for fun (who hasn’t!), but if it echoes Howard even a little, well that is entirely subjective. Like Scott said earlier, a collection of REH themed tribute short fiction would be cool. And not just Conan. Bran Mak Morn, El Borak, Solomon Kane, James Allison, Cormac Mac Art, Cormac FitzGeoffrey and others would make for interesting and fun characters to write about. Either way, there is a demand for some new REH pastiche, and now is the time.


“I think Paradox/Cabinet dropped the ball on the last books by having them written as trilogies rather than stand alone novels (why does every thing have to be a trilogy?)”

What books are these?


Paradox/Cabinet trilogy?
Did I miss some books? Not sure what those titles are.

any help?

[…] Barbarian.’ Which gave me the itch to write something for Black Gate again. So, I did! Click on over for my thoughts on the Tor pastiches that were a very mixed […]


I’ve only just read my first non-Howard Conan novel, Conan and the Sorcerer and really enjoyed it. Looking for a copy of Conan The Mercenary in trade paperback. All I’m finding so far is the mass market edition.

I super-luckily won a near complete lot of 31 of the Tor Conan books. Every one of them in very to near mint condition! Very excited to crack into them. So I’m tickled pink to find this terrific article and fascinating set of comments Black Gate.

“I truly wish the license was open again for a new wave of authors to try their hand at the story.
Comment by ssiknaf”

I’m mystified why it’s been so long for any new Conan novels being published. I’d love to see some new Conan novels by our current crop of newer Fantasy authors.

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