Conan and The Fan Fic Writers of Doom
If I didn’t love the writing of Robert E. Howard I would probably never have bothered with any Conan pastiche. As a matter of fact, those Conan novels on store shelves in the ’70s and ’80s made me so skeptical of Conan that I didn’t try Robert E. Howard’s fiction until years later. I wrongly assumed that because the series looked cheap and mass produced that Howard’s writing would sound that way. (Robert E. Howard, of course, had NOTHING to do with the mass marketing of his character, having been dead for decades before that marketing was carried out by other hands.)
You can fit the sum total of all the Conan that Howard wrote (including some fragments and rejected stories) into one large hardback. That’s not a lot of fiction about such a great character, and so for decades people have been trying to create new tales of adventure starring Conan, mostly because they wanted MORE!
What makes those stories pastiche instead of fan fic, I suppose, is that many of these writers were paid to write it and the result was distributed widely. You would assume that meant that the work was well-edited and had some kind of consistency, but a lot of people, me among them, would tell you you’re wrong.
Some writers don’t quite get the character, or want to change him, or don’t understand that he actually does change, age to age, and is capable of greater subtlety/humor/intellect than is popularly assumed (just as REH’s writing is more complex than popularly imagined). Putting aside the whole discussion of whether or not it’s even right or proper to publish pastiche (especially when the actual Robert E. Howard books were out of print!) what are the best Conan pastiche novels?
Okay, so you want some more that feels a little bit like that, or that celebrates that character and setting in a proper way? Ryan Harvey and Morgan Holmes and John Chris Hocking have read far more deeply than I have, but I can make some general comments. First, I didn’t much enjoy Robert Jordan’s work with the character. His Conan novels were like ’70s era James Bond movies — some cool action bits and moments, but also a lot of cheese and too much ’70s sex vibe. I gave up on them.
Yesterday I mentioned that Conan and the Emerald Lotus is my favorite. Here are some others from my highlight reel, in no particular order.
Karl Edward Wagner’s The Road of Kings is quite powerful, though rushed near the end. Wagner gets Conan and the setting very, very well.
Leonard Carpenter’s Conan The Raider is strong and evocative. Carpenter writes with astonishing visual power — in a few words he can sketch an entire scene with crystal clarity. I’ve heard that his plots don’t always hold together, but Conan the Raider works quite nicely.
Andrew Offut’s Conan and the Sorcerer doesn’t get mentioned much, but I thought it a pretty good Conan yarn. His second is a little talky, but I started the third (The Sword of Skelos) and it seems pretty promising, with wonderful atmosphere and forward momentum. Unfortunately, I got derailed by a pretty savage incident halfway through the book and I’m not sure I can continue.
John Maddox Roberts seems to have consistently written excellent Conan pastiche. If you don’t mind the mash-ups of famous plots then you’re in great hands. My writer friend Charles Rutledge mentioned that the JMR Conan books were a little like stories of Conan’s slightly more thoughtful brother. Anyway, I enjoyed the seven I read and can highly recommend four: 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), Conan and the Manhunters (a nifty adventure story about a treasure theft and multiple competing factions) Conan the Rogue (a fabulous mash-up of a number of noir detective stories by Dashiel Hammet). I have yet to try Conan and the Amazon, which Ryan Harvey informed me was a little weak.
John Maddox Roberts has written some fine fiction of his own, including a long running mystery series set in ancient Rome, and a personal favorite of mine, an alternate history/blood and thunder novel titled King of the Wood.
I’ve heard good things about the novel adaption Michael Stackpole did of the recent movie and, having recently spoken with the man about both sword-and-sorcery and Robert E. Howard, am certain he appreciates both the character and the creator. I’ll be trying his book out eventually.
So is there more good Conan pastiche out there? Well, maybe. I have read and enjoyed, or read and not enjoyed (more frequent) various Conan comics, but I want to keep this discussion to novels. I haven’t heard a whole lot of positive feedback about other writers of Conan, but I won’t repeat what I can’t personally verify. If any of you out there have thoughts on good non-REH Conan stuff I’ve missed, let me know!
I’ve recently read Sean A. Moore’s Conan and the Grim Grey God, and I officially am adding it to my best of the pastiche list. I’m told by many that it’s head and shoulders above his others, but have yet to verify.
I’m also unhappy to announce that after revisiting Wagner’s Road of Kings that I’m not as enamored of it as I used to be. That probably deserves a blog post of its own.