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Ring-Haunter's Reviews of the Black Circle


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#1 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 30 January 2005 - 09:14 PM

Reviews of the Black Circle

Long ago, some time after the Cataclysm, I leaped onto the Conan Forum because a moderator had asked the posters on the board to provide some reviews of the many Conan pastiches wandering around in the Stygian dark. With so much Conan out there, but so few guidelines as to what was any good, there was a need to offer up a few opinions about to guide people toward the quality material. I provided a review of Conan the Defiant by Steve Perry, then followed up with Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking (gaining a good Internet friend in the author) and Conan the Gladiator by Leonard Carpenter. Somehow, in the process of writing these reviews, I've become the unofficial ?couch critic? of the site. I'm either brave or stupid to subject myself to the often less-than-stellar reams of Conan pastiches, but I have to admit that I love writing book reviews, and even a poor Conan novel gives me something interesting to think about.

So, at the suggestion of LD, I now I have my own ?pinned? thread for my reviews, which will not only be Conan but also other new Sword & Sorcery that comes along?for example, I?ll tackle some of the short stories in Pitch Black Books? new anthology, _Lord of Swords_. This thread will collect my reviews (I will aim for doing at least two a month), and there?ll be a separate thread for comments?please don't post on this pinned thread so it will remain only reviews. (But please do comment on the other thread?my reviews, although I try to make them as fair-minded as possible, still only reflect the opinions of one member of the Black Circle.)

Thanks to everybody who has enjoyed my reviews!
Ryan: The Haunter of the Ring, Reviewer at Large, The Swing Dancin? Stygian

Visit my promotional website!
Associate Editor at Sword and Sorcery

#2 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 30 January 2005 - 09:17 PM

Conan of the Isles
By L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
Lancer/Ace/Sphere 1968


For the first time, I am moving away from the Tor pastiches and going back to the early days of ?new? Conan stories: one of the novels by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp.


The Story

Conan has ruled Aquilonia for over twenty years and now nears his mid-sixties. After the death of Queen Zenobia in childbirth, Conan wearies of ruling Aquilonia. A sudden attack of mysterious ?Red Shadows? spirits away Count Trocero and many other people of Aquilonia. In a dream, Conan sees the prophet Epemitreus, who tells him he must cross the Western Ocean to stop the evil of the Red Shadows. The Prophet gives Conan a phoenix-shaped talisman to aid him. Conan abdicates in favor of his twenty-year-old son Conn and secretly heads to the west on his last adventure. In the Argossean port of Messantia he meets an old companion from his days with the Brachan pirates, Sigurd of Vanaheim. King Ariosto of Argos, who has also suffered from the Red Shadows, approaches Conan in a tavern to offer to fund his voyage over the Western Ocean. Conan, under his old guise of Amra the Lion, picks a tough crew and sails with Sigurd on the ship the Red Lion. What they find out in the Western Ocean will put them face to face with the last remnants of sunken Atlantis, Demons from the Darkness, and a strange city of sacrifice, dragons, and evil labyrinths.

Review

The ?Conan Saga? as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter imagined it concludes with this novel. Conan?s story, as reported in the fictitious Nemedian Chronicles, ends when he passes out of the knowledge of the Hyborian Lands. De Camp and Carter based the novel on vague hints Howard left in a letter, but they fly off into some odd speculative territory and create what must count as one of the strangest of all Conan pastiches. It doesn?t feel much like Howard?s Conan, but it contains some of the most unabashed fun sword and sorcery that de Camp and Carter wrote for the pastiche series. The two veteran writers conjure up a breezy fantasy adventure with a pulpy sense of excitement.

Conan of the Isles puts to the test the reader?s taste in post-Howard Conan. Which is more important: adherence to Howard?s spirit, or fun adventure? If you can have both, that?s wonderful. But I think most of us would prefer to have a good sword and sorcery adventure instead a poor, boring, and slavish attempt to imitate Howard. You will never mistake Conan of the Isles for genuine Howardian Conan, but you won?t mistake it for a boring novel either. The plot barely pauses to take a breath: like a movie serial or an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure, this is ?One Damn Thing After Another.? Where a Tor novel would develop a story around different character subplots, interactions, and conspiracies, Conan of the Isles just points Conan in a direction sends him on his gory way. The novel flies along a linear path: monster, fight, escape, rescue, monster, sorcerer, duel, escape, rescue, etc. Imaginative weirdness appears throughout. Character drama takes a back seat?the only supporting characters are Sigurd and Metemphoc the master thief?and action hurtles nonstop across the page.

Thankfully, most of the action works. Conan?s horrific contest against the horde of huge rats ranks as one of the best-written suspense sequences in a pastiche novel. The navel battle scenes are also exciting, and plenty of giant monsters show up to threaten our aging hero. (I personally adore big monsters, so the book earns extra points with me.) The finale is just what you want from a fantasy adventure: constant action, monsters, magic, horror, and ironic turnabout.

The personal interests of the two authors emerge strongly; more than any other Conan piece they authored, Conan of the Isles belongs to de Camp and Carter. Carter provides the pulpy delirium and the nonstop rush of insane events. De Camp provides a fascination with the Atlantis legend and the origins of myths in general, as well as his ?logical fantasy? approach to mythic events. He even suggests that Conan will become the basis for the Aztec myth of Quetzalcoatl, ?the Feathered Serpent? who sailed out of the west to their lands.

Where Conan of the Isles deviates from Howard?s vision is in its pseudo-scientific gadgetry and the outlandish culture of Antillia. Howard made the Hyborian Age realistic, injecting historical cultures into a hodgepodge fantasy setting and adding doses of supernaturalism. De Camp and Carter, however, toss Conan out of the Hyborian Age and into lands beyond knowledge, and all convention collapses into a science-fantasy parade of peculiarity. The Antillians sail impractical dragon boats, use ?super metals? like orichalcum, wear breathing helmets, don glass armor, hurl stun-gas grenades, and wield crystal swords. Their culture has hints of meso-American Indians (a de Camp touch, based on the pseudo-scientific nineteenth-century bestseller Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly, who theorized an Atlantean origin for Central and South American empires), but otherwise the Antillians might have leaped out of one of Burroughs?s Martian novels.

The writers treat the older Conan with admirable realism. They pile on reminders of the past, which gives a sense of closure for the final story of Conan?s career (at least in de Camp?s chronology). There?s also an effective moment of reflection for Conan: ?Now that [Zenobia] was gone, he found himself often thinking of her, in moods of black depression that were unlike him. While she lived, he had taken her devotion as his due and thought little of it, as is the way of the barbarian. Now he regretted the words he had not said to her and the favors he had not done for her.? Conan has matured and has aged; facing the approach of the ?Long Night? of death gives him a sense of regret and loss appropriate for someone his age. Howard himself would have approved of this touch of reflective darkness.

The novel?s major flaw comes from the authors? predilection for overstuffing their prose, possibly to imitate Howard. This is especially noticeable in the dialogue: Conan chats too much, and Sigurd gets too many ?salty dog? speeches. Here?s a good example of often heavy-handed writing: ?The northman grinned broadly and gave a bellow of joy that would have summoned a hippogriff in the mating season had one been within earshot.? A hippogriff is an unlikely Hyborian animal. (One of the authors must have had Ariosto?s Orlando Furioso in mind, since they use both the name ?Ariosto? and Ariosto?s invention, the hippogriff.) In a few places, their word choice falls flat, or else they strain too hard to use an obscure term. I have never seen anyone use the word ?decardiate??to remove the heart?in a work of fiction before, and I doubt I will see it again. In places the plot moves too fast, and de Camp and Carter rely on coincidences (such as Conan running into Sigurd and Ariosto in the same bar) that seem a bit too much.

You can?t expect all of it to makes sense or adhere to traditional Conan, but at least this pastiche lives up to the Sword and Sorcery obligation to entertain with fast, fun, imaginative action. Compared to many of the later Conan novels, Conan of the Isles is fast, fun, and imaginative indeed.

Rating: 4 out of 5

#3 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 03 February 2005 - 02:00 AM

Conan and the Treasure of Python
By John Maddox Roberts
Tor 1993


The Story

Ulfilo, an Aquilonian noble, his beautiful sister Malia, and the scholar Springald hire Conan to lead them on an expedition to the distant Black Kingdoms to find Ulfilo?s brother Marandos. Conan suspects there is more to the story than the three wish to tell him, but accepts the commission. He hires a ship captained by Wulfrede of Vanaheim, and they set sail for the south. Conan soon learns that a tangled tale lurks behind their search for the missing man: Marandos was on the trail the legendary lost treasure of the fallen city of Python, and his dealings with the ambitious Stygian priest Sethmes have set dangerous foes on the trail of Conan?s party. But even more dangerous is the journey across the fearsome deserts, plains, and mountains of the South and into a secret kingdom plunged deep in a bloody civil war and ruled by foul magic from the stars.

Review

The editors should have renamed this book Conan and the Treasure of King Solomon?s Mines. This isn?t a case of borrowing or inspiration the way that, for example, Forbidden Planet borrows from The Tempest, or The Warriors draws inspiration from Xenophon?s Anabasis. No, this is literally King Solomon?s Mines: John Maddox Roberts copies the exact plot of the classic H. Rider Haggard adventure novel and recasts it as a Conan story, with the legendary barbarian starring in the Allan Quartermain role. The story similarities are striking, pervasive, and go far beyond coincidence or subconscious borrowing: Both concern an expedition to locate a missing man who vanished into an African wilderness while hunting for a lost treasure. In both, the character who wants to find the vanished man is his brother, who also hopes to discover the lost ancient treasure that his brother sought. Both novels start with a searching party approaching the main character, a hardened veteran of the ?African? brush country, to hire him to lead them into the wilderness. Both stories have a native guide who joins the party and later turns out to be the rightful monarch of the hidden African kingdom in which they find themselves imprisoned. These kingdoms are both ruled by murderous tyrants who usurped their thrones from their brothers and use witch-doctor figures to cow the populace. A key suspense sequence in the two books deals with a race to waterhole in the desert before the characters drop dead from thirst. Finally, the overall structure of both books is beat-for-beat identical. Roberts does develop a believable Hyborian Age adventure from Haggard?s outline, but anyone who has read King Solomon?s Mines will have a difficult time shaking the shade of Allan Quartermain and will see every plot twist coming across the African/Kush plains from miles away.

Mind you, I?m not saying this is a bad thing. King Solomon?s Mines had a tremendous impact on all adventure literature, and Robert E. Howard owes a significant debt to Haggard?s rugged tales of exotic exploits (as do Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; they could never have made Raiders of the Lost Ark if Haggard hadn?t paved the way). And even nearly a hundred and twenty years after its first publication, King Solomon?s Mines holds up as a smashing piece of adventure literature. So it fits Conan like a custom-tailored loincloth. This literary foundation also gives Conan and the Treasure of the Python a dash of genuine old-fashioned colonial adventure and a pleasant familiarity. The familiarity goes beyond Victorian adventure novels: this Conan tale could easily exist in the world of Tarzan.

Even though Roberts has to face comparison with two titans of heroic literature, Howard and Haggard (sound like a publishing firm, doesn?t it?), he acquits himself well. The novel has less action than you might expect, but it never turns boring. Roberts pulls the readers into the story with the first chapter and keeps them involved throughout, even during the long stretches of the journey from Asgalun to the secret valley. The action he parcels out in the early sections of the novel sometimes feel artificial: an early sea-battle with corsairs reads well, but it exists as a ?pot boiler? sequence designed to throw in a few thrills without affecting the plot. Roberts compensates for the scarcity of action with good characterizations. He writes believable, often witty, dialogue, and has a knack for putting words into the Cimmerian?s mouth that sound like they actually belong there. The supporting cast is strong, with the exception of the unexceptional female lead Malia. The talkative scholar Springald adds to the effectiveness of the story rather than detracts from it as most comic relief characters do. Goma, the equivalent of the noble African warrior Umbopa from King Solomon?s Mines, make an intriguing secondary hero. Not enough Conan pastiche writers have realized the importance of a co-hero; since Conan?s literary creator laid out a specific destiny for him, the character cannot get involved in surprising developments or change drastically in any of the pastiches, so providing a second hero who can suffer horrible reverses (and possibly die) increases the drama and suspense.

When the serious action does arrive, Roberts doesn?t disappoint. The last quarter of the novel pulls out all the stops for excitement and makes up for the slower passages earlier on. Roberts combines classic Weird Tales horrors with an all-out battle scene that lets Conan shine as a tactician (at this stage in his career?late thirties?Conan is a full military genius). The finale has a few parts that don?t make complete sense, particularly regarding the Lovecraftian lake monster and Sethmes?s convoluted scheming, but it is such a pleasure having a pastiche end with a rip-snortin? sequence that most readers won?t notice.

Roberts has an invisible writing style that works to his advantage when writing Conan. Of all the pastiche authors?Tor or otherwise?Roberts crafts the most clean and readable prose. He never draws attention to his style with outlandish words or misplaced and clumsy dialogue. His writing may never reach beautiful Olympian heights or grisly Stygian frights, but he never trips himself up and keeps the reader flowing along with him. He shows a knack for the pseudo-African location: the savannah and its abundant wildlife are well envisioned, and the vivid natural setting feels different from the usual Conan stomping grounds. Roberts does spend a bit too much time here, and the crossing of the wilderness and the mountains constitutes the slowest portions of the book. However, the naturalism that Roberts creates in the scenes in Central Africa (a.k.a. ?The Black Kingdoms?) keeps the reader involved on some level; it feels as if this story could actually take place in our world, which makes the fantasy elements more striking when they do appear.

John Maddox Roberts once again provides the fun adventure I?ve come to expect from his Conan stories, even though he cannot take credit for the plot: that goes to H. Rider Haggard. But Roberts knows to borrow from only the best, and it shows.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

#4 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 15 February 2005 - 02:57 AM

Conan the Free Lance
By Steve Perry
Tor 1990


The Story

Dimma the Mist Mage needs a talisman called ?The Seed? to restore his body to its solid form, so he sends his shape-shifting servants to fetch it from the Tree Folk. Conan, while on his way to Shadizar, befriends the Tree Folk and joins them in their quest to rescue the Seed from Dimma?s thieves. More than the Mist Mage and his followers stand in their way, however. The Pili, a reptilian race with horrid appetites, have their eyes on grabbing the magic talisman as well. And their queen, the beautiful and lecherous Thayla, has her snake-eyes on Conan for reasons she would rather her husband the king not find out about. The chase will take the combatants deep into Dimma?s realm, a castle floating on a sea of Sargasso defended by hideous beasts.

Comments

Steve Perry has a reputation among Conan readers for silliness and overkill, and this novel won?t change anybody?s mind. Steve Perry loves high fantasy. Perhaps he loves it too much. His Conan novels burst at the seams with fantastic monsters, strange races, and weird magic?and not in an ideal way. Although Perry has a large imagination, it gets away from him and creates a world that has almost no resemblance to the Hyborian Age. Conan the Free Lance occurs in an overt wonderland akin to high fantasy that feels nothing like the historically-based settings of Howard and most of his imitators. Perry?s world has more in common with an R. A. Salvatore ?Lost Realms? novel than a Conan book.

Where Perry most obviously jumps the rails of the Hyborian Age is in his assault of multiple humanoid races and a slew of creatures with odd names (Kralix, skreeches, vrunds, Pilis). These creations push the narrative into territory that will make many Conan readers feel uneasy. They might wonder if Conan stepped through a magical portal that transported him to a planet from a space opera. Considering that Perry wrote the bestselling Star Wars novel Shadows of the Empire, some of the similarities to the Star Wars universe feel a bit suspicious: the Tree Folk have an ?Ewokian? patina to them, and a desert pit-beast recalls the Sarlaac from Return of the Jedi. Even if you can accept the non-Hyborian tone of the creatures, Perry does them a disservice with his detailing: neither the selkies nor the Pili come alive as cultures or biologies. The selkies in particular feel underdeveloped and under-described. Perry also has an annoying non-Hyborian approach to the gods. Conan meeting Crom in a dream seems unlikely, and Crom doesn?t match our expectations of him: he acts like a laughing prankster, not the grim lord up on his mountain whose attention you really don?t want to draw.

The story fits into the earliest days of Conan?s career, before he reaches the civilized kingdoms. Perry wrote a few novels taking place in this ?gap? in the chronology and makes a few references to them (it?s rare for any pastiche to mention another). It?s crowded places like this in the old chronology that make you see why CPI decided to start with a clean slate for the ?Hyborian Adventures? series. Most of the authors who wrote stories taking place early in Conan?s career never tried for realistic character development for the young Cimmerian. You won?t find the brutish, superstitious youth of ?The God in the Bowl? or ?The Tower of the Elephant? here (or even the character from de Camp and Carter?s ?The Thing in the Crypt? or ?The Legions of the Dead?); Conan acts no differently here than he does in the prime of his career, which wastes good character opportunities.

Making the situation worse is that Conan has hardly any reason to be in the story. Early on he wants to rescue the boy Hok, but once he achieves that he has no motivation to help the Tree Folk recover the Seed. He even wonders a few times why he should care. The villainous Thayla?s attempts to slay Conan just so her husband won?t find out about her sexual dalliance with the barbarian, but Thayla acts more powerful than her dull husband so you can?t imagine she would worry about upsetting him. Kleg?s attempt to escape from the Kralix feels out of place since Dimma has no particular reason to sic his monster on Kleg in the first place. Far too much of the book hangs on tenuous threads and it teeters on the verge of story collapse. In fact, I would wager that the author crafted the whole plot around a four-way plot collision for the finale, but even that climax flounders, reading like a Keystone Kops routine filled with knee-slapping ?irony.? After that, the resolution comes as a complete deus ex machina cheat.

One of the few elements of the novel that Perry manages to nail down is the evil wizard Dimma and the curse that keeps him in a disembodied mist form. Dimma?s tragedy is a good dramatic device; the passages about his torment when he briefly regains solidity, only to revert to mist again, contain some of the best writing in the novel. Perry also tosses in a more sexual content than normal with Thayla of the Pili desiring human males for their larger phalluses. Perry has a predilection for kinky couplings in his books. Previously, in Conan the Defiant, the Cimmerian bedded a zombie woman. Here he does stud service for a reptile queen. What can I say except that it?s?well?different.

Most of the book reads smoothly, but Perry often stumbles over cumbersome phrases and metaphors that sound unnatural. He also slips in modernisms that jar with the setting. For example: ?Not here. Hmmm. Musta dropped it somewheres. Ah, well, no help for it. Probably not worth anything anyways.? Sorry, not in my Hyborian Age, Steve. Nobody thinks or talks like that ?round here. Perhaps Perry thinks these asides are funny, but they distract from the tone. He also structures his novel so that each chapter jumps from subplot to subplot, like a series of fast-cuts in a movie. Since the subplots don?t immediately relate to each other, this device is just an artificial way to speed up the pace. It fails in that regard and instead keeps the story disjointed and difficult to concentrate on. Perry should let each of the plots unfold in its own chapter before moving to another plot with the next chapter (the style the other authors frequently use, and the one that Howard used in The Hour of the Dragon, which features masterful use of parallel construction). It hurts further that the sections about Dimma?s servant Kleg and his plight are uninteresting; Kleg doesn?t qualify as a hero character and his struggles won?t interest anyone. The lengthy tangle of events in the town of Karatas goes on far too long to very little point; it seems like the story just takes a pit stop here.

Despite all these deficiencies, Conan the Free Lance does excel in one arena. It?s short. Perry does far better in his earlier Conan works, Conan the Fearless and Conan the Defiant, and this novel just goes to prove that even a wagonload of imagination can?t save bad plotting and inconsistent world-building.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

#5 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 19 February 2005 - 08:19 AM

Conan and the Spider God
By L. Sprague de Camp
Ballentine 1980


Some comments that Primeval made about this pastiche made me want to make a return trip to it after all these years. Turns out, Primeval was right?

The Story

Conan slays his superior officer in a duel when the Turanian catches Conan with his lady. Conan deserts the Turanian army and treks to Zamora seeking work in the city of Yezud, home to the worship of the spider god Zath. He learns that Zamorians from Yezud have kidnapped Jamilah, the favorite wife of the King of Turan, as part of a political ploy. While Rudabeh, a beautiful dancing girl of the temple, tempts Conan toward marriage and domesticity, Conan also finds tempting the jewels in the eyes of the idol of Zath. And when a Turanian emissary offers him a reward for rescuing the Jamilah from the spider god?s temple, Conan decides to dare the horrors that may lurk in the catacombs beneath Zath?s house of worship.

Comments

De Camp and Carter wrote a number of stories about Conan?s service in the Turanian military: ?The City of Skulls,? ?The Curse of the Monolith,? and ?The People of the Summit.? Since they never explained how Conan left his mercenary career with Turan (and eventually landed on King Yezigerd?s ?Most Wanted? list), Conan and the Spider God appeared to fill in this ?gap.? This time, however, de Camp goes it alone with the famous Cimmerian.

I first read Conan and the Spider God eight years ago, during the time when I started reading Conan pastiches after finishing with the Howard canon. I recall enjoying the book, but in the passing years my opinion of L. Sprague de Camp has changed; it has both risen and lowered. I discovered de Camp?s classic science-fiction and science-fantasy writings and loved them: Lest Darkness Fall, The Incomplete Enchanter, and shorter works such as ?A Gun for Dinosaur,? which count among the best works ever conceived on time travel. He definitely deserved the Grand Master award that the SFWA bestowed on him in 1978. But de Camp?s Conan pastiches rank as some of his poorest work. Pure sword-and-sorcery eluded his touch, and he produced overwritten and overanalyzed stories that feel as if a psychologist plunked Conan down on a couch and asked him to justify everything he did for two-hundred pages. (?So, Mr. Barbarian, how does that make you feel? Hmm, interesting.?) Lin Carter, a pulpier and wilder writer with a genuine love of fantasy fiction, seems to have ameliorated de Camp?s effect on the stories on which they collaborated. De Camp was the superior writer, but in the realm of Conan, Carter was more at home. When L. Sprague de Camp strikes out on his own, as in Conan and the Spider God, the mismatch between this Grandmaster of Science Fiction and the World?s Greatest Sword-and-Sorcery Hero appears too obvious.

You?ve probably figured out by now that my second visit with the Spider God was less satisfying than the first. Right you are. This is de Camp?s last Conan novel (aside from the novelization of Conan the Barbarian written with Lin Carter) and perhaps he had gotten tired of the character. The torch then passed to Robert Jordan and a new generation of Conan fans.

A complaint I?ve always had with de Camp?s pastiches is his rationalized approach to Conan?s barbarism. His version of Conan spends a great deal of time thinking and reasoning through problems and speculating on choices (including whether he should get married!). It deprives the character of his primal instinctiveness and makes him seem inordinately civilized. De Camp?s history with ?rationalized fantasy? ? la The Incomplete Enchanter makes him include scenes such as Conan getting a Zen-like training to resist hypnotism. Rationalized fantasy and blood-red sword-and-sorcery do not mix well. Conan also has fits of maudlin sentimentality that don?t go down well. The romance with the temple dancing girl Rudabeh is overstated to the point that Conan seriously debates about settling down to domestic life with a girl who seems like no more than another of the pretty young things he encounters all the time.

Here?s a good example from the text of how Conan acts too conservatively and cautious, even when reacting violently: ?The Cimmerian seldom interfered in others? affairs?.If the villager had spoken him fair, he might have shrugged and gone his way. But Conan was impulsive and easily roused to anger. And the protection of women, regardless of age, form, or station, was one of the few imperatives of his barbarian code. The villager?s threats tipped the balance in the old woman?s favor.? In another very ?non-Conanical? move, de Camp has the hero play a musical instrument and sing! A least he didn?t break into ?Am I Blue?? but it?s still a ludicrous moment.

In his previous Conan adventures, de Camp favored one-shot monsters?like the swamp cat in an early chapter here?and fast moving, quick thrills. Such monsters and action scenes are the exception in Spider God, however: the action stalls when Conan arrives in the city of Yezud and stays there. Once settled in this city the story turns into an unconnected array of scenes of characters milling about in taverns and arguing. Conan has murky motivations, and therefore the plot never moves along a direct or interesting line of action. Conan at first needs to escape from Turan, then he decides to pursue his stolen money and horse, then when he gets to Yezud he starts contemplating stealing some gems from the temple. This makes it difficult to get involved in the story since Conan has no consistent or urgent reason to do much of anything. The through-line of the story appears only at the two-thirds mark, when the Turanian Lord Parvez hires Conan to achieve the most hoary plot device of all sword-and-sorcery: Rescue the Princess. Yet de Camp drops even this after two chapters and reverts back to the theft motivation. The author can?t make up his mind, Conan can?t make up his mind?should the audience feel any different? A subplot about the priests of Zath planning an apocalyptic scheme against all of Zamora goes no place at all.

De Camp also falls prey to one of sword-and-sorcery?s most tired devices: Plot Coupons. These dreaded hobgoblins of amateur writers?information or objects a hero must collect and use so he can ?send away? to the author for the ending?appear too frequently and make the story feel like a Grimm fairytale where a parade of wise old sages hand the hero magic items that come in handy later in suspiciously specific ways. (For an example of plot coupons at their most obnoxious, please see the movie Van Helsing. On second thought, don?t.) Here, Conan receives 1) powder of forgetfulness, 2) training to defeat hypnotism, and 3) a magic finger bone that can open any door. Just like in a videogame, Conan finds use for each one in turn so he can advance to the next ?level.?

De Camp?s overtaxed ?archaic? prose bogs down the already floundering story and characters. He tries too hard to dazzle the reader with arcane and unusual words, and overstocks his dialogue with dusty phrases and terms like ?certes,? ?nonce,? and ?meseems,? which sound especially cloddish when Conan says them. De Camp seems to believe that the wonder of the setting requires this writing style. Howard, however, used such devices sparingly and preferred a clipped and brutal style when dealing directly with Conan. De Camp paints everything with the same baroque brush, and it can make for dull, ponderous reading.

Does anything work? Yes, thankfully?but not much. The long-foreshadowed encounter with the super spider does have a feverish intensity. But it fails to build to the proper conclusion. The finale of the novel whimpers to a close, which is no surprise considering the lack of direction of the story in the first place.

L. Sprague de Camp was a fine writer, but he was not adept at sword-and-sorcery. A novel like Conan and the Spider God actually makes me appreciate the contributions of Lin Carter to the Conan legacy. His love of wild and wooly fun must have kept his pal Sprague in line when they worked together, and without Lin along he?s as lost as Conan in the maze of the eight-legged god Zath. Certes, a disappointing lay that reeketh of the dregs of eons. (See how annoying that is?)

Rating: 1 out of 5

#6 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 24 June 2005 - 04:38 PM

Legends of Kern: Volume I?Blood of Wolves
By Loren H. Coleman
Ace 2005


Here it is folks. I have returned after a long vacation (while I have worked over at Sword and Sorcery magazine as an editor, essayist, and reviewer) with the hotly awaited new Hyborian adventure book. And I am not happy.


The Story

A harsh winter tears through Cimmeria, and when King Conan withdraws his Aquilonian troops from the country's borders, Vanir from the north make raids deep into the Conall Valley under their fearsome leader Grimnir. Burok Bear-Slayer, chieftain of the village of Gaud, dies from gangrene; the village outcast, the frost-haired and yellow-eyed warrior Kern, ponders his fate should his boyhood tormentor Cul become the new chief. Cul defeats Kern's friend Reave in the challenge for the chieftainship, and then thins the clan by casting out whom he considers unfit?and this includes Kern. Kern heads south with scant hope of surviving, but soon his fate takes a strange turn as he finds himself leading a desperate band of Cimmerians in a campaign to take the war to the invading Vanir. As Kern struggles to learn the secret of his birth and his connection to the "Ymirish," the frost-men of the Vanir, he unifies various Cimmerian clans into a push against the Vanir-infested Broken Leg Lands and a confrontation with the seemingly invincible Grimnir.

Comments

After a lengthy hiatus, new Conan adventures have at last invaded the bookstores. Except without a particular character: Conan.

The first installment in the next era of Robert E. Howard pastiches, The Legends of Kern: Volume I?Blood of Wolves, arrives this month to start Conan Properties' new publishing strategy in conjunction with the venerable science fiction and fantasy publisher Ace Books. This novel from Loren L. Coleman starts off a Cimmerian trilogy, one of a number of series that will premiere this year and introduce new heroes from across the lands of the Hyborian Age during the time that Conan sits upon the jeweled throne of Aquilonia. The overall series goes under the general title: "Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures."

If this first novel indicates what we can expect from CPI's new publishing plans, the Hyborian Adventures will last as long on the shelves as a snowman in a Stygian summer.

Blood of Wolves is a thundering disappointment, a misfire of ?sir-sized proportions and a poor way to hook new readers into Conan creator Robert E. Howard's classic sword-and-sorcery background. I find it hard to determine exactly whom to blame for the book's failings. Coleman obviously has writing talent, and his prose works far smoother than many of the sloppier Conan pastiches of the 1980s and '90s. However, the novel has a dull and wandering story, and the extensive cast of characters consists almost entirely of names without anything in the way of personality. Blood of Wolves was obviously a collaborative effort between Coleman, CPI, and Ace, but the plot they cobbled together resembles nothing more than an aimless sojourn through ice country with too many confusing battle scenes and gratuitous duels, and too few dramatic consequences.

The story needs a stronger central thrust. The hero Kern leads a party of Cimmerians around the snow of their land during a time of Vanir attacks, but they have no plan onto which the reader can easily latch. The heroes slosh from sacked town to sacked town, picking up more warriors, skirmishing with faceless Vanir, and then splitting up and reforming while hatching another strategy. Anonymous characters like Daol, Raeve, Sl?ine Longtooth, and Gard Foehammer?no more than names or perhaps a single characteristic?make protagonist Kern's ambiguously plotted quest to "take the war to the Vanir" and discover his parentage even more difficult to find interesting. Even the dark-skinned Shemite Nahud'r, who falls in with the Cimmerians after Kern rescues him from enslavement, does not stand out or achieve anything memorable.

At the heart of the problem lies the new hero, Kern, a Cimmerian whose frost-white hair and yellow eyes make him an outcast from his own Clan Gaud despite his prowess. He takes inspiration from Elric and R. A. Salvatore's dark elf Drizzt, but he has no distinguishing personality of his own. The story should show his gradual development into a great hero and eventual leader of the Cimmerians (the next two novels will follow up on this), but Kern does hardly anything notable or iconic here; even as a warrior he feels second-rate. His unusual coloring and its similarity to the "Ymirish," the frost-men who fight for the Vanir, will hopefully develop in the later novels, since it goes nowhere here except for a few reflective, brooding passages. Kern's only other remarkable feature, an animal kinship to the scavenging dire-wolf Frostpaw, never develops beyond a thematic symbol and an interesting idea. (Frostpaw, however, is one of the better developed of the book's characters. At times I wondered if an animal fantasy based on Cimmerian wolves might have made a more thrilling and original novel.)

Many other intriguing ideas lay scattered throughout Blood of Wolves like corpses on a Nemedian battlefield, but they remain dead and unlooted. A traitor within Kern's ranks changes sides so quickly that he loses all suspense. A romantic possibility between Kern and Maeve, the daughter of Clan Gaud's last chieftain, fizzles quickly. Political tensions between the tribes of Cimmeria receive only lip service and some growls before they smooth over. Perhaps these potential conflicts will emerge stronger in the sequels, but since Blood of Wolves does stand alone as a complete story with a definite conclusion, these loose strands are still disappointing, and they won't make many readers eager to snatch up the next installment.

The book does have a select few interesting and effective passages. It begins promisingly with the death of Clan Gaud's chief and the subsequent free-for-all contest to seize the chieftainship, and then it builds toward the exiling of Kern from the clan. At this point the plot balances on a knife's edge, ready to thrust Kern into a desperate struggle as an outcast. But the novel takes the unfortunate step of sending the hero back to his clan to begin the circular series of wanderings that eventually drain the energy from the narrative. Coleman does sprinkle in a few intriguing action set-pieces, such as the Cimmerians discovering the use of sleds as war weapons, but most of the fight scenes start to blend into each other in the last hundred pages, and none of the battles advance the plot much or have a lasting impact on the characters. For a sword-and-sorcery battle epic, Blood of Wolves has a startlingly low body-count.

Coleman at least creates a better version of Cimmeria than Harry H. Turtledove's suspiciously bucolic rendition in the recent Conan of Venarium. Coleman has done his research into Celts and primitive societies, and the sections involving Cimmerian ritual and custom have the cold steel ring of truth. Still, nothing about the Cimmerians feels as furious and bleak as the hints that Howard made about them in his Conan stories or his essays about the Hyborian Age. You will find bloody combat and gory wounds here, but you will not find the real rage and thunder.

Conan does make an "appearance" of sorts; the Cimmerian warriors mention him often as a living legend, one that collects many other legends to him. In what might be a clever piece of planned retconning, the Cimmerians suggest that many of the tales of Conan actually happened to other heroes, but Conan's larger-than-life persona absorbed them. Could this be a way of explaining away the many Conan pastiches that have followed in Robert E. Howard's wake? Even Howard might have admitted that some of Conan's exploits had undergone 'embellishing' over the years of their telling, either by the minstrels or the aging King Conan himself.

Although Coleman orchestrates numerous battle scenes (too many, actually), he provides only a few droppings of the supernatural and dark horror that are so important to Howard's milieu and his sword-and-sorcery in general. A few extinct beasts, like saber-tooths and mammoths, appear in the climactic combat, and the Vanir make use of some minor magic against their foes, but the aura of the dark fantastic feels sadly absent.

When I first heard the announcement that CPI's new publishing campaign would move away from the character of Conan and focus on other figures of the Hyborian Age, the possibilities excited me. Twenty years of Tor pumping out Conan adventures had strip-mined the character into near obsolescence, and new blood and new characters sounded like the perfect solution to the rut. But after only one book, I feel much more cautious and apprehensive about the coming "Hyborian Adventures."

And I miss Conan already.

Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5

Edited by Ring-Haunter, 24 June 2005 - 07:36 PM.

Ryan: The Haunter of the Ring, Reviewer at Large, The Swing Dancin? Stygian

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#7 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 06 July 2005 - 02:37 AM

Legends of Kern: Volume II?Cimmerian Rage
By Loren H. Coleman
Ace 2005


A scant few weeks later, we have the next installment in the ?Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures,? featuring the frost-haired hero, Kern. I?m happy to report that Kern has shown some improvement on his report card.


The Story

In the Spring after Kern Wolf-Eye fronted a victorious battle against the half-giant warrior Grimnir and his relentless Vanir raiders, Kern takes a small band of his ?wolves,? which includes his close friends Daol and Reave and the youth Ehmish, and harries the Vanir invaders. He carries the symbolic bloody spear of Clan Calluagh and sets out to spread the unification message to the resistant Cimmerian clans, even though his white hair and yellow eyes brand him as an outcast without the support of any particular chieftain. Kern also plans to learn of Grimnir's new war strategy and place his wolf pack in the giant-kin?s way. But the band discovers to their horror that Vanir forces under the leadership of the frost-haired Ymirish have cut a bloody swath through the villages of the Conall Valley. Lodur, the powerful Ymirish sorcerer who leads these attacks, has a special vendetta against Kern.

In the struggle against the Vanir that now follows, Kern will find unusual allies, suffer the first loses among his loyal followers, and face resistant clans and hideous beasts. Most disturbing of all, Kern starts to learn a secret about himself that may effect the outcome of the war to save Cimmeria.

Comments

So where is the rage?

This second volume in the ?Legends of Kern? trilogy, set in Cimmeria during the time of King Conan, may not live up to the berserker promise of its title, but it does improve significantly over the haphazard first volume, Blood of Wolves.

Cimmerian Rage carries over a number of the faults that bogged down the first volume, but this second time out author Loren L. Coleman has crafted clever sequences and increased his arsenal with greater variety. Kern and his ?wolf pack? of warrior followers still seem to run in circles in their nebulous quest to thwart the Vanir raiders of the giant-kin Grimnir, but at least the action sequences don?t blend together into a slog of indistinguishable swordplay-in-the-snow. There?s more magic, plenty of new character dynamics, and an expansion of the internecine conflict between the Cimmerian clans, such as introducing a nomadic clan that puts a spin on the idea of Cimmerian unity. Coleman also slathers on the gore and grime of combat and its aftermath. His descriptions of the remains of massacred villages will not sit well with readers accustomed to more gentle fantasy, but such descriptions work in tandem with the grim setting of Cimmeria?even during its spring.

The novel has two excellent action highlights: a clever sneak-attack on a Vanir camp (pitched near the ruins of a fortress that many Robert E. Howard fans will find familiar), and a grisly close-combat with giant spiders. The fight with these monster arachnids is, so far, the only place in the Kern novels where Coleman manages to tap into the Weird Tales spirit and deliver both shivery revulsion and desperate, heroic action. The strange similarity to the spider encounter in The Hobbit aside, it makes for thrilling reading.

The scope of the novel?s point of view also broadens out. Readers gets an opportunity to know the villains in a way that they had not in Blood of Wolves. The Vanir and their fearsome frost-haired allies, the Ymirish, mature beyond a horde faceless foes and into identifiable figures. One of the Ymirish, the sorcerer Lodur, takes center stage in a number of chapters, and he's one of the most interesting characters Coleman has yet developed. His obsessive goal to slay Kern creates an anticipation that the first novel lacked. Lodur also wields greater supernatural power than that yet seen in the trilogy, and this gives the tale a needed boost of dark magic.

Despite the new level of mayhem, Kern?s wolf pack of Cimmerian defenders appears ridiculously invincible, coming through engagement after engagement with not a single man or woman killed (plenty of injuries, but death eludes them). This problem dogged the first volume and made the action feel devoid of serious consequences. Coleman does try to alleviate the problem here with the death of a minor character; but even though he writes good reflective passages about how the loss effects Kern, the deceased warrior remains nothing more than one name among many in the Cimmerian band.

The general anonymity of most of Kern?s band is one of the the flaws that carries over from Blood of Wolves. Only the youth Ehmish pushes out from the crowd of Cimmerian characters, and hopefully Coleman will feature more of him in the last volume. The principle problem that keeps the book from reaching the rage promised in its title is its roundabout plotting. The narrative at first finds a strong motivation for Kern?s adventures: spread the uprising against the Vanir among the other clans while placing his band in the way of Grimnir's invasion. But soon the plot diffuses into circular wanderings and encounters with massacred villages, and the geography of where Kern's followers and Lodur's raiders are moving becomes a chore to follow and understand.

I sensed in the first volume of the trilogy that the author had to stretch out the story to fill a whole book, and I noticed the same elongation of sequences here. Some chapters, such as a tour through a slaughtered Cimmerian village, linger on for many pages without much occurring aside from brooding. A few of the chapters away from the wanderings of Kern?s band feel like padding, since they connect up with nothing else in the novel. Even though I haven't yet read the third volume, I think I can safely say that ?Legends of Kern? would have worked better as a single succinct five hundred page novel instead of a trilogy of shorter, three hundred page novels. A compression of the action would eliminate much of the circular peregrinations of Kern?s wolf pack.

The novel?s conclusion aims directly for a cliffhanger and therefore stops abruptly. This is the only place where Blood of Wolves is a superior book to Cimmerian Rage, since that first volume could almost stand on its own because of a violent conclusion that tied off many plot strands. The ending to Cimmerian Rage reads as if Coleman simply picked a chapter with a hook ending and decided to cut off the book at that point; it feels nothing like a finale, and I had to check online to make sure my copy wasn?t missing a few pages at the end! In the book?s favor, the character revelations in this last chapter do promise an even more exciting final book.

If Coleman manages to make the upcoming third volume, Songs of Victory, another step up in quality and plays out all the promises of things to come introduced in Volumes I and II, readers can look forward to an enjoyable ending to a trilogy that started mired deep in a snowdrift of aimlessness.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5

Edited by Ring-Haunter, 06 July 2005 - 02:41 AM.

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#8 Ring-Haunter

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Posted 03 August 2005 - 08:53 PM

Legends of Kern: Volume III?Songs of Victory
By Loren H. Coleman
Ace 2005


Here it is folks, the final chapter in the ?Legends of Kern? trilogy, the first of CPI and Ace?s new publishing campaign for the world of Robert E. Howard. I wish I had better things to report?


The Story

Grimnir, the monstrous leader of the Vanir who have raided into Cimmeria, plans his final push from the northwest to destroy the Cimmerian clans with his might and the wizardry of his Ymirish sorcerers. Kern Wolf-Eye and his comrades?his ?wolves??have established themselves in Clan Murrogh, where they try to forge an alliance between the feuding clans. Ros-Crana of Clan Callaugh moves her forces through the west to fulfill the same task. But a festering evil works within the clans that threatens to push them into all-out war and leave them vulnerable to Grimnir?s assault. Kern strives to find a leader who can unify the clans and prepare for the final conflict with Grimnir. At the same time Kern strives within himself to repress a magical power in his half-Ymirish blood that threatens to destroy everything.

Comments

When the final battle for Cimmeria rages over the Hoathi Plateau, it provides for an exciting few chapters of bloodshed, swinging axes, flying beasts, and savage magic. As the concluding sequence of the ?Legends of Kern? trilogy, the clash between the clans of Cimmeria and the power of Grimnir and his Vanir doesn?t disappoint.

Good luck staying awake until then.

After the promising upswing in Volume II, Cimmerian Rage, Kern?s adventures return to a meandering and slow trudge through dead-end subplots, needlessly padded-out chapters, and a confusion of characters, clans, and geography. The action-heavy opening, in which the Vanir attack the village of Gorram and Kern?s magic abilities start to turn him into a more interesting hero than he was previously, will give readers hope. Author Coleman even manages a poignant moment with the young warrior Ehmish that rivals most of the character work in the first two volumes. But immediately afterwards Songs of Victory shifts into ?filler? mode, where it seems Coleman needed to stretch out the plot to match the available space of three hundred and twenty-five pages.

Hints in the early books about Kern?s inherent sorcerous abilities at last break through to the surface, but not potently enough to make the long wait worth it. Kern has grown slowly as a hero over the space of the trilogy, but he still hasn?t really grown up at the end of Songs of Victory. Supposedly a Legend (as the series? title proclaims) he feels more like a Heroic Rumor. He does fare better than the other characters, who remain as they started as in the first book. Ros-Crana, the woman leader of Clan Callaugh, has the strongest presence in the supporting cast, while Maev as Kern?s potential romantic interest almost doesn?t register. Perhaps most disappointing is Lodur, whom Volume II set up as a major adversary for Kern but who gets scant to do here except mark time.

The concept of the Cimmerian clans warring with each other because of the insidious secret influence of Grimnir and his doppelg?ngers has great potential (even if it feels similar to the King Th?oden-Gr?ma Wormtongue relationship in The Lord of the Rings), but it should have appeared in an earlier book and gotten resolved in the beginning of Songs of Victory; here it slows down the middle of the story too much.

The abundance of clans, characters, and unclear geography also weigh down the narrative. At this point the sheer number of Cimmerian Clans has reached critical mass so that even people who read Blood of Wolves and Cimmerian Rage recently will find it hard keeping distinct who belongs to what clan, who the chieftain are, and what the individual clans? positions are regarding Kern and the fight against Grimnir. The movements of the various bands across Cimmeria really cry out for a specialized map of the region. The novel provides the same map of the Hyborian Age present in most Conan-related books, but Ace could have aided the clarity of the plot immensely with a detailed map of Coleman?s version of Cimmeria.

Songs of Victory does have one good action highlight during the slow middle span: a battle with risen dead around the town of Cruaidh. Coleman?s writing works strongest when it gets into horrific sequences, like this one and the spider fight in Cimmerian Rage. The gruesome doppelg?ngers also create shivery suspense, but they could have been used even more effectively. In general, the supernatural aspects of the ?Legends of Kern? rise above the mundane wandering-about that infects the series. (And I wanted more of the yetis. Give me more yetis!)

As the final volume of a trilogy, Songs of Victory should have had an apocalyptic rush from the start, a feeling of hurtling toward the inevitable showdown. However, the book stalls almost immediately, wanders into subplots that do not conclude adequately, and then hastily gets together for the last bash. It?s a nice bash, but getting there takes too much effort.

I may sound harsh in my criticisms of Songs of Victory, but I need to make something clear about the entire ?Legends of Kern? trilogy and why I think it failed overall: it has nothing to do with the writing skills of Mr. Coleman, who shows himself adept at the barbarian vigor of the setting, and has everything to do with the length of the telling. At three volumes and approximately nine hundred pages combined, ?Legends of Kern? lacks sufficient story to support interest and so instead relies on padding. This problem is emblematic of a serious complaint I (and many others) have about contemporary fantasy publishing. Modern fantasy novels too often fall prey to the ?more is more? fallacy, and writer after writer gorges bookstore shelves with trilogies, tetralogies, decalogies, etc. Why did Ace and CPI decide to go for such a word-heavy approach to the ?Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures? series when the best examples of Conan writing?Robert E. Howard?s?were short stories, novellas, and a single medium-sized novel? The Hyborian Age doesn?t lend itself well to a multivolume series; it encourages brevity, action, and moments of piercing yet concise introspection. Read any of Howard?s Conan stories and you will see the astonishing economy that he used. He could craft stirring descriptions in a small space. When he did choose to wax poetic, he could absolutely rivet you with the beauty of his prose, but those passages always served a purpose, and it wasn?t to jack up the word count. (Remember, Howard got paid by the word! His restraint had economic consequences.)

?Legends of Kern? slogs in circles through all three volumes when it could easily have contracted into one book. Although we can?t fully judge the ?Hyborian Adventures? series yet with two more trilogies coming up, this first experiment stands as an unfortunate failure. I encourage Ace and CPI to investigate doing longer, single-volume books in their future publishing plans with Robert E. Howard?s Hyborian Age.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Ryan: The Haunter of the Ring, Reviewer at Large, The Swing Dancin? Stygian

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