Monday, May 7, 2012

Andrew J Offutt's The Sword of Skelos

Fold out cover
Introduction: To round out my Andrew J. Offutt Conan pastiche, I hunted down a copy of The Sword of Skelos. Skelos is the third Conan novel written by Offutt. I wrote of the first two novels, Conan and the Sorcerer and Conan the Mercenary before. Sorcerer and Mercenary, were both published by Ace and featured interior art by Esteban Maroto. Skelos however was published by Bantam books, the third in a series of "The Fantastic New Adventures of Conan". Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings (reviewed here) was in the same series of books. The Sword of Skelos saw publication in 1979 and features only a sparse amount of interior illustration not done by Maroto, but by Tim Kirk. Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Mercenary and Conan: The Sword of Skelos make a loose trilogy. If you have not read either of the previous volumes, Offutt recaps both stories in this volume.

The Plot Skinny (Mostly Spoiler Free): The novel begins a few weeks after the events of Mercenary. Having regained his soul, (an event that occurred in Conan the Mercenary), Conan is in the city of Shadizar seeking his next adventure. While he is there, a thief named Khassek of Iranistan attempts to capture him. Khassek suspects that Conan is either still in possession of the Eye of Erlik, or knows where it is. In fact, Conan does still have the amulet. He has kept it hidden on his person. Conan agrees to travel to far off Iranistan with Khassek. He is promised that Khassek's employer will reward him greatly for doing so. During their journey, they encounter Isparana. Isparana is a thief introduced and last seen in the novel Conan and the Sorcerer. In that novel, she was a competing thief for the Eye of Erlik; actually, she stole it first and Conan later stole it from her and switched the true Eye for a fake given to him by the sorcerer Hissar Zul. When Conan had last saw Isparana, she was being escorted by a gang of five guards that Conan had left her with. In the book Skelos, Conan and Isparana form an uneasy alliance and travel to Zamboula together in hopes of obtaining a reward from that cities' ruler, Akter Khan.  In Zamboula they fall prey to the political mechanations of Akter Khan and the Stygian mage Zafra. Zafra has found himself in Akter Khan's good graces by providing him with an enchanted sword. Zafra enchanted the sword from secrets gleaned from the Scrolls of Skelos. With the enchantment, when the bearer speaks the words "slay him", the sword slays of its own volition, no wielder is needed.

The Good: Offutt's secondary characters are engaging, especially the sorcerer Zafra. In Offutt's bio in the back of the book he states: "he [Offutt] is...tired of aged, bald, ugly, sexless mages". Zafra is none of these things. He is young, older than the 17 year old Conan, but much younger than the average mage depicted in Sword and Sorcery tales. He plotted and killed his master and has just recently elevated himself from apprentice to journeyman (so to speak). I liked Zafra as portrayed by Offutt. The author set out to make a believable villain and he succeeded. Zafra is driven by the lust for power, a staple among sorcerers in sword and sorcery tales, but also he lusts for women. During the course of the story, he has an affair with Chia, or the Tigress as Akter calls her. Chia was another well done character that I enjoyed in the story. She is vile at times, but uses her wiles and station as favored consort to her advantage. Offutt creates a desert dwelling tribe for the story called the Shanki. They are Islamic in flavor and he does a swell job of presenting their culture in a rich, satisfying way.

The Bad: Isparana is the bad. Offutt tries to turn the relationship between her and Conan from nemesis to enemies, while trying to maintain a flavor of them being "frienemies". At times I felt he was doing this as a fishing for knee-slapper moments. It failed. I never found myself actually giving a damn about Isparana. Worse than that, I didn't buy Offutt's depiction of Conan as a brash 17 year old. At times he seemed the young reckless youth that just six months earlier scaled the walls of the Elephant Tower after killing a man in a bar fight because he made Conan look simple, and then Offutt has him coming up with master strategic plans to elude the khan's army. I just don't believe that Conan, as the youth he was at this point, was up for making grand schemes. Offutt tries to cover this up by having Conan say (after advising a Shanki warrior against brashness): "[I am] old enough to give advice I probably would not have the sense to take". This is a cop out, in my opinion. Offutt knows that Conan should be acting rashly, but his plot depends upon the young Conan giving sound advice and consequently, after giving said sound advice and after being advised against it, he storms off on a foolish mission only to be captured (again, plot needed).

Two more points on "the bad": Offutt built up Zafra and I looked forward to his confrontation with Conan; however, it was quick and less than satisfying. Also, he intrigued me with his characterization of Chia, and I hoped for her to be more involved in the plot, she was not and was "summarily" dealt with. While I enjoyed the ending of the book, it served as a moral point for Conan, it was rushed and seemed hasty.

The Ugly: The Eye of Erlik has been the object of much murder and intrigue (most of which occurs behind the scenes) and Offutt has built up its importance over three stories; however, like the Mask of Acheron in the 2011 movie Conan the Barbarian, the Eye doesn't do anything. Nothing. No magical powers. No, oh-shit we sure are screwed now moments, not a damn thing. Why was everyone so hot to get their hands on this amulet when it is just a piece of jewelry? A valuable one, but no powers. It was disappointing. I kept thinking while reading this, "the swords of Skelos sound cool, but I wonder what the amulet does?" Answer, not a damn thing and yet Khassek's employer (consequently, the identity of his employer is never revealed, but presumably he/she is the ruler of Iranistan) sends him forth with 20 pieces of gold, and a stash of gems and jewels to aid in his quest to obtain the Eye of Erlik at all costs. Not to mention, in the book Conan and the Sorcerer, Hissar Zul enslaves men by stealing their souls so they can act as guardians for the Eye, not to mention all the traps he had set to capture/kill would be thieves. Yet the damn amulet does nothing. Nothing.

Summary: It was an enjoyable read, despite the fact that there was no big revelation concerning the Eye of Erlik. There were some plot holes, and Offutt's Conan was not entirely convincing for me, but I did not hate the book. It was a stronger read than Mercenary, but was not as good as Sorcerer.

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