Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pastiche: Poul Anderson's Conan the Rebel

Front fold out cover

Introduction: In 1980, an author that I adore wrote a Conan pastiche titled Conan the Rebel. I really wanted to like this one, for two reasons. The first is, the novel is bravely set during Conan's time with Bêlit from one of my favorite Robert Howard Conan stories, "Queen of the Black Coast". Queen is amongst my three favorite Conan yarns, I view it as Howard's re-telling of Bonnie and Clyde in the guise of Conan and Bêlit. Their romance is narcissistic on one level, true on another, and I would say, dangerous to both. I assume the readers of CROM! have read Queen, but in case you haven't, I don't want to give too much away, so I end my discussion of it here.

The second reason I wanted to like this novel is Poul Anderson. I have not read a lot by Mr. Anderson, but what I have read, I have enjoyed. I have reviewed his books The Broken Sword, The High Crusade and Three Hearts and Three Lions at my gaming blog Random Encounters. All three of those works were recommended by Gary Gygax in "Appendix N" of literature which inspired Dungeons & Dragons (Robert E. Howard's Conan stories get a solid nod in the appendix, I might add). Appendix N has driven my reading habits for years. Another tick in Poul Anderson's favor is two of his works were selected by Lin Carter for inclusion in his edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series; the aforementioned The Broken Sword and Hrolf Kraki's Saga.

It not unfair to say that perhaps my expectations were too high.

Rear Cover

The Skinny: Conan and Bêlit come under the scrutiny of prophecy. The Stygian sorcerer of Set, Tothapis, fears that combined they may interfere with his visions of grandeur, so he sets a plot in motion to destroy them. Conan is drawn into Tothapis' web with the goal of rescuing Bêlit's brother whom she thought lost to her. In the course of the adventure, he discovers that he may very well be the fabled wielder of the Ax of Varanghi, which means he may be the saviour of an enslaved people.

The Good: First off, it is written by Poul Anderson, and while this has not been my favorite pastiche, it is still a decent read, just not a great read. Poul delivers with vile villains and interesting characters. Young Falco, with his naive love of a woman that is obviously not what she claims to be entertains. As does the young fierce daughter of a barbarian chieftain, Daris. Even his minor characters that appear briefly are good: he introduces a small tribe of warriors from the same land as Bêlit's crewmen. His villainess Nehekba, the high priestess of Derketa, is sultry and dangerous, if a bit naive herself. The battle scenes in the end are well written and exciting, as is a scene where Conan and companions deal with a nest of ghouls.

The Bad: I had a hard time keeping my interest upon this novel. Typically, I can read a Conan pastiche in two or three sittings. I kept putting this novel down without picking it up for days; finally, I slogged through the last four chapters just to finish it.

Anderson doesn't seem to have a firm grasp of who Conan is. I found his Conan too fawning with his affections for Bêlit. Yes, they were in love, even madly, but I found myself cringing every time Conan said, "my beloved", "my dearest", etc..  Upon meeting Bêlit's brother, he embraces him with much emotion exclaiming "By the Lance of Crom!" By the what of who? Crom had a lance? A barbarian god had a lance? Also, at one point in the novel, Conan looks out a window and decides that climbing down the wall would be too dangerous. This is the same Conan who thought nothing of scaling the "impossible" walls of the Tower of the Elephant?

His grasp on Conan's world was also shaky in my opinion. I thought his use of magic in was too "high" for believability. There was a ship of Set which was powered by magic, no oars or sail needed. This just didn't sit well with me and seemed almost too fantastic.

The Ugly: I expected a story about Conan and Bêlit. My favorite she-pirate appears in three chapters and then only briefly. What I thought was going to be an expansion of one of my favorite Howard stories was a missed opportunity and I felt let down.

Summary: I can't with a clear conscience recommend this novel. It is not the worst Conan pastiche I have read, but it was written well and had interesting characters and concepts. If you have not read "Queen of the Black Coast", do so. Then read this novel and let me know what you believe.

One final note, this is the fifth book in the Bantam series of the new adventures of Conan (prior to the Tor novels); however, the book is labeled as book 6 on the spine. All of my research has pointed that there were five books in this series and that this one is the fifth. If anyone has any enlightenment for me about that, I would appreciate the information.


Charles R. Rutledge said...

My take was much the same as yours. I thought Conan the Rebel a good adventure yarn, much in the spirit of some of Poul Anderson's Viking adventures, but I didn't think he really got the character of Conan as created by REH. Still there's a balance that has to be struck when writing a pastiche. A writer of the quality of Anderson wouldn't benefit anyone by trying to do a slavish imitation of Howard, but then again he might have done better had he hewed a little closer to the original.

Kilsern said...

Hello Charles, thank you for reading and responding. I agree that Anderson, or any other writer, should not try to imitate Howard, that rarely ends well. I would prefer him to write in his own style; however, anyone writing a Conan pastiche has a responsibility to keep Conan in character, as established by REH and to do his/her best to keep the Hyborean world, well, Hyborean.

Anonymous said...

I have this entire series, and there are in fact 6 books in the set. I cannot recall the order, but they are; Conan the swordsman, The Liberator, the Sword of Skelos, the Spider God, The Road of Kings and The Rebel.

Kilsern said...

To Anonymous, Thank you for reading and thank you for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, even though it's over 30 years ago, I remember this....Conan and the Spider God was indeed Book #5, but Conan the Rebel showed up at my local book store first. Being the completist that I was back then, it bugged me to have #6 and not #5, but within a few months, Spider God came out, so I was then able to sleep nights again. :)