Thursday, September 10, 2015

Conan of the Isles

As a follow-up to my last entry, I decided to re-read the 12th volume in DeCamp’s Howard-inspired Conan Saga, Conan of the Isles.

At the beginning of this tale written jointly by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter, we find our titular hero in his mid-60’s, seated upon a throne that has seen unprecedented peace and prosperity since the events of Howard’s Hour of the Dragon.  Conan’s wife, Zenobia died during childbirth some years ago, and he never re-married.  At his side sits his son, Conan II, aka Conn, who is the very image of a young Conan.

The adventure begins with the death of one of Conan’s oldest surviving comrades, Count Trocero of Poitain, falling victim to a supernatural attack right in the middle of the Aquilonian court.  These “red shadows” tear the veil between dimensions, and Trocero is gone in an instant.  These attacks soon become a plague across not only Aquilonia, but neighboring nations as well.  Conan is urged by the Gods to take up a quest to save the world, so he abdicates his throne and leaves in the dead of the night.

What follows is a rousing tale of fantastic and grim adventure that sees Conan joined by comrades from his younger days, and sailing across the ocean to lands unknown.  The scope of the adventure is a blend of the high-octane solo adventures of his youth, and an epic quest unlike anything Howard ever had the character take part in.  What the reader ends up with is a fantastical and bizarre tale of elder evils and ancient gods, lost civilizations, and human sacrifices. Conan is an old, gray wolf, well past his prime, but still a force to be reckoned with.

Although it’s an exciting tale, and well-plotted, the reader who is familiar with Howard’s original works must come to terms with a few things.  First of all, neither DeCamp nor Carter possessed the talent for word-smithing that Howard did.  Though their prose is serviceable, and not at all amateur, it does lack the polish and raw energy of Howard’s works.  I often found myself mentally editing here and there as I read.

But, the biggest hurdle will probably be the outlandishness of the tale.  Although the authors create a plot that seems logical, there are instances of incredible coincidence and luck that move Conan forward.  This is sometimes in stark contrast to the way Howard presented Conan, who usually overcame obstacles by sheer force of will, strength, and stamina (though there is plenty of that here as well).  And the setup itself is beyond what Conan has done before.  One reviewer I read compares it to being more like an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale, rather than a Robert E. Howard tale.  There is some merit to that assessment.

One other thing to note is that Conan is not the brash youth he was in Howard’s stories.  He is a much more mature and contemplative Conan.  This may jar some readers.  But you have to bear in mind that he is a score of years older than he was in Hour of the Dragon, and much of that time has been spent ruling a relatively peaceful nation. So, this progression is actually pretty logical for this tale.

All-in-all, I enjoyed this book, warts and all.  It’s a fun, almost mythical tale of Conan having “one last adventure,” and it delivers that tale with gusto.


Charles Gramlich said...

This one probably gets the most criticism among the pastiche crowd from serious Howard Heads. I remember liking it ok when I read it, and that was before I'd read a lot of Howard's original stuff. I should probably reread to see what my thoughts are these days.

Tom Doolan said...

I've only ever read one non-DeCamp pastiche (aside from the comics), one of the Tor books by Roland Green, I think. It was just ok. I think I like LSDC's pastiche's better. Though his prose, as I say, is not as visceral as Howard's, and sometimes his plots and stories are a bit outlandish, he does manage to capture some of Howard's sense of urgency. Not a lot of "fluff" writing. The prose is lean and action-packed, whereas I recall the Green novel being a bit plodding by comparison.