The Best Of The Conan Pastiche Novels
by Howard Andrew Jones
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 fanfic, 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?
First, read the real work by Robert E. Howard.
Okay, so you want some more that feels a little bit like that, or that celebrates that character and setting in a proper way? You can try some pastiche. But be warned, some of those who handled the pastiche in prior days seemed more interested in the product than quality. Before I share my very opinionated take on the best of the lot, I should explain my criteria. In deciding whether or not a tale is worthy, I have a few simple guidelines, which I present here as questions.
- Does Conan act like Conan?
- Does the world through which Conan moves feel like the same world, with the same sort of atmosphere created by Robert E. Howard?
- Do the other characters feel like Howardian characters?
- Does the plotting feel Howardian?
- Is it a story with a logical flow, that makes sense and has satisfying developments, setbacks, and resolutions?
- Is the writing itself strong?
You could see how someone could write a perfectly fine story that meets some of these goals but fails, say, to have a character that acts like Conan, even if he shares the name. Or perhaps it’s a decent story and Conan acts a little like himself, but the writer hasn’t really paid attention to the overall feel of the world and atmosphere. These are some of the reasons I never cared much for Robert Jordan’s take on the character. I don’t care how many copies those books sold. Those 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.
My favorite Conan pastiche novel remains Conan and the Emerald Lotus, by John Chris Hocking, who gets the character and the setting and the whole Weird Tales vibe. It is soon to be followed, after many years, by an even better sequel. Look for it in 2020, under the title Conan and the Living Plague.*
John Maddox Roberts consistently wrote 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. I enjoyed all eight 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), and Conan the Rogue (a fabulous mash-up of a number of noir detective stories by Dashiel Hammet).
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. Unfortunately, his plots frequently don’t hold together (where were his editors?), but Conan the Raider works quite nicely.
Sean A. Moore’s Conan and the Grim Grey God was a lot of fun. Maybe it’s a little more over-the-top with its Weird Tales elements than REH would have taken it, but it was so tasty I forgive it.
Andrew Offut’s Conan and the Sorcerer doesn’t get mentioned much, but I thought it a pretty good Conan yarn. Offut’s second is a little talky, but I started the third (The Sword of Skelos) and it seemed pretty promising, with a wonderful atmosphere and forward momentum. Unfortunately, I got derailed by an out-of-character Conan incident halfway through the book and didn’t continue.
Karl Edward Wagner’s The Road of Kings has some really strong moments, although it’s rushed near the end. I used to list it as a favorite, but upon a recent re-read I found it a little uneven and I prefer many of these aforementioned books over it now. Sorry, Karl.
I’ve heard good things about the novel adaption Michael Stackpole did of the recent movie and, having worked with the man and spoken with him about 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.
There are a few other odds and ends worth checking out. Scott Oden has written two excellent Conan novellas, one of which is appearing as a back-up feature right now in Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan, and John Chris Hocking has written a novella that takes place right after Conan and the Emerald Lotus, which is the backup feature in the ongoing issues of the main Conan magazine. Others are in the works!
*And so it seemed when this was written. Unfortunately, Conan and the Living Plague remains unpublished. -ed
Howard Andrew Jones lives in a tower beside the Sea of Monsters with a wicked and beautiful sorceress. When not spending time with her or their talented children he can be found hunched over his laptop, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. His complete Ring-Sworn Trilogy is now available from St. Martin’s. Paizo has published four of his Pathfinder novels and St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne two of his critically acclaimed historical fantasy novels starring the Arabian sleuth and swordsman team of Dabir and Asim. He is the Managing Editor of Tales From the Magician’s Skull. He knows karate and wrote this while eating stale popcorn.
And check out the trailer for Howard’s Ring-Sworn Trilogy right here!