Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ranking Robert Jordan's Conan novels

My Robert E. Howard read-through was hardly comprehensive, only covering the 30-odd Conan stories and fragments he wrote in his short lifetime. So it seemed likely I'd take another swing and hack through more of the bibliography at some point.

I didn't expect it would involve reading another writer's expanded universe fan fiction from 50 years later, but here I am. Clearly couldn't get enough of the rugged brute. I could have read some proper novels in the time this took me. Just as I could have spent my late teen years getting to grips with Bach rather than Manowar, but never mind.

Key the Indefatigable:

Collected in The Conan Chronicles
First collected in The Conan Chronicles II
Collected in The Further Chronicles of Conan

7. Conan the Destroyer (1984)

I was already insecure about wasting my time reading trash, but reading a dreary novelisation of a film I never even liked is a new low.

Howard tries to rehabilitate the children's fantasy film into the Conan Canon as much as possible by changing some ethnicities and place names, but he's still stuck with the inescapable contradictory continuity and, you know, the story. The biggest advantage of a printed version is that it avoids the woeful casting of the film, but those characters are still there, and if you've seen the film you won't be able to shake the mental image of Conan's inexplicable Keith-Chegwin-alike assistant.

This isn't embellished as much as it is tediously padded, so while there are a couple of (off-screen) sex scenes that weren't in the original, the women keep their kits on for the most part. Even the fight scenes are considerably toned down. When you strip the excessive sex and violence from Robert Jordan's Conan, there's not much left.

6. Conan the Unconquered (1983)

One of the things I liked most about Howard's Conan stories was their variety, randomly dipping in and out of Conan's life to see how he was getting on at different stages in his impressively diverse career portfolio. Jordan's stories have been mired in the desert so far, with the young thief Conan pitted against wizard after wizard, but this shakes things up in the second half when Conan gets on a boat and heads to a land of witches and demons. Then fights another wizard as usual.

What mainly holds it back from being one of the good ones is its insufferable Mary Sue character, a spoiled princess whom Conan instructs in the ways of war and love, then has to rescue as usual. A female audience surrogate doesn't even make sense, since no woman would ever read this... oh, hang on, this is like Playgirl really being for gay men, isn't it? I'm slow sometimes.

5. Conan the Invincible (1982)

I would have enjoyed this first book more if I'd actually read it first, and if I hadn't been tarnished by the knowledge of how quickly Jordan rushed it to deadline. But even with its uninspired Dungeons & Dragons plot and A-to-B chapter padding, it's still entertaining escapism if you consider yourself too old for cartoons and fool yourself into thinking that violence and nudity makes this any more mature.

If I cared more about the purity of Howard's legacy, I'd presumably complain about Jordan's teenage Conan being out of character (he doesn't seem incompatible with 'Tower of the Elephant' to me) and about the generic lizardmen breaking the realism of this magical fantasy world (there were abhuman creatures in Howard's stories, but that was usually just his racism getting out of hand).

There's necromancy, gore, tits and bottled homunculi. If I was about 12, I'd really like it. What more can I ask?

4. Conan the Triumphant (1983)

Unlike Howard, who jumped all over the timeline, Jordan wrote his repetitive Conan stories at a near-real-time pace that left him plenty of space to keep churning them out for years to come. Maybe things would have been different if he'd known he was already half-way through by this point.

In book four, the young Conan finally progresses from thief to general, while his attitude to wenches takes a more regressive path that Howard purists should appreciate. It's not like this wasn't knowingly, outrageously sexist back in 1983. You can be incensed by it or laugh it off. Presumably, it was required reading on the Manowar tour bus.

It's another city-bound tale like Defender, with a power-hungry, demon-worshipping villainess predicting Destroyer, another good girl who likes a bit of rough like Unconquered, and more subtle, insidious evil than the cartoony displays of Invicible. More of the same then.

3. Conan the Victorious (1984)

I don't know whether Jordan knew this would be his final Conan book before the brief Arnie-fuelled surge of interest died down. It's not like I've been left yearning for more, but it's a bit annoying that he waited this long to change things up a little, even if that mainly involves progressing from Diablo II's Arabian/desert-themed Act II to Indian/jungle-themed Act III.

It's mainly just a palette swap, as Conan & co. deal with the same bandits, soldiers, evil wizards and their evil demons that they always do, all the way to the abrupt anticlimax. The ticking-clock jeopardy of Conan's poisoning doesn't exactly make things more tense when you know there's no way he's going to die, but Robert E. Howard ruined that tension right back at the start when he introduced Conan as a middle-aged king.

2. Conan the Magnificent (1984)

Five books in, this is almost exactly the same old thing again again again again with Conan thieving in Shadizar, stumbling upon a feud with an evil, demon-summoning wizard and bedding a couple of feisty, buxom women while he decides which one he likes better. There's no rush.

If you were only going to read one of these books – which is the best approach, really – this is probably the easiest jumping-on point, as Jordan doesn't bother to bring back any of his recurring characters when ever-so-slightly-differentiated substitutes will do. The fire-breathing demon is a bit more satisfying than the various incorporeal ones that just disappear when Conan breaks a staff, even if this fleshier one only takes marginally longer to kill.

1. Conan the Defender (1982)

Because this hack author didn't have the foresight to title his novels in alphabetical order, I got mixed up and read this second book first. It turned out to be the superior introduction to Jordan's long-form, boobtastic take on the franchise, even if I had to keep reminding myself who the various named characters are. It's cartoonish pulp, but you still need to pay attention.

It holds together better than Howard's only novel-length Conan story, The Hour of the Dragon, but it's not up to his best medium-length tales like 'The People of the Black Circle' or even most of the concise ones. Its basic plot of dark sorcery and treason could have been over and done in 20 pages rather than 200, but the 'padding' of gratuitous brawls, ubiquitously naked wenches and multi-sensory tours of seedy dives, filthy slums and insultingly ornate palaces is what makes it worthwhile.

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