Part 1: At Least They Know How Forts Work
Part 2: Chainmail Bikini
Part 3: Racist Against Bossonians
Part 4: Priest Of The Ancient Aliens
Part 5: Oiled Up Gladiators
Part 6: The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Be King
Part 7: Cthulhoid Cancer
Conan the Bold begins as a regular Conan story in which Conan has a personal stake in a small scale plot. The stake is dumb, in that he decides to pursue a pack of bandits across nearly the entire length of Hyboria because they killed some people he’d known for like three weeks, but after the first chapter is over it’s not too hard to accept that Conan is motivated by revenge and to enjoy the story based on that.
Unfortunately, while the Nemedian gladiators arc works well, with Conan and his companion Kalya nearly having a falling out (on stupid grounds, but whatever) and then coming to trust one another again, it doesn’t last. Things become more aimless in the Ophirian bandits arc, where it seems like the story is just marking time and Conan ultimately accomplishes nothing except to incidentally learn how to throw knives from a friend he meets early in the arc and leaves at the end of it. There’s not really any significance to Conan learning how to throw the knife. It’s not something he would’ve refused to learn when he began, nor does he learn it from someone he wouldn’t have associated with when he began. He just ran into someone who was able and willing to teach him how to use throwing knives, so he did.
Throughout these two intermediate arcs (following the first two chapters where Conan’s motivation is established and he allies himself with Kalya, respectively), there are occasional references to priests of some snake-headed god who isn’t evil Stygian snake god Set, but instead some kind of Ancient Aliens thing that is perhaps trying to lean on Conan’s ties to the Lovecraft mythos (and if so, doing a horrible job of it). This plot tumor eventually grows to devour the main story, turning what had been a Conan-esque iron age swords and sorcery plot of personal stakes into a sudden epic fantasy struggle between good and evil. It’s not just that this doesn’t fit with Conan’s general milieu, it’s that it doesn’t fit with this specific book’s milieu. Outside of the occasional half-chapter about the Ancient Aliens priesthood speaking to one of the characters, the entirety of this book before its climax is entirely focused on a standard personal stakes swords and sorcery plot. The sudden escalation to a battle between divinely appointed champions for the fate of the entire world is a sudden genre shift in the final chapter, not unforeshadowed but still jarring for how it yanks the story out of place. To the extent that I cared about Conan the Bold – and I did care, enough to be disappointed by the ending – it was because I cared about Conan and Kalya’s personal feud with Taharka and Axandrias. Slathering the battle for the fate of the world on top of that just felt like the story was trying too hard.
This Ancient Aliens plot tumor grows out of control in the final chapter, but the damage by that point was already done: Kalya’s final battle with her nemesis Axandrias ended just as it was starting to build momentum. With Kalya’s victory having defused the tension, the perspective shifts to Conan’s battle with Taharka, which then has to build up momentum all over again. Kalya is killed at the conclusion of Conan and Taharka’s first duel, and Taharka is powered up by Cthulhu for the second one, but Conan has enough time to wrap Kalya up in a tapestry before leaving the site of the first duel to pursue Taharka to the second, which means the tension built up by the first duel is defused by the time Conan arrives for the second, which once again has to build up tension all over again. Siloing these fights off from one another meant that one could not build up tension for the other, and instead the chapter constantly stops and starts and its fights are always ending right as they feel like they’re building up momentum.
The final fight would have gone much better if it had cut back and forth between the two duels with reversals of fortune just before each cut, something that the narrative seems to understand elsewhere, as in other fights Conan and Kalya frequently intercede to save one another’s lives. That running theme even could’ve been paid off with Taharka skewering Kalya, leaving Conan alone. The standard source of reversal for our two protagonists – the other protagonist showing up to bail them out – would have been yanked away in the middle of the final battle. Also, if Taharka must get an Ancient Aliens power-up halfway through the fight, have the fight move from the villa to the ruined temple organically, without Conan stopping to wrap Kalya’s body in the middle and thus letting out all the tension. Likewise, instead of the priesthood of the Ancient Aliens paralyzing the two of them to explain the stakes, just let Taharka pledge to conquer the world in the name of snake Cthulhu in exchange for a power up, which can then serve as a reversal. Finally, Conan’s final reversal should be something he learned from Kalya, not some character he met for one out of the story’s four major arcs and who had no thematic significance whatsoever.
Unfortunately, that’s not the finale we got. The finale we got was junk, and dragged Conan the Bold from what could’ve been a pretty good Conan story into being pretty mediocre.