I’ve felt kind of bad while summarizing this story, because there’s just so much “this happens, then this happens, then this happens.” Partly, this is a hazard of reviewing chapter-by-chapter a story which cannot be easily quoted. Because reacting directly to the story’s prose is hard, I don’t do it very often. But also there’s the thing that all sloppy books get into eventually, which is that after a while they just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and rather than calling them out anew every single time, it gets easier to just skip over them and see if they’re going to do anything new. And Conan the Defiant isn’t.
So, Conan and company meet with Skeer, who defects for revenge on Neg. And then they hide from some zombie soldiers from Neg’s gathering army. And then they disguise Conan and Elashi as Skeer’s prisoners to get past the patrols to where the Source of Light is kept. And then Neg uses his new ability to look through a zombie’s eyes to confirm that Tuanne is paralyzed on the floor somewhere, but doesn’t bother raiding her memories to figure out why (the narrative says he can know what the zombies know just a few lines earlier, but here it seems like it can’t – was that line just in reference to his ability to see what they see?). He briefly considers having Skeer look into it, and while Skeer can provide guidance to Neg’s enemies, he cannot refuse direct commands, so if Neg asks Skeer if there are intruders in the castle, he must answer honestly. But then he decides not to. It’s not like being kind of careless is a consistent character flaw of Neg’s that is now coming to bite him, and it’s especially not like this is in contrast to a more meticulous Conan, Elashi, or Tuanne. He just briefly considers a course of action that would allow him to instantly thwart our heroes’ plan, and then decides not to, for no stated reason at all.
The “pretend to be prisoners” gambit turns out to be so much wasted pagespace. Conan and Elashi don’t even bother disarming themselves, let alone having their hands tied or anything else that might even slightly suggest they’re actual prisoners. Most of Neg’s slaves just don’t care, and let Skeer pass by them without so much as a raised eyebrow, up until the undead Disguise Master shows up. Since he wants personal revenge on Conan, he shouts that they’re enemies of Neg, and apparently Neg’s zombie thralls are under standing orders to attack anyone identified as an enemy. This is a really easily exploitable standing order, but I’m not gonna ding the book points for it, because Elashi exploits it immediately by telling the next pack of zombies they find that their pursuers are enemies of Neg, whereupon they immediately attack the zombies chasing them, and our heroes escape during the melee. I’m willing to believe that Neg never ran into this problem before he had a giant zombie army. Coming up with zombie commands that cause them to actually do what you want on autopilot is hard.
Conan and Elashi fight their way past the defenses on the Source of Light, seize it, and at that point all tension is lost and the book just shambles towards its conclusion. Neg withers Skeer away and deploys some magical tricks that nearly do in Elashi and Conan, but Conan powers through and splits his skull open. The spiders following Skeer around also attack Neg at one point, because he’s absorbed Skeer’s life energy, so now they recognize him as a target. It is a moderately interesting fight, but it wasn’t the sudden culmination of the half-dozen different antagonists piling up together that I’d thought the story was leading to. It’s the Game of Thrones season 8 problem: Subverting expectations isn’t a good thing if the expectation you subverted was better than what you subverted it with. Awaken Online did the same thing, where it seemed like it was setting up for a predictable but functional plot where the AI was programmed to maximize player retention and, upon realizing that MMO populations trend eternally downwards after launch day, staunched the bleeding by kidnapping the player population at peak time, but then it swapped that for a less predictable but also way more petty and boring “revenge on the bully” story.
Tuanne and Elashi do some magic spell to deanimate all the zombies, Tuanne is able to survive because of arbitrary magic bullshit, and then goes off with the talisman to commit suicide with it. She’s apparently perfectly capable of enjoying a roll in the hay, so I don’t know why, but she does. Conan and Elashi wish to remember her as she was, not as a decaying corpse, as per Tuanne’s last request, so they do not retrieve the Source of Light. This is stupid for no less than three reasons:
- Tuanne is super vain, apparently, and wants to be remembered for her pretty looks rather than for, you know, helping to save the world, or as a friend, or whatever.
- Tuanne has been dead for a century-ish. If all that decay catches up with her at once, it will reduce her to dust. There won’t be a hideous corpse.
- Even granting that Tuanne is super vain, and even if only a couple of days worth of rotting catch up to her at once so she’s still all decayed and stuff, so what? Isn’t it more important to grab the Source of Light and throw it in the ocean or something? If you just leave it lying around fifty yards from the castle (in a nice spot to die, even – one that will draw the eye for other purposes), then any other would-be necromancer hegemons will be able to stumble over it while searching Neg’s old digs.
The narrative does not notice any of these, and instead concludes with both women professing their love for Conan (and each other), Tuanne going off to kill herself, and Elashi deciding to travel into Zamora with Conan until they reach the crossroads that leads off towards her home. This sets up our sequel, Conan the Indomitable, another book by Steve Perry and also starring Conan and Elashi. I was unable to find any downloadable copy nor any library copy, so we’ll be looking at that when my Amazon copy shows up on Monday. I guess I’ll poke at some of the thief stories in the meantime.
While we’re here, let’s look at the Chamomile Chronology again. I don’t know if all the Tor novels are going to try and place themselves firmly into a specific point in the chronology the way this one did, but much like the Lair of the Ice Worm, this book’s efforts to affix itself to a particular place in the chronology wound up mattering not at all. It’s referenced in the first chapter, and then never again. To the extent that this book fits into the chronology at all, it’s that Conan seems kind of dumb, but he isn’t that stupid in the thief stories, which are supposed to be set when he’s, like, seventeen. Plus, Conan in this story seems dumb less because that’s an actual character trait he’s meant to have, and more from a combination of braindead repetition of the “men are clueless” gender role as part of this book’s love affair with gender roles in general, matched with the author just generally not trying very hard.
But although I feel no particular reason to stick to the chronology with this one, this story actually does make a really good bridge between Conan Hyperborean adventures in the Thing in the Crypt and the thief stories down in Zamora, if only because they take him across the country of Brythunia. And from a setting-building perspective, the story is a perfectly acceptable addition to the Conan universe. The spider cult is cool, Neg the Maleficent’s foreboding castle is a replacement level wizard fortress, the Suddah Oblates and their Temple That Will Not Fall are a reasonably interesting group with an actually pretty cool home base. The characters are a trainwreck, but it’s not like we have some kind of Avengers-style team-up to worry about, so trainwreck characters have much less impact on the meta-narrative than you’d expect. Likewise, the plot was a string of obstacles almost any one of which could be excised without any damage to the surrounding story at all (the only encounters with lasting consequences were the final confrontation with Neg and spider town, and – perhaps coincidentally – spider town was the best part of the whole story), but that has no impact on the greater narrative except that we would probably be better off with this book cut completely, something which goes beyond the parameters of the exercise. The point here is to incorporate as many Conan stories as possible without damaging the verisimilitude of Hyboria.
To that end, Conan the Defiant is at odds with mainly just one other story, which is Conan the Bold, the origin story in which Conan chases a pack of slavers across all of Hyboria for revenge on behalf of people he knew for like three weeks, ends up getting enmeshed in a dumb ancient aliens epic fantasy plot, and has at least one plot arc too many. I liked the idea of Conan the Bold as marking a break from Conan’s very early career, when he wandered in and around Cimmeria and didn’t tend to go much further than your typical Cimmerian raider (though usually without a typical Cimmerian raiding party), but I knew even at the time that it probably wouldn’t last, because Conan the Bold leans hard into the “quest log Conan” problem, where Conan goes tearing across Hyboria as though he knows where his next episodic adventure is going to take place and makes a beeline for that location. Conan the Bold ends with our hero in Stygia, far from almost any other story he’s ever been in, and has him striking out in a random direction. If we assume that other chronologies are even remotely accurate, this ends with Conan crossing half of Hyboria until he reaches Zamora for the thief stories, so Conan the Bold was pretty much always going to be tossed.
If I were given charge of an MCU-style long-term Conan continuity reboot, remixing old stories into a new canon, I would totally adapt Conan the Bold so that the Ophirian bandits arc, the Kothian pursuit arc, and the Stygian confrontation arc were rolled together and set in Brythunia (I’d also excise the ancient aliens sub-plot). That’s beyond the scope of the Chamomile Chronology, though, whose goal is to assemble existing Conan stories together into an in-universe chronological reading order. Telling readers to just flat-out not read a certain book or chapter of a book is fine, as is telling them to ignore inconsequential passages attempting to place a story at a specific spot in the timeline despite this coming up only to explain why Conan’s past experiences will not inform his current behavior, but telling them to imagine reading a different second half of a book than actually exists is not.
Conan the Bold actually makes it a plot point and a theme that Kalya knows the ways of civilized people and Conan does not. Likewise, while Conan’s specific destination of Zamora doesn’t inform any of his actions in Conan the Defiant, his willingness to just kind of wander around in general very much does. He is clearly not making a beeline back home to Cimmeria, and is clearly headed in a generally southerly direction. He doesn’t have much experience with civilization at this point, but the idea that Conan the Bold could come after this is already very tenuous, and there’s pretty much no way it could come before, because at the end of Bold, Conan is too far from Brythunia (and on the opposite end of it!) to plausibly loop around to where this story needs him to be at start.
So now that this timeline ramble has stretched a 1,000 word finale post to my 2,000 word goal, I’ll bottom-line it: Conan the Bold can only make sense if it occurs very soon after Conan the Defiant, and that chronological real estate is almost certainly taken up by at least one of the next four novels that are apparently supposed to take place between it and the start of Howard’s thief stories. Steve Parry apparently felt the need to document every single step of Conan’s journey from the southern border of Hyperborea where we left him in the Thing in the Crypt all the way to Zamora where we’ll catch up with him in the Tower of the Elephant, which means there’s no chance for Conan to nip off back to Cimmeria and go raiding in Pict lands instead. So I’m calling it now, Conan the Bold must be excised from the timeline to make way for the Steve Parry saga. This makes me sad mainly because, for all that Conan the Bold wasn’t great, it was better than Conan the Defiant. It had characters I cared about. Even if it did stretch that investment thinner than a Cosmo cover model over way too many arcs that advanced the plot not at all, I got impatient with Conan the Bold because I wanted to see these characters get their revenge already, but I got impatient with Conan the Defiant because I’d stopped caring a long time ago and just wanted everyone to shut up. I would’ve been equally satisfied if Elashi and Tuanne had died inconsequential deaths halfway through and the only reason I would’ve complained about the same happening to Conan is because we kind of need him around to rob evil wizards in a couple of stories.