Conan the Indomitable arrived early, which means instead of figuring out what I’m going to do for the Monday review, we’re going to go ahead and dive into that. Just like Conan the Defiant, I don’t have the book in a copy/pastable format, although this does mean that I get a quaint ad in the back of the book for Hyborian War, a play-by-mail strategy game set in Hyboria from back in those primitive days when if you wanted to have a Conan-themed grand strategy game with dozens of different players each taking on a separate kingdom in the world of Hyboria, it was something you had to organize via snail mail with each turn taking 2+ weeks, not something you’d set up a Discord for and drop links on some relevant forums and subreddits and have turns every 24-48 hours.
This story is a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant, which means we open at the juncture between Brythunia, Corinthia, and Zamora, with Conan and Elashi bickering in a typical 80s sitcom kind of way. The narrative tells, rather than shows, who our characters are:
The speark of these words was named Elashi, a beautiful young woman born of the Khauranian desert. While lush of breast, she had the supple muscles and carriage developed by one familiar with hard work, and her legs were firm and slim from much walking.
I’m just kinda gonna leave the whole “lush of breast” thing there, because I’ve taken Steve Perry to task for this kind of thing often enough in Conan the Defiant that I don’t think there’s much left to add. I quote this passage mainly because it identifies Elashi – I think for the first time – as Khauranian, which gives us an idea of where she’s headed and how long her and Conan’s paths will follow alongside one another. And the answer is not far, because she is going straight across Zamora and Conan is in quest log mode, planning to get off at one of the cities along the way so he can start up his Robert E. Howard-penned thief stories.
The man was also young, but certainly fully grown. He stood tall and wide-shouldered, with thickly muscled arms and a deep, heavy chest. Clean-shaven, he wore his black hair in a square cut mane, and his blue eyes seemed to flash with a deep inner fire.
Description given for contrast. It could be a lot worse. At least it doesn’t spend a paragraph describing Elashi’s super hot bod and then describes Conan by just saying “also Conan was there.” Side note: Conan being clean-shaven is a deeply ingrained and iconic look for him, and it’s way too late to back out of that now, but it’s pretty weird, thematically. Conan’s a barbarian, and being opposed to the tyrannies of civilization is one of his most defining features, but apparently he’s not so barbaric that he doesn’t carry around a straight razor and a tin full of shaving cream.
Anyway, it’s a new book, so the reset button has been hit on what little character growth Conan the Defiant had, by which I mean that Elashi is now tsun instead of dere, and will presumably grow more comfortable expressing her affections to Conan again over the course of the next 250-ish pages. So, this is a book that’s going to have to sell itself purely on the fantastical Conan adventures, because the character arcs sure as Hell won’t be putting in any work. I’m kind of repeating myself, though, ’cause it’s not like there was any reason to believe Steve Perry had drastically overhauled his writing style between 1987 and 1989.
Our first encounter happens almost immediately, with someone hiding behind a boulder on the trail ahead. Conan suggests that he go down the trail and keep their attention while Elashi circles around behind. Elashi insists that she do the dangerous thing, because girl power. Which, honestly, it’s kind of weird to see this cropping up in a Conan book in 1989, when I associate this kind of thing more with the 90s. Y’know, the whole Lara Croft “I’ll extinguish endangered species and wipe out platoons of soldiers for personal profit all by myself because being a homicidal sociopath means I’m empowered” thing. I wouldn’t expect Conan to be an early adopter of this or any other paradigm, continuation of a character created in the 30s who was first revived in the 60s that it is. At best, I’d expect it to be mired in the sexism of its own time, which is oddly absent here.
“Very well,” he said. “You proceed down the trail while I circle behind the rock…and whoever it is that awaits there.”
“Better,” she said. But after a moment of triumph, her grin faded and she looked nervously at Conan. “You would actually send me along the trail into the jaws of possible death?” Her stare was incredulous and her voice quavered. She acted as if he had spat on her.
Conan shook his head and glanced around at the mountains. Was there some demon hiding out there sent to bedevil him? And what did Elashi want from him? Disagree with her and she argued. Agree with her and she argued even more. Crom! He felt the heat of anger rise within him.
Fighting to keep his voice level, he said, “All right. What is your suggestion?”
“Keep your voice down,” she ordered.
Conan’s anger increased as he stared helplessly at her. She was beautiful, to be sure, but maddening!
“You proceed down the path and draw the attention of whoever or whatever is there,” she said. “I shall circle around the rock and get behind them. That way, I may take them unaware.”
Conan stared, unable to speak in his frustrated rage.
“Isn’t that a better plan than the one you had?” she asked sweetly.
Ah, there it is. Steve was saving it up to drop a whole load of it all at once. That makes sense, then. I’m gonna try to avoid harping on this too much, because my review of Conan the Defiant is right over there and you can go read it if you want to see me discuss this in exhaustive detail, but in brief: This is the same importation of 80s sitcom tropes into an iron age setting where they don’t belong that Elashi suffered from before. I’d be suspicious of the motives of an author who decided that the female lead needed to be one of those people who likes to front like they’re all tough and empowered but who’re actually kind of cowardly dipshits when it comes time to actually accomplish things, but I’d at least concede that such people do exist at all in certain modern sub-cultures where women being tough and empowered is considered a requirement, cowardly dipshits not being known for fighting against the consensus of their peers.
But we’re not in modern society. We’re in the iron age and far from any center of civilization. Not only that, but our characters are a desert nomad and a barbarian, neither of whom should be expected or expecting to abide by civilized notions like “punching people is not an acceptable response when someone’s being a prat.” Elashi’s whole game here is to be annoying until Conan is so eager to end the conversation that he will pretend to concede that his original plan, the one that kept Elashi out of danger, was actually Elashi’s idea, and much better than his own. But Conan is a barbarian, and he has lots of other options for getting out of the conversation (even disregarding the obvious and perfectly civilized “how stupid do you think I am? Do you think I’d just forget the conversation we had five fucking seconds ago, where I proposed exactly that plan?”), up to and including “stab Elashi to death.” Conan murders people for personal gain all the time! His current plan is to make a living stealing from people! He killed like twenty people in pursuit of revenge for a friend of thirty-six hours, an insane vengeance quest that Elashi witnessed in full!
In any case, Conan rounds the corner to confront the bandits, consisting of five pikemen and their mysterious leader.
Conan was somewhat puzzled about this last figure.
At first glance, it seemed a man from its dress and manner; on closer examination, the beardless face was definitely female, this self-evident not merely from its smoothness of complexion but from its shape and the bearer’s use of cosmetics. The lips were rouged, the eyebrows partially plucked, and the area around the eyes darkened with a bluish hue. The reddish-brown hair was shorter than Conan’s own, and cut feathery on the ends. Additionally, the creature’s shirt front jutted out in twin peaks that certainly seemed womanly…but the crotch of the tight leather revealed a bulge than [sic] seemed definitely male.
This is gonna be a long book.