A Spectrum of Magical Hardness

It finally seems to have died down a bit, but for a while there, absolutely everyone was obsessed with Brandon Sanderson style magic systems. I don’t just mean that they liked Brandon Sanderson’s work, but also that naturally there were tons of amateur imitators who were all really, really bad. And magic systems got framed in Sanderson-grade hard magic or Tolkien-style where it was basically just a mood, and no one seemed to be able to conceive of anything in between.

As usual, I’m like three years late to this party, but the different levels of hardness you can have in a magic system has been on my mind lately. People have accepted for a long time now that you can have harder or softer magic systems, but the idea that it’s a spectrum rather than a binary switch between Tolkien and Sanderson still doesn’t seem to have especially taken hold.

For the sake of thoroughness, let’s go ahead and define Sanderson hard magic as a system where magic users have specific powers that interact with the laws of physics in some kind of well-defined way, like being able to alter the direction their gravity is pulled or being able to repulse and/or attract themselves from a certain kind of metal or whatever.

Going one step further down, though, we have Avatar bending, a magic system where there are one or a small handful of magic disciplines each with a flexible but strongly themed powerset. A waterbender can learn to bend ice or plants or blood, but there’s only four kinds of bending and they’re each pretty narrowly focused. It was the lack of any attention paid to this kind of magic system that got me thinking about the spectrum in general. So far as ease of creation versus satisfaction in execution goes, this is the sweet spot for me. It’s not especially hard to come up with a small list of strong themes for your magic system, and then you can extrapolate creative uses from there.

Further down from there is D&D spells, in which magic is an arbitrary list of spells that you can learn how to cast. There is no greater framework the spells have to fit into, and it’s perfectly typical for a wizard to have a totally unrelated Frankenstein of a spellbook. Knowing what one spell does gives you absolutely no information on what any other spell could do, nor on what other spells the wizard who cast it might know or be capable of.

Harry Potter uses this system, too. This system tends towards the dull. Harry Potter made it work by having an incessant stream of new spells and magic items that were all really cool and then asking the audience to quietly ignore the fact that there were a handful of boring-but-practical spells like stupefy and the granddaddy of all boring put practical Harry Potter spells, avada kadavra, which rendered other combat spells obsolete. The audience was generally willing to do this, because watching Dumbledore and Voldemort have a sweet wizard fight with animated statues and stuff was cooler than just watching them shoot the dodge-or-lose spells at each other like they were two dudes with particularly slow handguns. It’s much harder for your characters to use this system creatively, because it has a finite list of specific spells (even if the spell list is theoretically infinite, in practice it is limited to whatever amount of spells you can actually introduce in your setup, otherwise it’s deus ex machina), all of which do exactly one thing. They unlock a door, or let you fly, or blow up a 20′ radius within 120′ of your location. Instead, the creativity has to come purely from the spells that are in the world. This worked out great for Harry Potter, but the star of that series wasn’t the eponymous wizard, but rather the world of magic he inhabited.

Nearing the soft end, we have X-Men powers. Whereas D&D spells represent a library of powers that everyone has more-or-less equal access to, meaning that every spell added to your heroes’ book is potentially available to your villains and vice-versa, X-Men doesn’t even have that limitation. Not only are the powers arbitrary and unbounded by any kind of greater framework, they’re also unique or nearly-unique to their specific users. Not only does Wolverine’s healing factor tell us nothing about what other powers he might have, it also gives us no reason to believe that Mystique or Cyclops might also have a healing factor.

Then at the soft end we have Tolkienian magic, where everything is vague and magic could do almost anything but in practice will do almost nothing. Although Tolkien does have a handful of D&D-style magic items that have specific, arbitrary uses not tied to any greater theme, for the most part magic is a mood, a force of nature. In Tolkienian magic, magic is so poorly understood that knowing about Gandalf’s ability to blow smoke into the shape of a boat not only tells us nothing about what other abilities he might have from that moment, but even by the end of the book we don’t have any reason to believe we’ve seen him exhaust his magical powers. Wolverine’s healing factor, adamantium skeleton, and snikt claws are all totally unrelated powers, but by the end of an X-Men story we know that he has those powers specifically and no more. By the end of Lord of the Rings we still have no idea whether or not Gandalf could’ve hurled a fireball if he really wanted to (he definitely has broadly fire-themed powers in general!), nor whether or not he had steady access to the powers he did demonstrate or if magic had to be in the right mood, or what.

Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates

We go from the shortest story of the collection to the longest. Hopefully quality is inversely correlated. I know that if I tried to write a story in, like, seven pages, it wouldn’t go very well. I need space to develop ideas and let a slow burn get through the wick. Of course, this has led to my decision to just not release any stories under 25,000 words in length, and I usually aim for 50k-100k, because that’s the area where I’m at best, but hey, I had to write a lot of short stories that sprawled into 50k+ novellas before I figured that out, and I could see a timeline where I’d decided I really needed to commit to the short story thing and wound up writing some of those, and that they would be worse the shorter they were.

So that’s an entire paragraph of me procrastinating having to actually start reading, which is definitely not a good sign.

The aromas of rum and sweat wafted about him with blood and black powder just beneath the surface.

There it is, guys, that’s the smell of pirates, case closed. For serious, though, this is a pretty good opening line, especially in tandem with the title.

That balance was subject to change, of course, depending on the ever-changing winds and where they blew him.

But here it’s kind of belaboring the point.

Anyway, this story opens with a pirate leaving a tavern to find some noble girl walking around near the docks after nightfall, whereupon she is accosted by a gang of hoodlums. The pirate decides he would rather be the one raping her instead. This coming right on the heels of a story about the guy who can’t sleep which immediately disregarded its premise to instead be about some mediocre efforts at comforting an assault victim, this collection is coming across as having a very weird prefixation with sexual assault. Come to think of it, the last short story collection I read, from a completely unrelated group of authors with a completely unrelated topic, also had a weird prefixation with sexual assault. Is this just a hot-button issue that everyone wants to write about these days? Is it just a fundamentally compelling idea that people tend to land on when they don’t have any better ideas? It definitely doesn’t crop up in the best works nearly as often.

Continue reading “Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates”

Conan the Indomitable Was An Even Bigger Waste of Even Better Ideas

Part 1: Inauspicious Beginnings
Part 2: The Obligatory Tavern Fight
Part 3: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This
Part 4: Twin Wizards
Part 5: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character
Part 6: The Subterranean United Nations
Part 7: Wizards Get Conan’d

Steve Perry has stamped himself all over the gap between the Thing in the Crypt and the thief-era Conan stories in Zamora. Conan the Indomitable is a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant, which took Conan across Brythunia towards Zamora. This one takes Conan into Corinthia as the road wends towards Zamora, although the actual story takes place almost entirely in an Underdark-style massive series of caverns that could be located anywhere in Hyboria. This means that if you’re trying to read through the Conan books in any kind of chronological order and you’re trying to avoid skipping any books outright, you pretty much have to read all four Steve Perry novels almost in a row. No one else is doing much with this time period (there is one other novel in Brythunia and which is thus assumed to take place in this general era, even though it almost has to be incompatible with Conan the Defiant, wherein Conan crosses from one end of Brythunia to the other with no breaks where it would make sense to insert a side quest).

So what I’m getting at is that the ups and downs of Conan the Indomitable are very similar to those of Conan the Defiant, which I expect will be very similar to Conan the Free Lance and Conan the Formidable, and having to read more Steve Perry books right on top of each other has me seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my approach.

Like Defiant, Conan the Indomitable brings fun new ideas to the Conan world. It’s actually way better than just this, for while Conan the Defiant had basically two cool ideas, and one of them was just “a spider cult,” which is definitely a cool idea but also pretty much just taking the bog standard snake cult of Set and saying “but what if spiders instead?” and following a few fairly obvious implications of that. Conan the Indomitable has an entire underworld full of new creatures with their own factional politics. The plotline about Deek and Wikkell convincing their fellow giant worms and cyclopes (respectively) to rise up against their evil wizard overlords is easily the best part of the book. There’s plants that shoot webs and worms that speak by scraping their plates across the stone. There’s fungus that glows, bathing the underworld in a sickly green light. You can find clear antecedents for all of this stuff, sure, but the book doesn’t have to be inventing ideas from whole cloth to be expanding the setting of Conan.

Also like Defiant, it’s constantly marred by two major flaws: First, dumb 80s sitcom tropes being imported thoughtlessly into the narrative, casting Conan’s latest paramour into the role of “naggy wife” and Conan into the role of “dumb husband,” and second, having villains and other obstacles build up one by one only to then be defeated one by one, rather than compounding on each other during a climax. Conan the Indomitable sees villains being defeated within minutes rather than within hours of one another, but still they do not attack Conan simultaneously nor do they actually cause any noticeable harm or fatigue to him, which might put him in more danger in subsequent confrontations. The book also has so many cutaways that it begins to cause real pacing problems, as we start getting cutaways to characters who are doing, but have not yet completed, a task that we last saw them setting out to complete. We need the cutaway where they start doing the thing and we need the cutaway where they’ve finished it (actually, we could probably get away with implying one or even both of those in some cases, but at least in general we need those cutaways). The cutaway to them being partway through doing a thing is gratuitous, especially when it’s not even a particularly interesting thing. Since the premise of the book is that two evil wizards want to hunt down Conan while he’s trapped in their subterranean world, a lot of the time the thing we’re cutting away to watch the wizards do is just walk through some tunnels thinking villainous thoughts about Conan.

There’s also two new issues, although fortunately ones that didn’t end up marring the narrative as much as I had feared: The characters of Lalo and Harskeel. Lalo has a curse requiring him to constantly speak in insults to everyone around him. He’s supposed to be witty and clever about it, but soon after his introduction the narrative stops even trying to make his insults funny, which is probably a wise decision since putting effort in wasn’t really working out, so why bother? Harskeel is one of the side villains, a man and a woman conjoined into a single hermaphroditic being who is trying to separate themselves back into two. As a villain, they’re mostly mediocre. As social commentary, they’re pretty horrible, albeit probably also accidental (I really doubt Steve Perry was writing an intentional commentary on trans people or intersex people or whatever you might want to call Harskeel a metaphor for, writing as he was from 1989 when most people didn’t even know these things existed), though back on the first hand, it should have been obvious from just the hypothetical that someone with a slightly weird configuration of body parts isn’t particularly monstrous (if someone tries to convince you that elves are fundamentally alien because of their pointy ears, odds are excellent you’re about to have a Very Special Episode about racism in the middle of your Tolkien pastiche), and this does not stop characters from treating Harskeel like an inhuman mutant.

These two new problems are thankfully minimized because Harskeel quickly takes a backseat to the two wizards Katamay Rey and Chuntha and Lalo just drops out of the narrative for about two-thirds of the book. Of course, that brings us to a third problem, which is that Katamay Rey and Chuntha are nearly interchangeable as villains except in that Chuntha is a beautiful naked woman obsessed with sleeping with Conan, and whom Conan eventually defeats by sexing longer than she can.

Ultimately, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Steve Perry Conan story, given how Conan the Defiant shook out: Some new ideas added to the Conan canon but marred by a sloppy execution. Which brings me back to another reason why I really dislike Steve Perry’s clustering of his stories in a very specific and very small time period. Not only does it make it hard to get away from his stories while reading in any kind of chronological order (whether in-universe or out, as he was one of the only people still writing Conan books in the late 80s), it also means that all his fun new ideas are tightly concentrated in one small part of Hyboria. Rather than Conan periodically coming across something really bizarre and yet not out of place, it’s instead just that the whole Brythunia region is, for some reason, full of fish monsters and underground labyrinths.

There is one exception to the Steve Perry parade in the chronological timeline. Sean A. Moore’s Conan the Hunter takes place, according to the William Galen Grey chronology, between Conan the Defiant and Conan the Indomitable. Those two are clearly direct sequels and no story could plausibly take place between or during them unless it included both Conan and Elashi, so I’m guessing we’re actually looking at a point when the timeline either conflicts or else Conan just has an adventure in Brythunia that is assumed to take place around this time, but might actually fit in the timeline better elsewhere, provided Conan is ever in the Brythunia region again. I guess we’ll see when we read Conan the Hunter, and after we do that, I’ll decide whether or not I want to read not one but two additional Steve Perry books before moving on to something else.

But first I need to wait for Conan the Hunter to show up from Amazon, so we’ll be reading some more Leaves of the World Tree first.

Conan the Indomitable: Wizards Get Conan’d

Chapter Nineteen

One of the gems taken from Chuntha has some kind of clearly magical hum to it. Conan’s usual magic-sensing powers have apparently failed to alert him, though. Maybe he lost his Barbarian class features when he used the Warp in the last book, and now he can’t rage or repel magic until he has an atonement spell cast on him.

Chuntha has a cloak that can turn her into a quetzalcoatlus (that’s the dinosaur – the Aztec god is just quetzalcoatl without the -us), and also knows feather fall. Like, seriously, it’s a “complex conjuration that would lighten her body to featherweight,” so in terms of casting time and effect it is basically exactly the same as the D&D spell. She plans on using her quetzalcoatlus form to fly home, and since the length of the transportation is extremely swingy, on attempting to use the feather fall spell to save herself if the transformation gives out mid-air. You might think that attempting to fly home in the ‘Neath is going to be difficult, seeing as how everything past the Sunless Sea (and even large portions of the Sunless Sea) seems to be pretty tight tunnels with maybe a dozen yards of head room at most, but apparently this is so little a concern that it doesn’t even need to be addressed. Maybe she’s just using this form to cross the Sea? Either way, the chapter also says that quetzalcoatlus is only nearly extinct, so there’s still dinosaurs stomping around somewhere in the far south of Hyboria. I feel like there’s other Conan stories that have had dinosaurs in them, but I can’t put my finger on an actual name or plot or anything, so maybe it’s just that they go together so well that my mind has associated them without any actual source material to draw on. Certainly I liked the idea enough to write up about half an RPG about it the one time.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Wizards Get Conan’d”

Conan the Indomitable: The Subterranean United Nations

We’re all just gonna pretend it’s Saturday.

Chapter Fifteen

Conan and company flee the wizard they’ve just escaped, and learn that Lalo wasn’t, like, planning on saving them or anything, and it was pure stupid luck that the floor happened to cave in underneath him while he was wandering through the wilderness after finally getting kicked out of the inn. The four decide that now is the best time to rob Chuntha and/or Katamay Rey blind, since they’re both out hunting Conan (it’s still not clear why Katamay cares, nor if Chuntha has any motivation besides lust). There was definitely some kind of divination from Katamay Rey, but it’s not really clear to me what Conan is actually prophesied to do. Katamay and Chuntha must have a pretty solid idea that Conan is a threat, though, to go to such lengths chasing him.

Wikkell and Deek are making their way back to their respective homelands in hopes of stirring up revolution while the rulers are away. They discuss both the difficulty in convincing them to act and the potential for the future if the wizards can be deposed.

“We must convince our brothers and sisters to take the long view, Deek. Why, we might even create some kind of joint council, your folk and mine, with input from the plants and perhaps even the bats and Whites. Bring prosperity to the caves, instead of the boots of Rey and Chuntha upon our throats.”

Vote Wikkell 2020.

Chapter Sixteen

It’s not really clear how Conan and company get back across the Sunless Sea, but they do, arriving back in Tull’s hideout. Chuntha and Katamay Rey’s domains are both reasonably close, but in different directions, so they have to pick one or the other to raid. Katamay prefers gold, while Chuntha prefers gems, specifically rubies, emeralds, and firestones are named, and apparently we’re meant to take these as equally tempting treasures, but the real answer here is clearly Chuntha, because rubies and emeralds are worth more pound for pound than gold. If Chuntha has similar volume as Katamay, hers is the more valuable hoard. If she has similar value to Chuntha, hers is the more portable hoard. But I guess rubies and gold are supposed to be equally valuable, or else a lot more of Chuntha’s treasure is made up of less valuable gemstones than Tull implied.

Conan says the witch, but not for economic reasons.

Elashi raised one eyebrow at Conan. “Why so?”

It lay upon the top of Conan’s tongue to answer that he thought dealing with a witch – a woman – would be easier than dealing with a wizard – a man – should anything go wrong. Recalling his travels with Elashi so far, however, he realized that to speak such reasoning aloud would only irritate her and bring forth an undammed flow of invective. For some reason, Elashi seemed convinced that women were the equal of men in practically all things, and Conan had no desire to listen to another of her tirades. Perhaps, he thought, he was learning to deal with women after all.

I can’t tell if Steve Perry is trying to paint Conan as dumb and conceited or if the audience is meant to agree that Elashi is unreasonable. Certainly Elashi is unreasonable, not in this particular case but just in general, which suggests probably the latter.

But then it turns out that Steve Perry does know the value of rubies:

“Well?” she said.

Conan thought quickly. “Well-cut jewels are more valuable than gold, and much lighter. We can carry more gems than coin.”

Well, you can carry more value in gems. Individual gems will probably be bigger and harder to transport than individual coins. I’m nitpicking, but seeing as how 1) Conan was the only one smart enough to realize this very obvious fact and 2) even Conan only got here because announcing “because sexism!” is a faux pas and Conan cares about social propriety now for some reason.

Also, the general trend of both wizards having effectively identical solutions to all problems is only getting stronger. They’re both scouting the Sunless Sea for Conan, and the magical bird-size hornets they’re using are seriously just palette swaps of one another. There’s a backstory for how these near-identical magic items wound up in their possession, but while that might’ve been kinda funny on its own, being as it is the third or fourth time two nominally distinct wizards have turned out to be palette swaps of one another, it’s mostly just dull. Anyway, they’re still searching the Sunless Sea, so no chance of finding Conan any time soon. On the other hand, we’ve only got about eighty pages to burn before the climax, when the wizards are scheduled to be killed by Conan, their own rebellious minions, or both, so presumably they’re getting back home sooner rather than later.

That rebellion isn’t going so great, though. Deek and Wikkell are unable to prompt a rebellion just by asking for one, so they resolve to try and find some crack in their respective evil overlords’ armor with which to inspire their fellows.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: The Subterranean United Nations”

Conan the Indomitable: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character

Chapter Twelve

The dead fish raft is becoming unusable because apparently things have been feeding on it from below, but conveniently in such very small chunks and so infrequently that it didn’t just, y’know, be devoured entirely within a few hours. Conan and company ditch the boat, confident that they’ve eluded pursuit, because they could’ve taken any of the myriad passages leading away from the Sunless Sea. It apparently does not occur to them that someone might notice their boat and drastically narrow the number of possible exits to those in the boat’s immediate vicinity. Granted, the boat is made from a fish, which means it’s possible that pursuers won’t realize it was converted into a boat, but it’s also possible that they will, and this possibility is one that Conan, Elashi, and Tull all completely ignore. And while it takes him a bit, Deek does eventually realize that a fish is about the only thing that Conan could’ve made his boat from, and that the dead fish with he odd wounds they passed was probably carved up by a blade and used as a raft. Being cunning enough to understand things like “pursuers might recognize these cuts were artificial and continue their chase, we should not let our guard down” was actually pretty critical to Conan’s character once upon a time, but apparently not anymore.

And once the plot needs him to be clever, he suddenly is. Far more clever than the original stories posited, in fact. In Frost Giant’s Daughter, we establish that Conan is easily baited into a trap by pretty women. In some chronologies, this happens when Conan is like fifteen or sixteen years old, and makes a good deal of sense, but in the Tor chronology that this book operates off of, Conan is like twenty-something when that encounter happens, but he’s still fifteen or sixteen here, in Conan the Indomitable. Logically speaking, Conan should be pretty much helpless before the charms of the siren voice of the Webspinner Plants. So, y’know, maybe Elashi or Tull have to snap him out of it, like, maybe give Elashi any reason at all to even be in this story besides making it a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant and also letting Steve Perry hit his sexism quotas. But, no, Conan is suddenly good at resisting seduction, because if there’s one thing that’s characterized Conan in this story so far, it’s restraining himself from sexual interludes in situations where they might be dangerous.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character”

Conan the Indomitable: Twin Wizards

Chapter Eight

Katamay Rey and Chuntha are proving to be almost interchangeable. They’ll probably turn out to have different powers or something once they get more involved in the plot – or at least, I hope they do – but right now they send out their minions at about the same time, make contact with their minions demanding results at the exact same time, and lose patience and take matters into their own hands at the exact same time. That last one is what initiates this chapter, as the cyclops and the worm have both moved beyond the range of their respective masters’ ability to make contact with them. Even though they’re different means of magical communication that work slightly differently, they nevertheless both get out of range at the exact same time leading to both wizards to lose patience within a page of each other. The only real difference is this:

The man – the big, strong, handsome, virile man – might be escaping her cluthces even as she lay upon her bed dreading the very thought.

And also Chuntha is naked, for some reason. So, yeah. That’s the singular difference between Chuntha and Katamay Rey: Chuntha is a hot naked chick who really wants to bang the audience insert character. It’s 80s Conan, so it’s not like this kind of thing is unexpected, but still.

Also, Harskell, having retreated from the cavern with one of the bats, is now interrogating a Blind White. I guess Steve Perry just forgot which kind of creature they’d captured on the way out? I double-checked the end of chapter seven, it was definitely a wounded bat they collected on their way out.

Conan and company are sailing on the Sunless Sea, and Conan muses that anyone who tries to swim after them would likely end up devoured by some massive sea monster like the one whose corpse they converted into a raft. But why don’t the sea monsters come after them? They’re paddling a fresh corpse around! It’s still perfectly edible to sea monsters, and so are the passengers. It’s disturbing the water about as much as a swimming creature would. The raft behaves exactly like a wooden boat, though, including deterring predators from attacking because it magically doesn’t smell like meat.

The cyclops and the worm are starting to grow on one another as they continue to pursue Conan and company, finding some detritus of the raft construction and setting out for the Webspinner Plants’ lair in order to get a web boat to chase them with. At the same time, the two wizards are setting out in pursuit with small armies of their minions, so apparently Conan and Elashi have leveled up and the GM is now deploying higher CR opposition.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Twin Wizards”

Conan the Indomitable: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This

Chapter Four

The length of their fall was nearly five spans; fortunately, the bottom of the descent was watery.

What’s the point of giving a numeric distance if it’s in a unit that no one knows? And I mean literally no one, because the “span” used here cannot possibly be the historical span, which was the span of your hand from thumb to pinkie. That’s like half a foot, so even with generous rounding we’re talking about a fall of like three feet, here. Clearly this “span” refers to something else. I’m guessing approximately one yard? Just because the author is American, will probably use American units, and five yards is about the distance that seems to have been fallen here. But American units of distance are already pretty old timey and archaic, you can seriously just use them and it makes perfect sense. A foot is roughly the length of a guy’s actual foot, a yard is roughly the length of a man’s stride, a mile was originally 2,000 yards (while marching, your left foot would hit the ground 1,000 times exactly in a mile) but due to conversion issues between Roman and British units wound up being 1,760 yards instead, and the league is about how far you can get walking in an hour. Almost no one uses leagues outside of fantasy context anymore, but they’re at least a sensible unit of distance for iron age peasants walking places. Inches are the only weird one, a length whose definition is three lengths of barleycorn because fuck you, that’s why, but once you’re using all the other units, you may as well use inches, too.

The water isn’t super deep, but Conan and Elashi soon encounter a White. A Blind White, which I think is just their full name, not a specific sub-type. In addition to being a white ape, these things also have oversized ears and no eyes at all, just smooth flesh and bone where the eyes would go on a normal primate. Likewise, we learn that the full name of the bats are “Bloodbats.” I guess that makes sense alongside “fruit bats.” We also learn the full name of the Webspinners is “the Webspinner Plants,” so not actually spiders. This isn’t a masterclass in worldbuilding or anything, but this underground world does get a little bit more interesting every time we learn more about it.

Conan and Elashi fight their way past the Blind Whites, and a three-way chase soon ensues. Katamay Rey’s cyclops minion has the Blind Whites on his side, while Chuntha’s giant worm has the Bloodbats and Webspinner Plants on his. Both of them want to catch Conan, although why isn’t clear. Steve Perry is really consistently good at these build-up scenes, where problems stack up behind our heroes, but he also consistently has them arrive one at a time and fail to do any lasting damage. They neither compound on one another by showing up all at once nor risk wearing our heroes down by noticeably fatiguing them, injuring them, or depleting any kind of limited resource from them. Instead of danger escalating to a moment of cathartic climax during which lots of tension is released and then begins building up again, the story follows roughly a bell curve, with dangers being introduced one by one and then resolved one by one. Of course, that all happened back in 1987. It’s not impossible that he’s shaken that habit here in 1989. We’ll see.

Oh, also, the two wizards are both making plans for what to do with Conan once they catch him, and it’s not clear why they care so much about him yet, but Katamay Rey plans on chopping up his parts for use as ritual components, while Chuntha plans of using him for sex magic. Because of course the female wizard draws her power from sex magic.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This”

Conan the Indomitable: The Obligatory Tavern Fight

Chapter Two

After seeing off the bandits, the fleeing villain swears that they will have Conan’s sword. The narrative stops to comment on how weird it is that they specifically want his sword, so safe to say this isn’t just a pack of bandits asking for the one valuable thing Conan carried and then their leader getting unreasonably attached to it when they were denied. Also, Conan is so dumb that Elashi has to point out the possibility of looting the corpses for cash to him, even though he plans to be a thief. It is again difficult to tell whether Steve Perry is buying into the “Conan is dumb” flanderization or if he’s just copy/pasting the “dumb husband” sitcom tropes endemic to the 80s (and which live on through ever worse seasons of the Simpsons and assorted Seth MacFarlane shows to this day).

Conan and Elashi come to stay at an inn in some wintery part of Corinthia, because apparently the road winds through Corinthia a bit before getting into Zamora. Feels a bit like Steve Perry wanted Conan’s journey from Hyperborea to Zamora to not only be exhaustively documented, but to be a grand tour of Hyboria’s northeast-ish. This is not a terrible idea, except that the only places visited in Brythunia were the Suddah Oblates, spider town, and the village that lived in the shadow of Neg the necromancer. Aquilonia is an aristocratic monarchy with knights and legions and such, Zamora is a land of thieves and assassins, Stygia is a place full of ancient magic and occult power, and Brythunia is…home to lots of small time cults, I guess? But I never got the impression that Neg’s village and spider town were meant to be typical exemplars of what Brythunia was like.

Anyway, there’s a guy who works for the inn who makes fun of some dim-witted bandits, and his zingers are one step up from “your face is stupid!” but still somehow manage to sail over one of the bandits’ heads. I guess it’s not completely unreasonable that this bandit is just real dumb, but from Conan’s reaction, we’re meant to believe this guy is actually laugh out loud funny with lines like “I can see that you are a wit. No, on second pass, I think that is probably only half true.” When this inevitably results in violence, it turns out this “witty” fellow knows kung fu. Like, almost literally. He learned it from the men of Khitai somehow, despite the fact that they’re on the other side of a desert, a sea, and a steppe (or a desert, some tundra, and a bit more of a steppe, or a whole lot more of desert, some mountains, and about the same amount of steppe as the first time – there’s a lot of routes there, none of them friendly). Also, Conan gets involved, nominally because Elashi threatened to get involved if he wouldn’t, so he caved to her demands again, but really because God forbid we have a fight in a tavern and Conan not get involved. I wouldn’t even be down on it if Conan was just straight up like “a fight in a tavern? Sign me up, this is my jam!” But instead the narrative contrives to involve him rather than just letting this Lalo fellow fight alone, since apparently he’s Bruce Lee.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: The Obligatory Tavern Fight”

Mythos I

Part 1: Let’s Get the Conversation About Madness Out of the Way
Part 2: The Beast in the Cave
Part 3: The Alchemist
Part 4: The Tomb
Part 5: Dagon
Part 6: Double Feature
Part 7: Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Part 8: Old Bugs and Juan Romero
Part 9: The White Ship
Part 10: The Street, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the Statement of Randolph Carter
Part 11: The Terrible Old Man, the Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar
Part 12: The Temple
Part 13: Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
Part 14: Celephais and From Beyond
Part 15: Nyarlathotep and the Picture in the House
Part 16: Sweet Ermengarde
Part 17: The Nameless City
Part 18: The Quest of Iranon
Part 19: A Conclusion For Now

For those of you reading these as they come out, you’ll remember that I meant to post this on Saturday, wound up reviewing a bit of Leaves of the World Tree instead, which I was originally going to review on Monday, but then Conan the Indomitable arrived early, so I started in on that. Conan the Indomitable is shaping up to be no fun at all, although that’s mainly because of its villain, who will hopefully not feature very much. In any case, I am procrastinating that by posting a wrap-up post for the first chunk of Lovecraft’s work.

I’m reading these stories in order of writing, because that’s the order Barnes and Noble presents them in their Lovecraft collection that I’m reading from. This means that this chunk covers his work from 1905, when he finished the Beast in the Cave, to 1921, when he finished the Other Gods. It covers Lovecraft’s early Poe period, several of his Lord Dunsany inspired dream works, and the first inklings of the Cthulhu Mythos in stories like Nyarlathotep, Dagon, and the Other Gods. Also, there’s a couple of stories that are basically just racist propaganda, because unlike most of these old timey authors, Lovecraft is pretty much exactly as racist as you’ve been led to believe.

At this point, Lovecraft’s stories are all very short, usually clocking in at less than ten pages (albeit ten pages of Barnes and Nobles’ large-ish hardback collection books), and they cover such a massive breadth of subject matter that it’s hard to summarize. This is the danger of reviewing collections by the same author rather than ones with any kind of unified theme or a single, larger work, I suppose. Lovecraft has written comedy that fell flat (Old Bugs) and comedy that worked really well (Sweet Ermengarde). He’s written spooky stories that are recognizably Lovecraftian (Dagon), that are more Poe-like (the Tomb), and ones where the basic fear is that black people exist (Arthur Jermyn). He’s got a surprisingly wide range.

The range on quality is pretty wide, too, although naturally for a collection that starts from when the author is fifteen, there’s a noticeable increase in quality over time. The Beast in the Cave and the Alchemist are of mainly historical interest, but starting with the Tomb and Dagon we get into some actually good Lovecraftian stories. Quality veers all over the place, as Lovecraft often hits duds when writing outside his comfort zone, as with the Tree, about Greek sculptors, and some of the stories have just aged really poorly, like the Street or Arthur Jermyn.

The only one of the sub-sub-genres that Lovecraft will ultimately be famous for that really get explored here is his dream writing. Polaris, the White Ship, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the first appearance of Randolph Carter (albeit not in any kind of dream world) are all amongst these stories. Dagon and the Nameless City give us glimpses of Call of Cthulhu, but Lovecraft’s dreamscape isn’t just glimpsed, but already pretty fully formed. The basic idea of a dream world full of alien wonders is a compelling one, but Lovecraft doesn’t always deliver on the alien wonders. The White Ship was a tour of all kinds of weird places, but the Quest of Iranon was basically just a list of weird names attached to pretty normal societies. There was a Calvinist place, and there was fantasy Las Vegas, and that was basically it so far as fantastical locales went.

It’s hard to really write about what Lovecraft’s written so far without thinking about what’s still coming, though. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Call of Cthulhu, and the Shadow Over Innsmouth are all still in the future, and it’s hard to see these stories as really anything more than build-up to that. Lovecraft’s whole career may actually just be a series of prototypes building up to his best works.