Conan the Hunter Was Ruined By Its Obsession With Gods

I did a live read of Conan the Hunter in my Discord channel rather than blogging about it regularly, but I’m going to put a summary of my thoughts here so it can be collected with the other Conan posts. Most of the post is gonna be summary, though, just so the series review will be complete by itself.

Conan the Hunter feels a lot like Conan the Bold. It’s deep into the Flanderization of Conan, but still gets pretty close to being a decent popcorn book (is there a more accurate equivalent term for “popcorn movie” as applies to books, seeing as how you don’t eat popcorn with books usually?). Unfortunately, it’s got one particular obsession which grinds hard against the themes of the character as laid down by Robert E. Howard’s originals, the books is bad in direct proportion to how often that obsession shows up, and that obsession dominates the narrative more and more the deeper you get into the book. For Conan the Bold, it was an epic fantasy struggle of good against evil in which Conan was the prophesied champion of the world against an evil space god whose minions sought world domination for the next ten thousand years, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean relativism of Conan. For Conan the Hunter, it’s the obsession with religion and gods providing salvation, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean anti-theism of Conan.

Conan the Hunter begins in Brythunia’s capital city of Pirogia. The Brythunian princess has been killed by an evil sorceress as part of a conspiracy to place a would-be usurper on the throne, and a thief involved in the scheme is looking to pawn the late princesses’ jewelry for cheap off to Conan, who doesn’t know where it came from, then set him up to take the fall for the murder, simultaneously throwing suspicion off of the conspiracy and collecting a reward for catching the princesses’ killer. When the guards arrive, Conan successfully resists arrest and sets out to track down the thief and make him pay for the set up. So far, so good. We’re not exactly embracing Conan’s philosophical depths, but neither did half the Robert E Howard stories.

Then, while Conan is hiding out in the hut of his latest paramour, she fetches a healer for the injuries he sustained while resisting arrest, and that’s where the trouble begins. The healer is a priest of Mitra, which is fine, but he’s also a D&D Cleric who casts Cure Moderate Wounds on Conan using his holy symbol, and who must collect payment for an offering to the local temple of Mitra or else the spell won’t take effect, which is not how regular Cleric spellcasting works but does sound like something an amateur GM might come up with to explain why Cleric services in town charge a fee. It’s a functional (if uncreative) explanation for a D&D game, but Hyboria does not work that way. In Hyboria, this is plainly sorcery, and while you could have a sorcerer who’s a good guy in Conan, you wouldn’t expect Conan himself to just accept it like it isn’t even a big deal. Conan hates sorcery, but here the author seems to be importing the arcane/divine magic divide without even thinking about it, interpreting Conan’s spite for sorcery exclusively as spite for arcane magic (later in the book Conan will muse to himself that he doesn’t like getting entangled with priests and wizards, which might suggest that he does indeed more-or-less equate the two (as he should), but then the problem is that Conan doesn’t raise even the mildest objection to this sorcerer casting a spell directly on him).

This is the seed of the god-obsessed plot tumor that will eventually devour the book, but for now, it’s a pretty minor complaint. Conan’s blase acceptance of sorcery is out of character, but the idea of a sorcerer of Mithra who can heal people with supernatural speed is hardly unimaginable in Hyboria. Conan tries to track down the thief, and he gets chased by guards into a sewer, fights a sewer monster dianoga knock-off, and ends up breaking into the palace in hopes of catching the thief while collecting the reward for identifying the princesses’ alleged murdered to the guards. The action scenes here are all pretty good and if the book had been able to stick to this, it would’ve been a solid B.

While Conan’s closing in on the thief, cutaways introduce us to the king’s supporters on one side and the evil conspirators against him on the other. The king is a pretty standard good ruler for the book’s 1994 release date: He uses trade and diplomacy to bring peace and prosperity to his people, but uses force when necessary to prevent potentially belligerent neighbors from thinking he’s ripe for invasion. He’s a mix between standard Brythunians and some kind of hillfolk ethnicity. Having a biracial good king is kind of a blow struck against the race essentialism of Robert E Howard’s Hyboria, but only kind of, because the setting is ludicrously bio-essentialist but does not have a hierarchy of uber- and untermenschen. Gundermen are naturally adept with wielding pikes and Argosians are natural born sailors and that is racist and weird, but neither of them is especially superior to the other. Racial mixing also explicitly does not weaken races in Hyboria. The book implies that the king’s racial heritage informs how others view him but that his abilities are his own, which is very much a cry of defiance against the bioessentialism of Hyboria, but also it’s only implied, not stated, and it wouldn’t actually be out of place at all if it turned out that race mixing between Brythunian hillmen and the mainstream Brythunian ethnicity happened to produce a race of level-headed diplomats.

The king has three primary allies. The first is a hillman named Kailash, the king’s main bodyguard. It’s not totally clear how long they’ve known each other, but they were clearly friends before the king became king. The second is a captain of the town guard named Salvorus, a hero of the border skirmishes who’s been beating up on raiders from rival nations who’re probing for weaknesses, and got rewarded with a cushy job in the capital. Salvorus is loyal to the king, but spends most of the book as a gullible pawn of the conspiracy. The third major ally is that Cleric imported from D&D, who goes to the palace to report that he’s received a prophecy of an evil sorceress laying a curse upon the king, which indeed she has, slowly killing him.

With his queen (his connection to the Brythunian royal bloodline) and princess dead, the royal line is strictly speaking extinct, so if the king dies, it’s not clear who succeeds him, but the smart money is on a fellow named Valtresca, the general of the Brythunian army (apparently this iron age military has a supreme leader who is not the king, which goes unexplained but is not relevant to the plot so we don’t have to worry about it). Problem is, Valtresca is secretly evil, and the conspiracy against the king is trying to put him on the throne. An evil courtier Lamici (also a eunuch, something which never impacts the plot – the king seems to be monogamous, so why does Brythunia even have eunuchs?) is super racist and wants Veltresca on the throne because Valtresca is ethnically a pure city Brythunian (well, allegedly – racial purity is mostly a myth, but it’s not clear if the author knows that, and it doesn’t come up in any case), the thief Hassem is presumably in it for the money, although the book never really says for sure, and the evil sorceress Azora wants to spread misery and chaos throughout the world, and getting rid of a good king to replace him with some belligerent power-monger will hopefully get the entire region embroiled in war sooner rather than later.

Conan is captured while in the palace, an internecine disagreement between Valtresca the general and Hassem the thief leads Valtresca to try and tie him off as a loose end, so he beats Hassem senseless and orders Salvorus (the guard captain) to take him to the dungeon for execution on the morrow. Hassem attempts escape and poisons Salvorus, then goes on an evil villain rant to the imprisoned Conan about how Valtresca is totally going to usurp the throne, before Salvorus turns out to be alive, stabs Hassem in the back, releases Conan, and then collapses. Then the book remembers that it wants to have a Cleric in the party and has Conan meet up with the priest from earlier only to then immediately backtrack to right where they were before, in the dungeons standing over the poisoned body of guard captain Salvorus. There’s a Cleric now, though, who heals the captain just in time for Valtresca to show up with a bunch of guards and try to tie off all these loose ends at once. Conan and Salvorus fight the guards (including another captain, a hulking brute mini-boss), Valtresca and Salvorus both die, and Salvorus asks Conan to protect the king from the conspiracy with his dying breath. Conan, indebted to Salvorus for saving him from Hassem, takes up the quest.

This probably seems like we should be heading towards an immediate climactic confrontation with the evil sorceress now. And indeed, we definitely should be. We are halfway through the book, and most of what stands between us and the climax is stuff that should’ve just been cut.

Kailash, the king’s bodyguard, believes Conan’s and the priest’s story about the conspiracy, and the priest breaks the evil sorceresses’ curse on the king. Conan’s job isn’t done yet, though, because the sorceress can always call up another demon to finish the job so long as she’s still alive. The priest’s healing has bought the king time, but only killing the sorceress will permanently save him, so Conan’s on the hook to do that in order to fulfill his oath to Salvorus. Conan, Kailash, and the priest set out to confront the evil sorceress in her secret lair in the city, a ruined temple to some god named Talgor who never shows up in any other Conan story.

This could’ve been a perfectly good climax, but instead the priestess teleports (literally teleports) halfway across Hyboria all the way to Shem, leaving Conan, Kailash, and the priest Madresus to clear out an empty dungeon, and this is where the trouble really begins. The final boss waiting at the end of this dungeon, having been vacated by the actual main villain, is instead a demon she summoned. When the demon is defeated, the demon’s boss shows up. Conan and Kailash are dominated by the demon and turn on Madresus, and then the actual literal god Talgor shows up to stomp the demon lord because of an unrelated grudge. It’s a literal deus ex machina.

Madresus is able to figure out where the evil sorceress has gone, so the party sets out across Zamora and into the deserts of Shem to chase her down, and if it feels like this post is really starting to drag on that’s because the book really starting to drag on. The evil courtier Lamici shows up to kill Madresus, Conan and Kailash chase him across the desert to the witch fortress out in the deserts of Shem, the evil sorceresses’ role as main villain is usurped by an evil sorcerer from eons ago who’s been revived and then impregnates the evil sorceress with an evil sorcerer baby which magically reaches the third trimester overnight and it’s exactly as jarring and fetishistic as it sounds. The final assault on the witch fortress ends with Kailash and Conan overcoming some traps and some gargoyles, getting split up during the gargoyle fight, and Kailash confronts the evil sorceress while Conan confronts the new sorcerer guy who came out of nowhere. Kailash is seemingly killed by the sorceress, only for the sorceress to be killed by the gargoyles because she wasn’t properly whitelisted as not-an-intruder. Conan kills the sorcerer. There is absolutely no reason why the sorceress couldn’t have (seemingly) killed Kailash, the stupid whitelist mishap couldn’t have been cut, and the sorceress couldn’t have gone on to confront and be killed by Conan afterwards, which means there’s no need for this evil sorcerer to come out of nowhere.

For that matter, the entire trip across the desert and fake-out final dungeon with the demon lord could’ve been cut completely. Instead, the evil sorceress could just have a secret fortress in the Brythunian countryside, evil courtier Lamici could’ve killed the party Cleric in the palace immediately after the Cleric healed the king, and Conan and Kailash could’ve gone to fight the evil sorceress the next day. This also solves the problem where the narrative goes out of its way to insist that the king is still in danger, only to have the party spend the next month tracking down the evil sorceress to the other side of a desert, where the original conspiracy plot is forgotten and instead a totally unrelated plot about hyper-rapidly breeding an army of evil sorcerers to menace the world pops up, complete with a brand new unrelated villain to take over the role of big bad.

Removing the fakeout final dungeon and skipping directly to the fortress assault at the end also gets rid of the bizarre deus ex machina moment where some random god shows up to save Conan – Conan the barbarian – from a demon lord. This being the same Conan who tells anyone who asks him about gods or prayers that Crom does not answer prayers. He gives Cimmerians the strength and wit to fend for themselves and then ignores them.

This isn’t even the worst intervention of a god. Madresus, the Cleric, has an old mentor guy he meets with at one point for an entire chapter’s worth of exposition dumping on exactly what kind of evil sorceress he’s confronting and how he’s the last of an ancient order who wiped out this particular kind of evil sorcerer thousands of years ago but now they have returned. It all has so little impact on the plot I didn’t even bother to mention it in the summary, but this mysterious mentor figure later on shows up to save Kailash from the witch fortress once it starts collapsing, after he’s seemingly been killed along with the two evil sorcerers. And then it turns out that this mysterious mentor figure is Mitra in person. Just showing up to spit on the themes of Conan super directly for a bit, not even in a way that affects the plot at all, Kailash could’ve just been slightly less injured and been able to stagger out of the collapsing fortress under his own power, but instead we’re shoving another deus ex machina in there.

This book has lots of good individual scenes, but its pacing is atrocious (especially in its second half, when it seems like the climax of the original story is yanked away so that an entire second Conan story can be shoved in to meet wordcount requirements) and its obsession with gods and priests drags the book down every time it comes up, which is unfortunately fairly often and at a couple of crucial points in the plot.

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.