Leaves of the World Tree: 3 AM

While I’m waiting for Conan the Indomitable to arrive, let’s take a look at another of the short story collection in Leaves of the World Tree. This one starts off reasonably interesting:

3 is the loneliest number. At 12, the people with work the next day are done hanging and head home. At 1 the reckless are partying strong. At 2, you can still find someone to talk to. Friends exist at 2. If you aren’t still hanging out at 3, no one wants to start. It’s too close to 4. People need to sleep. But I guess I’m not exactly “people.”

And then immediately faceplants:

If there is no rest for the wicked, I guess you can call me Doctor Doom. I’m being facetious, of course. I have no castle in Latveria. No robot army at my command. No, I’m quite alone most of the time. Then again, you don’t really understand what “most of the time” means for me. Not yet. Perhaps I should explain.

This whole paragraph is basically white noise in which our narrator gives us a metaphor and then explains why the metaphor does not apply. But if you haven’t figured it out, our narrator is immune to sleep. This story is going to try and convince me that this is one of those blessings that is actually a curse, and the obvious way to do that would be to have the narrator in a constant state of lethargy. If you never really need to sleep but are constantly in that state where you’re too tired to really focus, that would be terrible. It’s kind of like never needing to eat but always being hungry. Sure, you save a lot on groceries, but it’s not really worth it, is it?

But no, the narrator never gets tired at all, and takes advantage of this to work out a lot:

For one, I’m ripped as fuck. You would be too if you were never tired, and had twice as much time as you do now.

“Twice as much.” People only sleep one third of the time, unless they’ve got some kind of disorder.

More importantly, the narrative is trying to convince me that the downside to not having to sleep is being lonely all the time. I guess maybe this guy is an extreme extrovert, but even so, there’s still like twenty hours of the day where someone’s awake, and that’s assuming this clearly modern story takes place sometime before the internet era, when you can get into chat rooms or (in the past 5-ish years) voice chat with anyone at any time.

Continue reading “Leaves of the World Tree: 3 AM”

Conan the Defiant Was A Waste of Fun Ideas

Part 1: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out
Part 2: Also, Bonus Sexism
Part 3: A Gap In The Story
Part 4: An Overabundance of Dumb Tropes
Part 5: Into the Warp
Part 6: Finale

Books like Conan the Defiant are what make me pine most for a world with more lax copyright laws. It’s like the Star Wars prequels, an experience where I come out of it thinking “there were a lot of good ideas in there, crying shame about the lack of basic competence in execution,” and then I want to write my own version and make it better, but I’m also trying to transition to being a fulltime creative professional and can’t be writing entire 50k-100k word novels that can’t legally be used to make a dime when I could be using that time writing original IP that I own and can sell.

It’s too bad, because I think I could draw rather a good market writing things like a Final Fantasy 7 novelization with the middle section fixed up to be less aimless, or giving the MCU treatment to Conan by taking over half a century of stories, picking out the good ones or the ones which, like Conan the Defiant, have underutilized potential, and then stringing them together into a new continuity where each story is made with the others in mind. These sorts of things are often extremely popular across time, as we can see from both Le Morte d’Arthur clear back in the middle ages, a compilation of King Arthur stories into a unified chronology, all the way up to the MCU, and that despite the MCU being maimed by its lack of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man at its inception. Kind of hard to make a unified Marvel timeline when the original Marvel super hero team and their two most popular franchises are both unavailable, but they made it work, and now the Disney Collective has assimilated the complete set, for better or for worse.

Conan the Defiant’s specific underutilized ideas are mainly the creepy spider cult we encounter halfway through and the magical second dimension he and his companions pass through to breach Neg’s fortress. The Suddah Oblates are also pretty cool, but those actually get used pretty much to their fullest extent. Conan meets them, enjoys their hospitality, and swears revenge when one of them is slain. Dude swears revenge on a hair trigger, but that’s fine, it’s a reasonably Conan-y thing to do, particularly when he’s got nothing better to do that weekend and there’s no fat merchants on hand to rob. Neg and his scheme for ultimate necromantic power are perfectly acceptable, but also get explored plenty in the narrative and plus aren’t really all that different from the evil necromancer queen we met in the Legion of the Dead, so it’s really spider town and the Warp that I wish was part of a more competent story, one good enough to provide precedent for those ideas and others like them to be incorporated into the Conan setting as a whole.

The poor storytelling that mars Conan the Defiant lies in two main areas. First, the dumb 1987 gender tropes that haunt the narrative constantly. No one line is particularly egregious, but minor annoyances are everywhere. Sometimes they’re just lazy – it makes sense that Conan is socially oblivious even if it’s a cliche tired enough to induce eye-rolling when it comes up. Sometimes they actually damage the setting – Elashi and, to a lesser extent, Tuanne behaving like stereotypical 80s sitcom women means they act like they live in modern controlled environments where things like spiders are rare enough that you might never get used to them and where life-threatening danger is rare enough that breaking down crying in response to it is something you might reasonably expect from full grown women.

Second, and this one would’ve been a deathblow even without the injury dealt by the first, some two-thirds of all scenes in the book are totally unnecessary. While the beginning arc at the Suddah Oblates is necessary to establish character motivation, the confrontation at spider town is necessary because it actually plays into the climax at all, and the final confrontation is necessary because it resolve the plot, everything else has no impact on the story whatsoever. The encounter with the dire wolf, every enemy who crops up at spider town who isn’t the spider cult in charge, the entire Disguise Master sub-plot where he’s hunting Conan for revenge, the undead Men With No Eyes, the various obstacles in the Warp when Conan and company use magic to penetrate Neg’s outer defenses, all of these have ultimately no consequences at all. They don’t even end up significantly slowing our heroes down, because although Neg does achieve supreme necromantic power, our heroes are able to take it from him again without incurring any losses, whether in material, injury, or even any significant exhaustion. The final confrontation would’ve gone the same if they’d arrived just after Skeer and fought Neg before he’d activated the Source of Light at all.

The next Conan story is Conan the Indomitable, which is in the mail. Couldn’t find any library copy of it, digital or otherwise, so I bought a copy, which I’m considering donating to a library when I finish so the next person doesn’t have to deal with this. The book is showing up on Monday, probably too late for me to get a Monday post out of it, but 1) I just realized I never did a Mythos Part One wrap-up post, so that’s probably going to be on Saturday, and also I’ve got plenty Leaves of the World Tree stories left to get through, so we’ll look at another one of those on Monday.

Conan the Defiant: Finale

Chapter Twenty-One

I’ve felt kind of bad while summarizing this story, because there’s just so much “this happens, then this happens, then this happens.” Partly, this is a hazard of reviewing chapter-by-chapter a story which cannot be easily quoted. Because reacting directly to the story’s prose is hard, I don’t do it very often. But also there’s the thing that all sloppy books get into eventually, which is that after a while they just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and rather than calling them out anew every single time, it gets easier to just skip over them and see if they’re going to do anything new. And Conan the Defiant isn’t.

So, Conan and company meet with Skeer, who defects for revenge on Neg. And then they hide from some zombie soldiers from Neg’s gathering army. And then they disguise Conan and Elashi as Skeer’s prisoners to get past the patrols to where the Source of Light is kept. And then Neg uses his new ability to look through a zombie’s eyes to confirm that Tuanne is paralyzed on the floor somewhere, but doesn’t bother raiding her memories to figure out why (the narrative says he can know what the zombies know just a few lines earlier, but here it seems like it can’t – was that line just in reference to his ability to see what they see?). He briefly considers having Skeer look into it, and while Skeer can provide guidance to Neg’s enemies, he cannot refuse direct commands, so if Neg asks Skeer if there are intruders in the castle, he must answer honestly. But then he decides not to. It’s not like being kind of careless is a consistent character flaw of Neg’s that is now coming to bite him, and it’s especially not like this is in contrast to a more meticulous Conan, Elashi, or Tuanne. He just briefly considers a course of action that would allow him to instantly thwart our heroes’ plan, and then decides not to, for no stated reason at all.

The “pretend to be prisoners” gambit turns out to be so much wasted pagespace. Conan and Elashi don’t even bother disarming themselves, let alone having their hands tied or anything else that might even slightly suggest they’re actual prisoners. Most of Neg’s slaves just don’t care, and let Skeer pass by them without so much as a raised eyebrow, up until the undead Disguise Master shows up. Since he wants personal revenge on Conan, he shouts that they’re enemies of Neg, and apparently Neg’s zombie thralls are under standing orders to attack anyone identified as an enemy. This is a really easily exploitable standing order, but I’m not gonna ding the book points for it, because Elashi exploits it immediately by telling the next pack of zombies they find that their pursuers are enemies of Neg, whereupon they immediately attack the zombies chasing them, and our heroes escape during the melee. I’m willing to believe that Neg never ran into this problem before he had a giant zombie army. Coming up with zombie commands that cause them to actually do what you want on autopilot is hard.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Finale”

Conan the Defiant: Into The Warp

Chapter Sixteen

We open with another montage of approaching villains. The Disguise Master is wondering where Brute got off to. He’s been pretty much completely defused as a threat by this point. Without Brute, what’s he gonna do, disguise Conan to death?

Skeer delivers the Source of Light to Neg, and Neg gives him a large reward. Then he offers Skeer some wine to celebrate, and Skeer accepts, is poisoned, and Neg gloats about bringing him back to serve in death afterwards. See, this is the problem with working for super villains. They tend to dick people over for no goddamn reason at all.

Also, the spiders are still on their way. Even though Skeer is dead now. I don’t know what they’re going to do when they catch up with him.

When we come back to focus on Conan, he is behaving uncharacteristically stupidly:

“Will you not try and take them unawares?” Tuanne asked.

“I shall not skulk,” Conan answered. “Direct action would be better here.”

“Even if one of them holds a knife to her throat?”

He paused. “What you say has some merit,” he admitted. “Have you an idea?”

You really needed a zombie friend to warn you of the possibility that your enemies might use their hostage for leverage? Why do you think people take hostages?

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: Into The Warp”

Conan the Defiant: An Overabundance of Dumb Tropes

My queue is usually a day or two ahead, so getting out blog posts on Christmas is actually easier than getting out blog posts right after Christmas. We’re back now, though.

Chapter Thirteen

The Disguise Master that Conan cornered earlier (somehow, that bit happened in the missing pages so I don’t know exactly how it happened) is seething and plotting revenge. No one else had ever seen through his disguise, and he figures that once Conan is dead, he can honestly say that no one living has ever seen through his disguise. Which kinda strikes me as being ogre stealth. “Is that ogre in a tophat trying to pass himself off as Lord Foppish?” “Shhh! He kills anyone who sees through his disguises! Just play along!”

He’s not actually gonna use his disguise skills to kill Conan, though. He’s just gonna hire someone.

Elashi screamed.

Conan came up from sleep, sword in hand, looking for the threat. It proved easy enough to dispatch when he found it.

One of the black spiders scuttled from Elashi’s blanket. Before it moved far, Conan trod upon it. It made a crackling, pulpy sound as he crushed it.

Isn’t Elashi supposed to be a desert nomad? How is she freaking out about a perfectly ordinary spider? Dumb gender role tropes have haunted the narrative from pretty much the moment Elashi was introduced, but this is reaching the point of not just bolting on dumb gender tropes where they don’t belong, but actually burning down other elements of her character to make way for them. Elashi’s supposed to be a reasonably accomplished swordswoman and tracker. Where is this princess shit coming from? Like, perfectly ordinary people freak out about spiders in the modern world, but that’s because we live in a sci-fi wonderland where it’s easy to live in an environment strongly controlled for comfort even if you’re pretty poor. Particularly wealthy people can live in conditions where seeing spiders is rare enough that you don’t have to learn how to deal with it, but most people should be seeing them on, like, a weekly basis, very much including people who spend enough time outdoors to become skilled survivalists! This would stick out less if this book weren’t so thoroughly slathered in its dumb gender tropes, if it just seemed like Elashi had a particularly intense phobia, but in the context it’s actually in this is very obviously just a braindead importation of sitcom tropes from 1987 into the iron age with no thought at all given to what it would change.

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Conan the Defiant: A Gap In The Story

Chapter Nine

The plot is converging on the city of Opkothard. Skeer is here with the Source of Light, Conan and his sidekicks have arrived seeking him, the six blind minions of Neg have arrived seeking one of them, and also one of the Suddah Oblates has shown up for reasons unknown. This guy is Malo, the young cane prodigy that Conan trounced when he visited, and he’s carrying a sword, rather than his tradition’s usual cane, planning to kill Conan. He assumes Conan must be responsible for the murder of the two acolytes of the temple, under the reasoning that he doesn’t like Conan, and Conan must therefore be responsible for every crime that happens within a thousand foot radius. But, like, things can’t come to a head here. We’re slightly less than halfway through.

Elashi’s tsundere routine with Conan is rote enough, and well established enough, that I don’t feel the need to type out quotes or even particularly summarize the details. Suffice to say that Elashi tsunderes at Conan in the inn for the night.

The chapter closes on a mysterious spider priest performing mysterious spider divinations and determining that all kinds of named characters have shown up in town tonight, and he’d better do something about it.

Continue reading “Conan the Defiant: A Gap In The Story”

Conan the Defiant: Also, Bonus Sexism

Chapter Five

Rogue zombie Tuanne has some kind of magical means of detecting the current location of the Source of Light, and she’s following that to track down Skeer, who is fleeing towards Neg with it. Also, she is nearly attacked by a mountain lion, but then the mountain lion realizes that she’s dead and rotting and thinks better of it. There’s a bunch of undead brooding about how the animals can sense her curse and woe is her, although it does at least manage to notice that repelling predators is actually a good thing, even if it’s framed as “oh, this curse has been a blessing this time, but truly she was the most unfortunate of creatures to be so repellent.” It’s not like humans are repelled by her. Is she, like, super into cats?

Skeer tries to dodge pursuit by leaving a false trail. Conan’s latest female sidekick Elashi falls for the trail, but Conan doesn’t, because of course he is better than everyone at everything (so long as it’s not too civilized), even when it is their area of expertise and he just took it up five minutes ago.

Tuanne reaches the village where Skeer is headed and sets up shop at the inn to wait for him. There is a bizarrely cosmopolitan gaggle of guests at the inn. It is, of course, an inn, so you’d expect everyone here to be from out of town, and you’d expect a bunch of them to be from out of country, so it’s not weird that only two out of the four with identified nationalities are Brythunian. But then the other two are a Stygian and a Kushite or Keshanite, both from even further south than Stygia. No sign of any Zamorans, Corinthians, Nemedians, Hyperboreans, or Turanians, all of whom have some kind of land border with Brythunia.

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Conan the Defiant: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out

Prologue

You know that thing where the men of a fantasy species will look like some weird lava monster or a crocodile person or whatever, and the women will look like human women but with blue skin and pointy ears? Conan the Defiant’s prologue gives us an example of that. Our villain, Neg the necromancer, is interrogating his zombie minions as to the location of some powerful talisman called the Source of Light. All the zombies are decayed and rotten, except for one called Tuane, a beautiful zombie woman whose beauty Neg has preserved. When Neg tosses some magical salt to destroy a zombie minion who has displeased him, a single grain of it lands on Tuane, scalding her, but also freeing her from his control, thus initiating the plot. Naturally, the grain of salt lands upon one of her lusciously curved breasts. Free of the necromancer’s control without his knowing, she then breasted boobily to the door, and titted up the stairs.

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Leaves of the World Tree: Olaff

Leaves of the World Tree is a book gifted to me by its author in hopes of a review. That was, like, half a year ago, because this blog is not always the best at updating. But what I lack in alacrity, I make up for with implacable determination.

Olaff

Leaves of the World Tree is a short story collection, and if I recall the author’s pitch correctly, each story takes place in a different time period. Story the first is called “Olaff,” and takes place in a time before creativity had been invented.

Like many Olafs before him, he was named Olaff. It was not a bad name by any means. He shared his name with four others born that year, and he would share it with seven the year after. Olaf was then, as it had been before, and would be for generations to come, a common name.

This is the first half of our opening paragraph. These are the lines that have to sell an audience on the first page. Now, reading one page isn’t a huge imposition and it’s not that hard to convince your audience to do it, but even so, “our protagonist has a common name” isn’t a strong foot to be starting on. It is only half the opening paragraph, though. Here’s the rest:

It was as though his parents had expected him to be average. Growing up he never felt as though he were different from the other boys. He was not scrawny and smart, or muscular and dumb, nor better or worse at most things. He threw the axe at the tree and hit five times out of ten, and his spear landed smack in the middle of everyone else’s. It was only when they taught him how to write his name that he realized he was unique. His mother, being the literate one, had spelled his name with an extra “f.”

Apparently the society Olaff is from is one with a perfectly centered bell curve of throwing axe proficiency. So at least we’re setting our story firmly in some kind of viking-ish era. That’s not nothing. Here’s the rest of the first page:

Not every day was spent sprinting into battle. Like most of his days, he spent one in particular rowing. He sat on a long bench in the center of a large group of benches that were nearly identical and only distinguishable by their varying degrees of mold. As could be expected, if anything at all could be expected of such a regular person, he sat in the middle. Smack in the middle of everyone else, on his bench, between Vjolf and Bjorvak.

This story has spent a lot of time letting us know how boring and unexceptional the protagonist and his life is, and if I hadn’t gotten a review copy of the book, I would be strongly considering not reading any further. Lucky for our author, I did get a review copy of the book, so we’re gonna see if this story is boring all the way through or just a slow burn. Well, not really lucky for our author. He sent it to me, so it wasn’t really luck so much as a direct and predictable result of actions he took.

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Mythos: A Conclusion For Now

I never wrote it down, but a couple of posts into this Mythos review I decided that I’d go to the bottom of the first page of the table of contents of my Lovecraft collection, about 200 pages in. This was pretty consistent with how long a lot of the novels I’ve reviewed have been, so I figured I’d get my standard dozen-ish posts out of it. This is not how that has worked. The pages-read-per-review-words-written ratio has been seriously damaged by the need to constantly re-establish the premise and reintroduce main characters with every new story. In longer books, there sooner or later comes a point where you get who the characters are, how the setting works, where the plot is headed, and I can summarize ten pages in one paragraph. With short stories, that never happens, so these perfectly typical 200 pages (not even quite that, even) of material have sprawled out all over the place. I am gonna go ahead and finish it out because I’m already in the home stretch, but my God I have been reviewing Lovecraft for way too long now and I need a good long break from him. There’s three short stories left before the bottom of the table of contents’ first page, let’s see if we can get through all of them today. Quality may take a hit, as I’m mainly concerned with getting these stories out of the way. The Lovecraft project reinvigorated the blog when it began, but now it’s the thing draining the life away, so we need to put a bow on this and move on.

The Moon-Bog

This story begins with a description of Irish-American Denys Barry, who is descended from Irish aristocracy. Did this happen? Did Irish nobles come west to America? I guess it’s probably happened ever, but America was always the destination for poor people. Except the southern plantations, actually, those were settled in part by nobles-in-exile who were on the wrong end of a civil war (this became a habit for them). But the standard Irish immigrant was an indentured servant to one of those guys.

Anyway, Denys Barry returns to his family’s abandoned castle and rebuilds it with his American wealth, and everything goes great until he starts trying to drain a nearby bog. He invites the protagonist over to hear more, and the protagonist apparently has nothing better to do but make a cross-Atlantic trip in 1921 to listen to an old friend’s real estate development troubles. The protagonist and Denys Barry have a good long laugh together at how superstitious the peasants are. In fairness to them, they don’t know they’re in a horror story, but back on the other hand, when you’re a brand new foreigner who has no idea how things work around here and the people who’ve lived her their entire lives tell you that a witch lives in the swamp, odds are fantastic that whether or not a literal witch lives out there, fucking with the swamp is a super bad idea, especially if the locals prove how deadly serious they are about it by abandoning paying jobs en masse when they realize you’re mucking with the bog.

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