I recently began setting about the task of answering the question of ‘how good are the new Age of Conan novels?’, and I started with what is generally accepted as the best of the latest “pastiche” stories, The God in the Moon: A Soldiers Quest Volume I. I preface this column by saying that I have tremendously enjoyed Robert Howard’s stories since I first read The Phoenix on the Sword, and because I am such a fan of the original stories I may get labeled as a “lore monger” by the gaming 1337. In truth I am excited when I read a good adaptation of REHs barbarian, although I have high expectations that the author be at least as familiar with Conan as I am. I find little point in creating a story intended to be of a certain genre if you do not understand, or intend to preserve the genre you’re writing about. A final warning before we begin: While I will not purposely dispose any plotlines there may be spoilers within that those unfamiliar with the story may not appreciate.
When I first picked up this book I liked the title. It gave the straightforward and mythic feeling that many of REHs titles had. I have also liked the art of Justin Sweet – that adorns the paperbacks cover – since I first saw his illustrations in the Kull: Exile of Atlantis book by Del Ray. The story opens up associating with the plot of The Hour of the Dragon, tying the story in with the established timeline, and for a few short pages, it retains the “Hyborian” feeling that accompanied REHs prose. Very quickly, however, the story degenerates into something reminiscent of a 12th century High Middle Ages tale. At this point it becomes very clear that the author, Richard Knaak, is much more familiar, and comfortable writing Dragonlance novels. For the remainder of the first part of the novel it becomes very difficult to think of the story as a Hyborian tale as you notice that the Roman-ish Aquilonians wear full middle ages plate armor complete with gauntlets and closed faced helms. The Aquilonian population is full of Knights, lords and ladies, and the Cimmerian King is a jovial ruler who, in a contrived attempt to associate with his Hyborian self, swears to Crom 4 out of 5 times that he speaks. He also knights his subjects complete with the touching of the sword on their shoulders, calls his knighted nobles ‘sir’, and generally is anything but the uncivilized barbarian that REH created so long ago, conjuring absurd images of King Arthur the Barbarian.
Just another hack Pastiche?
The story shifts gears about halfway through, and we are treated to some descriptive (read: gory) fighting sequences and a bit of rough and tumble in the Westermark, bringing back a little bit of the Hyborian atmosphere. Halfway through, the reader begins to see what could evolve into a tale of a civilized Aquilonian noble who comes of age learning what it is like to feel the barbarian within, reminding us of the constant struggle between barbarism and civility that was ever present in Howard’s tales. Instead the story turns into the stereotypical boy who becomes a man story and there is little, if any, development of the difference between life in civilization and life in barbarism. What takes us further from the Hyborian feeling is the injection of events and Pictish behaviors that do not fit the chosen timeline of the Age of Conan chronology. Suddenly “friendly” Pictish tribes are trading goods with the frontier Aquilonians. Scantily clad female Picts are willing playthings for the Aquilonian “Knights”, and instead of being the savage, barbaric women that should be the Pict, they are described as exotic foreigners that are sought after for the pleasures of their primitive, yet sultry bodies and pouting lips with adulterous eyes.
During the Cimmerian Kings rule, in the original tales, there is no civility within the Picts. Robert Howard himself described the Picts evolution as stagnant for many millennia after their reversion to barbarism, post-Cataclysm, and they do not begin to climb from that primitive barbarism for another half a millennia after Conan’s rule, when they become technologically minded and expansionist, yet still the primitive savages which hold contempt and a sharp axe for civilization. Even so there is little time for the evolution of any relation between the two races beyond what is met with spear, and sword during Conan’s time. Additionally, the injection of half-breed “brigands” is just not believable, given REHs writings. To complete the confusion of the reader towards REHs Hyboria, Knaak seems to confuse the savages of Darfar in the Black Kingdoms with the Picts of the Western Coast as he describes the latter with the formers traits – teeth filed to points, cannibal tendencies – that simply defy the Hyborian Pict as originally written. Although there are many inconsistencies to avert the reader familiar with Robert Howard’s Hyboria, Knaak does do an impressive job creating a fierce story, rife with the hardships of military life on the Aquilonian Frontiers, and he should be commended for that even while he should be condemned for his butchery of proper canon. Of course Knaak is hardly the first author to take such liberties, and considering his fondness for other Pastiche authors of REH like L. Sprague de Camp, we should not be surprised.
With the end of the second part of the story, it has become quite wordy, containing a lot of half abandoned and needless subplots, and you are forced to shift modes from one storyline to another. Once you adjust to the new storyline you are flooded with Middle Age imagery again until the protagonist once more returns to the Westermark. The story continues along a predictable progression until it ends with a twist that most could predict about three quarters through the novel. The author makes a few half hearted attempts to bring the Hyborian atmosphere back to his story, but seems to struggle between keeping the theme of the novel, and avoiding making a mockery of the setting by turning it into a simple Middle Ages story. By the last part of the story I was left disappointed by the abandonment of the one potential theme that would turn the novel from filler for a soon to be released game into a great precursor story for fans of the genre waiting to immerse themselves in the world of the digital Hyboria. Throughout Robert Howard’s writing career there was ever present one theme regardless of the series; the cyclical relationship between civility and barbarism. Knaak plants this idea in the reader’s mind quite subtly in the middle of the story, but seems to abandon it later on, changing it into a simpler, and much more disappointing theme of coming of age.
In the original stories set in the Westermark, Beyond the Black River, and the unfinished (by REH) Wolves Beyond the Border, this theme is very strong. I can only assume that Knaak intended to touch on this theme as homage to those stories, and to bring closer an increasingly distant familiarity with the setting of his pastiche piece, but his half hearted attempt ends up anti-climactic and one dimensional, as his coming of age theme takes precedence.
In the end, this author and this series has tremendous potential. I can see why he is a fan favorite in the Dragonlance genre as he does have the ability to create an enjoyable tale. Unfortunately he falls very short in his adaptation to the setting of Hyboria, and he seems to be trying to emulate the pastiche writings of his preferred author, L. Sprague de Camp as opposed to the original works of Robert E. Howard. I hope he learns sooner rather than later that you cannot pastiche a pastiche, especially when the first pastiche is so heavily pretentious, as de Camp’s were. I think that with more effort, and especially more research of the original Hyborian tales, along with practice of his chosen pastiche genre he could create a phenomenal Age of Conan story, and I do open series II of this trilogy with great anticipation of seeing evolution in his grasp of the setting. As for the first of his series, I do not recommend it as a Hyborian story, and it may be best to try and forget that you are reading a tale set in the world of Conan to preserve the enjoyment of the novel. If you are able to disconnect that this tale is Hyborian, you will find a very enjoyable story that sets up a series of novels with a coming of age tale, which will undoubtedly be expanded upon in the following tales. However, unless the next two parts of this story evolve quite rapidly I will recommend saving your money, and instead spending it on REHs actual tales. Whether you have read them before, or are just starting to immerse yourself in Conan’s world, there are still no better stories to familiarize yourself with the Hyborian atmosphere and get you pumped up for Age of Conan‘s release.
So says the Drunken Pict!
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