Monday, 2 July 2007

The Complete Chronicles of Conan

Robert E. Howard

These are the tales of Conan the Cimmerian, whose life of slaughter and thievery leads him from lost cities to decadent ones, from the deepest jungles to the dark heart of underground kingdoms, and pitted him against warriors, foul sorcerers, and supernatural horrors summoned from nightmarish realms. He is the quintessential barbarian, whose animal cunning and primitive strength of arms has carried him from humble beginnings amid the uncivilised tribes of the north to the throne of the greatest kingdom of the Hyborian Age and back to the gutter again.

Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan, first published in pulp magazines over seventy years ago, are considered some of the most definitive works of fantasy ever written. Together with Tolkien, Zelany, Vance and a handful of other great names, Howard stands as the cornerstone upon which much of modern fantasy is based. But how well have his tales stood the test of time?

The Complete Chronicles contains twenty-seven stories, varying from a few pages to near two hundred, and Howard’s own invented history of the Hyborian Age. An afterword details Howard’s life and the development of Conan from pulp pages to comic book hero to Hollywood, while an appendix and a map detailing the various people and kingdoms of the Hyborian Age provide additional depth to Conan‘s world. But it is the stories themselves which are the core of this compilation, and Howard’s visceral, emotive storytelling makes for some powerful tales of adventure.

His hero is an old-fashioned one, straight-forward in both his desires and his approach to realising them. Quick to anger, larger than life, and a paragon of physical prowess, Conan is the very archetype of the barbarian warrior. However, in reading Howard’s stories together they all begin to blend into one. While Conan’s adventures take him to fantastic locations and pit him against terrible foes, little stands out but the Cimmerian himself. The women who stand at his side are invariably weak and timid stereotypes of the fainting heroine, unable to resist the barbarian‘s fierce passion. Only Bêlit, the eponymous co-heroine of ‘Queen of the Black Coast’, shows any real deviation from this pattern and even she can do nothing to resist Conan’s feral charms. The exotic locations Conan visits are wildly imaginative and richly painted, but serve only as a backdrop to the barbarian’s exploits and as such are given little depth in their own right. As for the villains of each piece, they range from ancient iron giants to monstrous snake-demons to greedy merchants. But the most common of Conan’s foes is the dark magician, whose sorcery calls upon creatures from beyond the pale… so many versions of the same character, with little difference between them but their names. Another, more uncomfortable trend is the common portrayal of black people as unsophisticated, brutish and bestial. While it might be understood as a result of the period in which the stories were written, this aspect of the tales is no less distasteful for it.

However, the main cause of the tales’ similarity is their sharing of the same basic narrative template. A woman is threatened by some dark beast or sorcerer, and Conan confronts the villain and defeats them through sheer force of arms. An effective story generally requires some sort of significant challenge, the possibility of the hero’s failure. But this is Conan, and there is no spell or supernatural horror that he can’t defeat through stubborn will and straightforward violence. Such a simplistic structure makes for unsatisfying conclusions, a trend not helped by the lack of any real resolution. Conan kills things and goes on his way, caring little for loose ends or the devastation he leaves in his wake. Each story ends in much the same place as it starts, but with a woman in Conan’s arms. By the time the next story begins, however, she has vanished as if she had never been. James Bond would be proud.

Howard’s stories of Conan are sexist, rife with unsettling hints of racism, and struggle to show any real depth. They do contain, however, what is without a doubt some of the most exciting and visceral fantasy ever written. This is a book to be dipped into rather than devoured whole, and in such small doses the tales’ flaws are concealed behind a fast-moving rush of action and adventure. As a result ‘The Complete Conan’ will find a place on my ‘all style no substance’ shelf, where I can get to it quick when I need an antidote for more complex tales.

This review was originally written for

The Smoke Thief

Shana Abé
Bantam Books

In eighteenth-century London, the nobility speak in whispers of the Smoke Thief. The police cannot catch him, baffled by the thefts. Only the best are taken, the rarest jewellery and the purest gems vanishing from their lockboxes. The thief must be a magician, for the police are baffled. He must be able to walk through walls…

Christoff, Marquess of Langford, knows the truth: the thief is no human, but a renegade drákon escaped from isolated Darkfrith in the north. As the ruler of those ancient, noble creatures, the duty of recapturing the runaway is his… before humanity discovers the secret and exposes the drákon.

Yet unbeknownst to him, the Smoke Thief is not a man but a woman. The first in centuries to be able to take dragon form, she is his equal in every way. As they hunt one another through the streets and sky of old London, growing ever closer, another danger rises to threaten the drákon and their ancient way of life…

First and foremost, ‘The Smoke Thief’ is a romance novel. The period setting and fantasy elements combine to evoke a sophisticated air of old-fashioned romanticism, and just as well. The relationship between Christoff and the runaway drákon Rue is cliché-ridden and on occasion veers dangerously close to Mills and Boon territory: she’s a strong-willed woman who despises his forceful nature even as she is attracted to his strength; he’s a charismatic, Byronic figure, admiring her will even as he tries to break it. The result is inevitable, and never seems anything but a foregone conclusion. Yet the romantic, heady atmosphere evoked through Shana Abé’s deft writing does much to hide the flaws, and somehow makes this well-trodden ground worth walking one more time.

‘The Smoke Thief’s London is the real star of the show; romantic and yet possessed of a Dickensian authenticity. A little too clean, perhaps, but still possessing that complex vitality for which it’s known. The novel’s opening chapters, set among the nobility and following Rue through a heist, succinctly paints a picture of intimacy and deception among the upper classes. With both hero and heroine inhabiting the nobility working class London should receive somewhat shorter shrift, but through a secondary character Abé efficiently conveys the misery and squalor of such an existence.

In comparison, the drákon lands of Darkfrith seem pale and empty. When the action shifts away from London, ‘The Smoke Thief’ loses much of its energy. The quiet of the countryside, ably evoked by Abé’s clever, poetic descriptions, feels a little disjointed and leaves the reader suddenly struggling to change down a gear.

Such scenes aren’t helped by the characters than inhabit them. Christoff and the council who help him rule the drákon have an unpleasantly fascist air to them, and his overbearing arrogance in particular seems the least likely thing to endear him to a woman… or the reader. Small wonder that Rue fled Darkfrith, but the conventions of romantic fiction seem to over-rule Christoff’s utter unsuitability as a protagonist. However, his unsympathetic nature is more than made up for by a superb piece of characterisation in the form of Rue herself. Sympathetic (apart from her inexplicable infatuation), conflicted and intriguing, she is as well-crafted as the city in which she thrives.

The rest of the plot is paper thin, and fades into insignificance against the romance between the leads. And while there may be nothing innovative about that particular tale, in ‘The Smoke Thief’ Shana Abé tells it with flair enough that any flaws might be forgiven.

This review was originally written for