Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Some Thoughts About Robert Jordan's Conan

Over the weekend I was reading Robert Jordan's Conan the Magnificent, one of seven Conan novels that Jordan wrote before he began his massive fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. As I've mentioned before, I've found WoT to be just about unreadable, primarily because of its slow pace and excessive detail. I know that's the kind of thing a lot of readers want from a doorstop fantasy series, but the appeal eludes me. In some ways it dismays me a bit too. I've read three of Jordan's Conan books and they are fast paced and full of colorful descriptions and lots of action. How a guy could write them and then turn to the ponderous Wheel of Time kind of amazes me.
I did notice, as I was reading Conan the Magnificent, that there were elements that show that Jordan might have already been musing about his upcoming fantasy epic. There's a group of priestesses and acolytes who use a magic that can't be wielded by men, just as the One Power in the WoT books can only be used by the nun like Aes Sedai. Men can channel the power, but it drives them mad. There's also a swordsman in the book who reminds me very much of Lan Mandragoran, an important character in the early WoT books. Lan features prominently in the only WoT novel I actually finished, New Spring.
However, the main thing that makes me think that Jordan was starting to stretch his creative wings is the comparatively small amount of time that the reader actually spends with Conan. Probably half the book is told from the points of view of secondary characters. While the multiple viewpoints are characteristic of modern fantasy novels, most Conan books tend to stick close to the big Cimmerian and only occasionally delve into other povs. I'll have to read the rest of Jordan's Conan novels before I can tell if this is common from the first. I don't recall it being so pronounced in the other two I've read. But you can tell he was beginning to chafe at the limitations of a single hero.
As far as Conan pastiches go, Jordan's are among the better ones. While his version of Conan isn't much like Robert E. Howard's, he did seem to have a good grasp on one element of Conan's personality, that of the savage among civilized men. A lot of pastiche writers miss that one. He also handles the portrayal of sorcery well, keeping it close to necromancy as opposed to the D&D style fireball type magic. When judging this sort of pastiche though, I try to get beyond the "does this sound like Robert E. Howard" mode of thought, because NOBODY can ever write Conan like REH. My basic take on Conan pastiches is pretty much the same as that of Karl Edward Wagner, who wrote one Conan novel himself. Pastiche is fine as long as it doesn't mess with the original writings of Robert E. Howard. I've no real problem with new Conan stories as long as they are kept separate from the 'real' Conan stories. In that sense, pastiches are much like media tie-in novels for TV shows and movies.
What I usually go by is how good a book would it be if it weren't about Conan, but some other barbarian hero like Brak or Thongor. Is it a good story? Does the writing hold up? In other words, is it a good sword & sorcery story regardless of its status as a Conan pastiche? By those standards, Jordan's Conans are near the top of the heap, along with Wagner's and those by John Maddox Roberts and John Hocking.
I noticed a couple of weeks back that two of Jordan's Conans have been brought back into print, probably to capitalize on the release of the new Wheel of Time book, The Gathering Storm. I believe six of the seven are still available in the omnibus collections The Chronicles of Conan Vol I&II as well. Those collections omit Jordan's novelization of the second Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer. Anyway, if you're up for some light weight sword & sorcery with some decent prose, you could do worse than Robert Jordan's Conan.

1 comment:

Brett Brooks said...

Something you said touches on a belief of mine, as well. You comment about the other books not touching on the "real" Conan books, much like TV shows and movies. I find it annoying that there is a growing thought that things not explained in movies is fine, because it's explained in "a book." I don't go to a movie to read a book, and I don't read a book for the movie. They are separate entities, and far too often people don't seem to understand that simple fact. I'll stop ranting now... :)