I've talked a bit before about the TOR Books Conan pastiches. There was a long stretch in the 1980s-1990s where the only Conan stories you could buy new, oddly enough, were ones that weren't written by Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard. (And generally Howard's name didn't appear on the covers, but that's a matter for another time.) A few of the TOR books were reprints of pastiches originally written for other publishers, such as Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings and Poul Anderson's Conan the Rebel, but most of the run of books were written specifically for TOR by a group of authors which included Roland Green, Steve Perry, a pre-Wheel of Time Robert Jordan, and the writer of today's subject book, John Maddox Roberts.
I was already familiar with Roberts from his SPQR books, a historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, so I knew the guy could write and I figured he would have a better grasp on the Hyborian Age's pseudo-historical setting than a lot of the pastiche writers. Both things turned out to be true. In terms of quality of prose, the John Maddox Roberts Conan books are some of the best and the "historical" details add considerable verisimilitude. However, Roberts writing is nothing like Robert E. Howard's, so anyone seeking ersatz Howard is going to be disappointed. I think Roberts decided early on that he was just going to write exciting sword and sorcery adventures in his own style, so while he gets an A for overall writing, some folks may feel that he wasn't writing Conan pastiches so much as his own barbarian adventures. I've no problem with that.
What I do find amusing is Roberts' approach to plots and situations. The first JMR Conan pastiche I read was Conan and the Treasure of Python. In this one, Robert's basically swipes the plot from H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and casts Conan in the Allan Quartermain role. There are changes, of course, to make things work in a Hyborian age setting, but Roberts' plot is very close to Haggard's.
The next one I read was Conan the Rogue which pulls elements from two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. Now, as I mentioned before, JMR is a mystery writer, so it's not surprising he might borrow Hammett's plots, but it's still kind of amusing to hear Conan saying slightly altered Sam Spade dialog. "You will take say, 100 dinars?" "I will take, say, 200 Dinars."
So when I started Conan the Champion this week, I was watching to see if Roberts would 'borrow' the plot of some other book I'd read, but if he based this one on any particular book, I'm not aware of it. However he did borrow a culture and a period of Earth history for Conan the Champion, because the book could have been called Conan and the Vikings. The tribes that Conan encounters after being washed up on the northern shore of the Vilayet sea are for all intents and purposes Vikings without ships. There are three warring factions vying for power in the area, and Conan ends up working for a queen named Alcuina. She's hot of course. There's always a hot chick in a TOR pastiche, usually more than one.
Not that this sort of borrowing of Viking culture is unusual in fantasy. Robert E. Howard's own creations, the Vanir and the Aesir are in many ways Norsemen. J.R.R. Tolkien's Riders of Rohan are very much Vikings with horses instead of long ships. Recently, Joe Abercrombie has done much the same thing in his First Law books. So Roberts is in good company.
Anyway, Conan spends a lot of time in great halls, feasting and drinking mead. He receives golden arm bands from his employer for jobs well done. He even makes a mid-book side trip into Norse myth, encountering some decidedly elf-like bad guys in another plane of reality. (There are dwarves and giants too.) Aside from this visit, there isn't a ton of magic in Conan the Champion. Some frozen zombies and some spells and counter spells from competing wizards. There's a demon in there too. But most of the book is spent in Viking-like pursuits. Those are the parts I liked the best, Viking fan that I am. I had a good time with Conan the Champion, but really, it's not all that Conan-ish. Just a fun sword & sorcery adventure which would have worked just as well for Brak or Thongor or any other barbarian hero.