If you have been reading or following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of the Texas writer Robert E. Howard and his most famous creation, Conan of Cimmeria. He was the first literary creation I really fell for, and, to this day, if I had to pick one favorite all time character it would be the mighty barbarian. I’ve read Howard’s stories, the comics, stories and novels from other writers. I saw and loved the two movies made back in the 80s that had Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role (okay, loved the first one, tolerated the second one). I consider myself a diehard, but I’m also pretty open-minded to other people’s takes on the characters. Yes, I would prefer that anyone handling the character stick to Howard’s work, but I’m fine with alternate takes as long as I feel like the writer adhered to the spirit of what we think Howard intended with his character and the Hyborian world he inhabits. Some do pretty well. Others fail miserably.
This summer challenged me with two opportunities to evaluate efforts for Conan to step anew into the mainstream spotlight: a new movie, which just opened last weekend, and the novelization of the movie, by Michael Stackpole. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to try first; ultimately I read the book the day before I saw the movie . . . mainly because I couldn’t wait.
Since I’ll probably get to rambling, I figured I’d break this into two parts. For this one, I’ll talk about Stackpole’s book.
I read it on a flight home from Illinois to Missoula, and I have to say I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. No, this isn’t Howard’s Conan, but Stackpole does a solid job with the material he was given (no doubt the screenplay to the movie) and displays a real reverence for the source material. It’s even dedicated to Howard. Kudos for that.
The nods to the history of Conan from Howard’s work were nice touches — particularly the stories “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Queen of the Black Coast”. I appreciate the effort to tie this story to the roots already established by Howard’s work. “Tower” is a classic, but not necessarily my favorite story. “Queen of the Black Coast” is fantastic, though, and in this novel we find Conan still lamenting the outcome of that dark tale.
The novelization goes quite a bit deeper than the movie, and the somewhat intricate plot is certainly easier to follow. Conan’s boyhood (a subject I’ve never really felt was necessary to address) is handled okay, I guess, though I don’t really buy into this version of Cimmerian life. The tangled relationships among the villains are interesting, something they failed to really capitalize on in the movie. It could certainly be leaner and meaner in the telling, but that’s no fault of Stackpole.
The problems I have with the book are the problems I have with pretty much everyone who has written Conan who isn’t Robert E. Howard. I don’t know that the character works in this sort of “hero saving the world” context. Howard’s work is all about the Cimmerian just getting by, and encountering, or awakening, ancient eldritch evil along the way. Does he need to be caught up in some huge plot that runs him all over the map? I don’t think so. That smacks too much of a James-Bond-with-broadswords story, and that ain’t Conan. One other reviewer on Amazon referred to the ending as being videogame-ish, and that is really on the money.
After reading the book and finding myself pleasantly surprised, I thought I’d seek out Stackpole online to look into his other work. I found some great essays on his blog about the process of delivering this book. Overall he has four different posts related to his experience in writing it. Parts one and two are particularly interesting, and I urge you to check them out. They provide some pretty interesting looks behind the curtain for what goes on in writing a tie-in novel like this. Essays three and four are also there, but they are less interesting as they refer to his experience attending the Hollywood premier of the movie.
My verdict? I’d give it a solid 3.5 out of 5. It certainly isn’t going to win over any literary snobs who think this stuff is a waste of paper and ink. Diehard Howard-version Conan fans will likely sniff at it, and I don’t really blame them. It’s still a fun, pulpy read though. I’d recommend it to fans of swords & sorcery fiction. I would happily read Stackpole again, and probably will. I’d like to see what he could do with an all original Conan yarn.
Next up: The Movie