Conan the Avenger

The first counterfeit Conan novel out in paperback wasn’t by Carter & de Camp but by Bjorn Nyberg & L. Sprague de Camp. The history of this novel went back a decade when Nyberg had written a Conan novel. L. Sprague de Camp edited it including correcting any English errors. Nyberg was a Swede and English was a second language for him. De Camp was able to sell an excerpt to Fantastic Universe magazine for September 1957 issue under the name, “Conan the Victorious.”

Gnome Press then published the whole novel as The Return of Conan in 1957. The Gnome Press edition has a cover by Wally Wood. There is something unique about Wally Wood’s art. A shame he did not illustrate more Robert E. Howard though I could have done without the fur jockstrap.

I did not have hostile memories of Conan the Avenger that I had with other pastiches–but I had read it over 26 years ago. Steve Tompkins had warned me that the novel does not hold up well under scrutiny and he was right. The opening scene reminds me more of a costume romance novel than sword and sorcery.

“Fair were the ladies, and a judge would be sorely put to decide a contest for beauty-at least, if he were choosing among the guests. For, in truth, the queen was more beautiful than anyone. The perfection of her form was outlined by the clinging, low-necked gown she wore, with only a silver circlet to confine the foamy mass of her wavy black hair. Moreover, her perfectly-molded face radiated such innate nobility and kindliness as were seldom seen in those times. However, if the king was counted fortunate by his fellow men, no less was Queen Zenobia envied by the ladies. Conan cut an imposing figure in his simple black tunic, with legs clothed in black hose and feet booted in soft, black leather…The ball began. King Conan opened it with his queen in the first complicated steps of the Aquilonian minuet.”

There is more but I can’t take it. Did I accidently fall into a Harlequin Romance novel? This sort of passage would be perfectly fine for any other fantasy novel but not for Conan. I can’t for the life of me remember Howard ever using the word minuet. The abduction of Zenobia by a wizard from across the breadth of the continent is the excuse for the story. Conan has to travel to Khitai and there is all sorts of travelogue and incidents to fill up the novel. Conan is turned into a champion of the world against sorcery. To do this is a misunderstanding of the Conan stories. There is an anarchistic quality to the original Conan stories. Turning him into a champion in a good vs. evil battle in the pastiches smacks of shoehorning the character into de Camp’s precious “saga.” The scene of Conan saying his bedtime prayer to Crom starting out as “Oh Father Crom…” is embarrasing. The lecture by Pelias stating: “We are entering a new era. Enlightenment and reason are spreading among the peoples of the West…The bonds of black magic are strained and broken by new factors brought in by the changed conditions.” is also non-Howardian.

The novel then revisits various phases in Conan’s past career. Steve Tompkins has dubbed it a “reunion tour” which is about as good a way to describe it as any. You get Conan the Zuagir chief, Conan the Vilayet pirate, Conan the Afghuli tribal leader. Nyberg even raided “Red Nails” with another reanimated dragon. This time Conan quickly dispatches the dragon with a long piece of sharp bamboo. Gone is the stark terror present in the first third of “Red Nails” when the dragon was an engine of death and more than Conan could handle. Only with the poison fruit was Conan able to dispatch the dragon. The climax of the novel is undercut by the divine intervention of Crom helping Conan to kill Yah Chieng. How about when Conan took on the Black Seers of Yimsha without divine help? A final quibble is in the last chapter. Zenobia has all of a sudden become an expert archer with a double curved Khitan bow in the past year she left the seraglio of Tarascus. It took years of practice to create the famous English long bowmen who pincushioned more than one French army during the Hundred Years War. Any bow hunter (calling Ted Nugent) will tell you a novice archer is not going to pick off cavalrymen at 200 yards at a gallop. De Camp should have caught this.

At times, the action is not bad. The episodic nature of the novel and the way it strip-mines past Howard stories diminishes action scene competency. This was the first fan Conan novel.