Keene and Shrewsbury wrote King of the Bastards with one eye fixed on Conan the Cimmerian. And not just Conan but old-school weird fiction and sword and sorcery. (The raw edges of Keene’s The Rising show too.) It’s something that should appeal to me after spending a year reading Jeffro’s Appendix N Retrospective. Unfortunately it doesn’t live up to that promise.
The setting of the King of Bastards is as much the main character as Rogan, the titular King of Bastards and Conan-expy. It’s all lightly drawn. But that’s too its credit. Rather than beat us over the heads with endless references, it subtly puts them out there and leaves it to us to pick them out. I caught at least what I think are references to Atlantis, the New World, Amazons, and the Flood. And throw in shamanistic magic, time travelers, inter-dimensional demons, and grossly misshapen monstrous henchmen.
Like Conan, Rogan started as an adventurer and a soldier, and rose to become a king. But he’s become bored with ruling, and left his kingdom to his son to find a last few adventures. Long in the tooth but harmful as he can be. Things quickly go south, as they tend to do, but Rogan is more than ready to cut his way out.
The story setup is simple. Rogan’s ship is attacked by pirates. He survives, but at the expense of his ship and gaining the knowledge that his kingdom and family are in grave danger. Luckily, the natives are willing to help. With just the leeeetle request that he remove the evil sorcerer who has been tormenting them.
It’s a novella and that should be plenty. Kenne and Shrewsbury manage to drag out a novella to the point it felt longer than many 400+ page novels I’ve read. After Rogan meets the natives, the pace screeches to a halt. Which is too bad, because the finale is really something.
Rogan just isn’t compelling enough to follow sitting around. Most of that consists of Rogan being as crass as possible. As appealing as that might be to the 13-year-old in me, I get as much of that as I can handle from Donald Trump showing up on my television on a weekly basis. King of the Bastards is much better when it’s dealing in action-adventure and pulpy weirdness; there’s just not enough of it.