Tor asked Robert Jordan to write Conan novels on the basis of a book he sold several times but never published titled Warrior of the Altaii. In explaining why Warrior of the Altaii was never published, Jordan’s editor and widow Harriet McDougal compared it to the Gor books. Jordan also published seven Conan novels in three years, edited several Conan novels, put together a chronology of Conan stories, then went on to publish over fifteen years twelve Wheel of Time novels averaging over 800 pages each. He was a little busy to rewrite Warriors of the Altaii is what I’m saying.
Harriet described Warriors of Altaii as “muscular fantasy.” Considering Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales, the (non-Conan) sword and sorcery of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter that I’ve read, and the Tor Conan pastiches, I think it fair to say they represent three distinct sub-genres: weird fiction, sword and sorcery, and muscular fantasy.
Robert Jordan’s Conan pastiches may be the easiest to find of any of the Tor Conan pastiches. Tor rereleased his Conan books (excepting his Conan the Destroyer novelization) in two hardcover omnibuses in the late 90s at the height of The Wheel of Time’s popularity. Presumably a bunch of Wheel of Time fans bought up the omnibuses then realized they were nothing like the Wheel of Time. Used copies of the omnibuses are readily available, all of the books are available for the Kindle, and several are still available new. I bought the first omnibus at the time and didn’t think much of it. (The omnibuses include a really beautiful map by Ellisa Mitchell based on Howard’s map. Mitchell also did the map for The Wheel of Time, which I have a print of on my art wall.)
And probably a lot of Howard fans picked up Jordan’s Conan books and were similarly nonplussed. But I have a greater appreciation for Jordan’s Conan books now that I’ve read both The Wheel of Time and Howard’s Conan stories and not expecting them to be either. Jordan doesn’t really get Conan. I’m not sure if any of the pastiche authors really did. John Maddox Roberts probably comes the closest of those I’ve read thus far, but Jordan is probably the best storyteller. He may not quite get Conan, but his Conan is charismatic and clever, not just strong. The barbarian versus civilization theme is dropped entirely, even though Jordan’s Conan is young. I think I would probably have rather seen Jordan write an older Conan. Jordan’s Conan who doesn’t understand women is a little off. That was of course a theme Jordan would return to, and you see hints of several themes that Jordan would explore much more fully in his own epic fantasy: prophecy, the twisting of rumor, politics, a battle of the sexes.
Jordan writes Conan’s feminine foils with a lot of moxie, but superficial similarities notwithstanding, they are different in kind from Howard’s. Red Nails is the closest Howard story in structure to Jordan’s as far as the women go. There are usually at least two in Jordan’s stories, and at least one of those antagonistic to Conan throughout, even if she does succumb to her carnal attraction to him. The romance is very much in the vein of the bodice ripper (his Conan books may have proven popular with female fans; he said that Tor discovered a Conan book would always sell better if it featured a little exposed butt cheek on the cover, whether male or female). This sort of thing works much better in The Wheel of Time, where it is toned way down, there are (many, many) female POV characters, and the whole battle of the sexes thing is baked right into the worldbuilding.
Jordan isn’t the stylist Howard was, and he didn’t try to be. But his Conan books feature his finest prose, especially the latter books. He didn’t laden it with as much description as he later would. He gets a little overambitious with the vocabulary, but the results can be beautiful. Check out this description of Shadizar that was mistaken for a passage of Howard’s after I posted it to Twitter:
Night caressed Shadizar, that city known as ‘the Wicked’ and veiled the happenings which justified that name a thousand times over. The darkness that brought respite to other cities drew out the worst in Shadizar of the Alabaster Towers, Shadizar of the Golden Domes, city of venality and debauchery.
In a score of marble chambers silk-clad nobles coerced wives not theirs to their beds, and many-chinned merchants licked fat lips over the abductions of competitors’ nubile daughters. Perfumed wives, fanned by slaves wielding snowy ostrich plumes, plotted the cuckolding of husbands, sometimes their own, while hot-eyed young women of wealth or noble birth or both schemed at circumventing the guards placed on their supposed chastity. Nine women and thirty-one men, one a beggar and one a lord, died by murder. The gold of ten wealthy men was taken from iron vaults by thieves, and fifty others increased their wealth at the expense of the poor. In three brothels perversions never before contemplated by humankind were created. Doxies beyond number plied their ancient trade from the shadows, and twisted, ragged beggars preyed on the trulls’ wine-soaked patrons. No man walked the streets unarmed, but even in the best quarters of the city arms were often not enough to save one’s silver from cutpurses and footpads. Night in Shadizar was in full cry.
Now that is how you introduce a city!
I read the two omnibuses for this post. There may have been more than one omnibus of Jordan’s work published. I can’t say for certain whether those include the same books. I have The Conan Chronicles featuring Conan the Invincible, Conan the Defender, and Conan the Unconquered and The Further Chronicles of Conan featuring Conan the Magnificent, Conan the Triumphant, and Conan the Victorious. I also have a copy of his novelization of the Conan the Destroyer movie but didn’t get to it. I may do a post in the future on all three novelizations. I have a copy of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s novelization of the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie as well.
This is the only mediocre original Conan story that Jordan wrote. Unfortunately, it was also his first. This isn’t by accident. Tor got the rights to Conan and wanted to put a book out very quickly thereafter to capitalize on the 1982 movie. Jordan was picked because they knew from Warrior of Altaii that he could write “muscular fantasy” and because they knew he could write fast. They were right, but Conan the Invincible really shows as a rush job. This is Jordan’s most generic Conan and his most generic world, and it features out of place worldbuilding like the lizardmen who serve the evil sorcerer villain. I would say skip it entirely, but the one thing it is notable for is introducing the secondary characters Karela and Hordo, each of whom appear in two of the other books.
3 of 5 Stars.
This was the only book I remember much of from reading the first omnibus back in the late 90s. It is still my favorite book from the first omnibus, and vies with Conan the Victorious for my favorite overall.
Conan falls in with an artists’ commune (yes, really, and mostly for a girl and the free wine), starts a Free Company, and foils a coup. The obligatory evil sorcerer’s plot to seize power is genuinely clever and is one of the things I remember from my original read. I can even forgive Conan losing a fight to a soft nobleman with a magic sword.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
The Unconquered benefits from a more eastern setting (Aghrapur in Turan, with a trip across the Vilayet Sea to the Mongol-inspired Hyrkania). The cult leader who serves as the villain is a nice twist on the usual evil sorcerer, and his Khitan bodyguards were a highlight when I first read the book and a highlight now.
The air hummed as if a thousand hornets had been loosed. Arrows sliced through the space where they had stood, toward the man in black. And before Conan’s astounded gaze the man, hands darting like lightning, knocked two shafts aside, seized two more from the air, then seemed to slide between the rest and disappear.
4 of 5 Stars.
I saw McDougal mention that in rereading Jordan’s Conan stories it was “very obvious to [her], looking back, that [Jordan] was brooding about the events in Afghanistan at that time.” This is the book that she was referring to, written in the middle of the Soviet-Afghan War (Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Hero also shows the influence of that war).
An evil sorcerer is uniting the hillmen of the Kezankian Mountains. The influence of Aghan-style Islam is plain. Howard featured the “Afghuli” who lived in the “Himelian” mountains in The People of the Black Circle, but Jordan uses the Kezankian Mountains and its hillmen.
Conan the Magnificent also has an honest-to-God dragon, although Jordan uses the term “drake,” perhaps because Howard already used “dragon” to refer to a more dinosaur-like beast in Red Nails.
4 of 5 Stars.
Conan the Triumphant is almost a direct sequel to Conan the Defender, for all that Jordan wrote two other Conan books in the interim. It opens with Conan commanding the Free Company he formed in that book. Ianthe in Ophir is on the verge of collapse between a distracted, dying king and a scheming noblewoman sorceress. This might be my second least favorite of Jordan’s Conan books, although it is certainly better than Conan Invincible.
3.5 of 5 Stars.
The plot of Conan the Victorious defies easy description. Conan kills a city guardsman in a dispute over a woman. Unfortunately, the guardsman was captain of the palace guard of a prince assassinated that night, and the twisting of rumor ties a “giant northlander” to that crime. He winds up fleeing Sultanapur and traveling to Vendhya, where he foils a wizard’s plotting. (It’s a lot more complicated than that.)
Conan the Victorious might be Jordan’s best Conan book. The plot is complex. The obligatory evil sorcerer is more fully fleshed out than per the usual, and without sacrificing precious pages of Conan. Jordan’s decadent, dangerous Vendhya is his best work of worldbuilding from his Conan books. It would presage his ability to both interweave Eastern elements into his worldbuilding in The Wheel of Time and to create the Seanchan and Shara Eastern-inspired empires. But he never wrote anything this dissolute in The Wheel of Time. It is unabashedly exotic, with shades of the old chinoiserie sub-genre.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Jordan’s Conan books are fine to read in publication order, but according to his own chronology, the chronological order is: Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Magnificent, Conan the Invincible, Conan the Victorious, Conan the Unconquered, Conan the Defender, Conan the Triumphant.
You can find all of my Summer of Conan posts here.
 This leads to one of my favorite exchanges. After hearing his fortune, Conan asks if the fortune-teller can’t tell it any plainer. To which the fortune-teller responds, “Could I say my prophecies plainer, I’d live in a palace instead of a pigsty in Hellgate.” Fair enough.