“What is this?” I imagine you saying. “What is Throne of the Bastards doing in the Summer of Conan? I read the blurb and no mention of Conan is to be found.” Throne of the Bastards isn’t openly a Conan pastiche, sure. But it is only about two letters away.
If you simply must read about Conan today, check out my post from last week on the Robert Jordan Conan pastiches.
This is Shrewbury’s fourth Rogan book. In Brian Keene’s first, and the only other one I’ve read, an aged Rogan learns that the son he abdicated his throne to has been deposed while on a journey to fabled lands across the western sea. But it is only after the events of that book—you can read my review here—that Rogan is able to return. If this sounds like Keene and Shrewbury are effectively writing an unauthorized sequel to Conan of the Isles…pretty much.
The result is more interesting than entertaining.
Writing in the 1930s kept some of the rough edges off of Howard’s Conan. More were sanded off at the insistence of Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. That was, I think, very much to the stories benefit. I also couldn’t help but notice that while Conan is no hero by our standards, Howard frequently puts him in a position to play the hero.
Keene and Shrewbury’s Rogan is entirely freed from those constraints. This book is profane and prurient, and Rogan an ass. The whole thing is off-putting. I’m too old to giggle at that sort of thing. (If I must be juvenile, I prefer the overabundance of callimastian beauties from the Tor pastiches.) Which isn’t to say that Throne of Bastards isn’t entertaining. There is a lot of blood and guts action. It doesn’t have the pacing issues of King of the Bastards. It also doesn’t have anything so quintessentially sword and sorcery as a time traveling sorcerer, but the worldbuilding is more than passable.
It isn’t the worldbuilding that makes Throne of the Bastards interesting. Howard portrays his barbarian in a favorable light; Keene and Shrewbury portray theirs in a very unfavorable one. Spreading his seed to the wind in his adventures across the continent have left bastards trailing in his wake (hence the titles), and he isn’t afraid to kill them if they stand in his way. One of the things I love about Conan is that he is a man of action. One of the things I hate about contemporary writing is how easily emo would-be heroes are pushed aside from their goals at the suggestion of consequences. Throne of the Bastards is very upfront about it. Retaking his kingdom by force will be a very bloody affair, not least for the citizens of the kingdom. But do a people who so quickly embrace the usurpers and their foul rites deserve any better? In Hour of the Dragon, Conan demurs to carve out another kingdom by the sword. It is regain the crown of Aquilonia or nothing. In Throne of the Bastards, Rogan is willing to see his kingdom burn to take it back and to avenge his family (at least the family he acknowledges and actually likes).
It’s a dark vision. Rogan isn’t Conan. This is more than simply a portrayal of Conan in an unfavorable light. But Rogan does draw attention to the negative aspects of Conan. Howard was always quite open that civilization must fall. Howard was agnostic, but there is a bit of the Old Testament to it. Keene and Shrewbury draw that line more clearly. Throne of the Bastards takes place before the Flood, and there is even a Noah expy. What stone can be cast at the actions of Rogan when “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5)?
3 of 5 Stars.
You can find all of my Summer of Conan posts here.
Apex was kind enough to send me a review copy of Throne of the Bastards.