I’ve said before that John Maddox Roberts is neck-and-neck with Robert Jordan for best writer of Conan pastiches, but that he gets Conan better than any other writer of pastiches I have read. Conan the Valorous helps firm up my conclusion. Setting a Conan story in Cimmeria is a ballsy move, but Roberts is the right writer to pull it off.
The story opens with a newly broke Conan accepting a commission to carry a certain thing to Cimmeria and perform a certain rite on a mountain holy to the Cimmerians. Chronologically, Robert Jordan (wearing his editor hat) placed Conan the Valorous directly before the original Robert E. Howard tale “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” That short story takes place in Nordheim, so Conan the Valorous gives Conan a reason to travel back to the north.
Putting Conan in Cimmeria is tricky. One of Conan’s defining traits is that he is a Cimmerian outside of Cimmeria. To the outlanders he encounters, he is a barbarian far from home. He is neither of those things to the Cimmerians in his native land. But he left his home for a reason. Cimmerians are the ancestors of the Gaels, the “men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” Conan carried his gigantic melancholies with him from Cimmeria, but the gigantic mirth he returns with are unwelcomed and eccentric. The Cimmerians care nothing for his exotic adventures or the riches won and spent. He cares nothing for the clan obligations that dominate Cimmerian life or for dreary herding.
Roberts threads this needle with aplomb. The Conan scenes, and Conan does dominate the book, are very good.
Conan the Valorous’ great failing is a recuring one with Tor’s Conan pastiches. The sort of generic wizards populating the generic fantasy novels that dominated mall bookstore fantasy sections in the 1980s and 1990s keep slipping in. Conan the Valorous is at its best when it features Conan. The more wizards appear, the worse it gets. (Although I did appreciate the peculiar wizard from the far East who was probably more than a little modeled on Mako’s wizard from the first Conan movie.)
The book also includes an extended sequence in the Border Kingdom between Nemedia and Cimmeria. The entire sequence may have been added to pad out the page count to mass market paperback standards, and it has little to no relevance to the larger story. But it would have made a fine novelette on its own, and I welcomed the diversion.
4 of 5 Stars.
Vintage Science Fiction Month comes every year, right after Santa. The gist is simple: read speculative fiction written before 1980 (or the year you were born) and write about it in January. I am cheating here a bit. Conan the Valorous was published in 1985 and is an example of what I label “Retro SF.” Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer.