Title: Conan The Champion
Genre: Sword & Sorcery_ Robert E. Howard pastiche
Released: April 1987 (Tor books)
Author: John Maddox Roberts
In the northern regions of Brythunia on the cusp of winter, a local merchant salvages the valuable wreckage washed ashore. Among the remnants is the motionless body of a prime warrior strong enough to survive the disaster–Conan the barbarian.
Nursing him back to health at his hut nearby, the benevolent merchant gives Conan exposition on the political wars of the area. King Totila, a powerful chieftain, and King Odoac, a gluttonously aged ruler, each vie for the courtship of Queen Alcuina and thus seek a merger of her southern lands and loyal tribe.
Purely interested in joining the highest bidder for his mercenary services, Conan is confronted by a warrior of King Totila. There to collect taxes on the Merchant’s scavenged haul, the uncouth Agilulf demands the merchant impart Conan to the king for slavery. The two exchange insults before the raven-hatted Agilulf vows to slay Conan if he witnesses him outside of the merchant’s protection.
With winter in stride, Conan treks across the tundra in search of work. Atop a bluff, h encounters a battle ensuing in the snowy valley below. The raven clad warrior is in a tussle with Queen Alcuina’s clan. Conan challenges the ferocious warrior to single combat. An epic clash of rancorous battlers ends with Conan slaughtering the sardonic Agilulf and joining forces with the Queen’s gang.
Resorting in the spartan garth of the Queen’s domain, Conan vainly attempts to woo the steely Alcuina. She’s appreciative of his efforts, lavishing him with full cups of ale and bejeweled bracelets. However, her attention remains on the wars of winter ahead.
The sorcery in this novel gives it a Sword & Sorcery quality placable to what most fans seek reading these books. Totila’s wizard attacks the Garth by resurrecting the undead warriors slain earlier in the day. Once again, Conan must defeat the Lich-form of Agilulf. Luckily Alcuina has a wizard of her own to counter the array of sorcerous incursions throughout the book.
Before King Odoac can make his presence felt in the war, Totila’s wizard conjures a demon to abduct the Queen. Along the way back, Alcuina is double abducted and whisked away into a faerie realm. This span is a muddled bane of padded fodder to stretch out the second act of the book. It’s entirely pointless with its only highlight having Conan whack a huge insectoid to death.
Back in the physical realm, King Odoac is faced with the decisive selection of how to join the fray of northern kingdoms. Leovigild, his nephew and only heir, proposes a more diplomatic approach that opposes Odoac’s more savage stratagem. Hence the young lad is exiled to the land of monstrosities. Travelling through hillocks and thickets, Leovigild’s horse is swallowed whole by a snow serpent. The setting is an eerie ambiance of dooming mystery. A kind homunculus ends up guiding the youth to a nude galadriel-like tree witch, where she reads his fortune. The youth then seeks his destiny of taking allegiance with Queen Alcuina.
Meanwhile, King Totila becomes increasingly frustrated with the multiple failed ploys from his wizard and decides to arrange forces with King Odoac in an attempt to raid the Queen’s Garth. King Totila plans to furtively murder Odoac in battle and have his followers swear their faith in him.
Conan, having continuously outperformed his pay throughout the novel, still can’t find his way into Alcuina’s metal panties. He single-handedly carries the unit in brutality and strategy. Eventually, after the death of King Odoac at the hands of Totila, Conan sees fit to end the war by challenging the king to combat. A fearsome chieftain proven in war and draped in animal pelts, King Totila clashes swords with the legendary Barbarian in a prolonged duel. Conan feigned slipping, engendering Totila to lower his shield for an instant. With a swift lance, Totila toppled over in death.
The remaining warriors pledge allegiance to the Queen and Leovigild if they are to be treated as equals. In the closing chapter, Conan meets up with the elder Merchant from the opening. The sea has thawed and Conan is hankering for a ride south. In true Conan manner, he shrugs off his hoard of treasures as just an average winter for him.
Overall: Unless zombie warriors, nefarious wizards, virulent kings, and bloody battles set on a wintry landscape doesn’t kindle your delight, you’d be hard-pressed to find more satisfying non-REH Conan readings. John Maddox Roberts’ prose does lack ingenuity, but he crafts excellent characters to mingle in the world of hyberborea. Loved the confidence Conan possessed in the eye of adversaries.