Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian was not often motivated by vengeance, but many of the other authors who have offered stories about that character have decided that a revenge plotline is the best way to get him his due share of violent deeds. Perhaps such writing is under the influence of cinematic revenge drama tropes. Certainly, both the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film and the otherwise quite different 2011 movie of the same title ground Conan’s quests in revenge for the murder of his family and the violent destruction of his home village. The novel Conan the Bold by John Maddox Roberts offers a similar narrative.
In this case, we fortunately avoid the non-REH and now-cliche murder of Conan’s own parents. Instead, we get a sense of his barbarian honor in championing revenge on behalf of a Cimmerian family and village where he was a guest (albeit one with a prospect of marrying into kinship). For an extra helping of vengeance, Conan’s principal companion for most of the book has her own parallel revenge motive that draws the two of them into collaboration. Much of the story is suspended around set piece battles, which suggest a cinematic imagination as much as the revenge plotline does.
Conan is very young in this book, and a little wanting in the sense of humor that Howard gave him, but that so few later writers have managed to keep. His dour determination is quite consistent. After liberating the captives of some slavers, he is told, “We do not know how to thank you.” And then, He shrugged. “I am here because there are some men I must kill.” He turned and walked away (229).
Given how early it is set in Conan’s career, this novel is still an awkward fit in the loose continuity established by Howard’s stories, let alone any more tangled one that might account for the contributions of later authors. It references the sack of Venarium, but has Conan leaving Cimmeria for the first time on a journey that takes him as far as southern Shem.
The diction of the text is neither jarringly modern nor affectedly antique, and the descriptions of sorcery are in keeping with the better efforts of various Conan writers. One might object, however, to such a youthful Conan seeming to have an informed aversion to wizardry, which he has hardly yet had the chance to experience. Roberts does succeed rather admirably at evoking the sense of deep layers of civilization and barbarism that Howard cultivated for his Hyborian setting, without a lot of name-dropping “lore.” The novel’s conclusion has a minimum of denouement, but it is well-crafted for all that. [via]
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