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  • Writer's pictureL. D. Whitney

Review: Conan of the Isles

Updated: Jul 3

Like many, Robert E. Howard's collection of Conan the Cimmerian stories was my personal entry point into Sword & Sorcery. I am also confident in saying that Conan is the Gold Standard of the genre, both poster child and progenitor. The melding of swashbuckling historical adventure and supernatural horror is so keenly balanced on Conan's blade that it is the reference point by which I judge all other entries into the genre. S&S, of course, comes in far more varieties than Conan-adjacent. It is simply my most preferred flavor, my Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough to the other Twenty-one. There are few S&S characters that have really grabbed me in ways that Conan did, offering up the perfect blend of raw, sweetened dough and smooth vanilla ice cream. Imaro, by Charles Suanders, is damn close. More recent authors like Steve Dilks (Bohun), David Mana (Acuelo & Amunet), and Howard Andrew Jones (Dabir & Asim) are quite satisfying. A handful of authors published in Whetstone Magazine have sparked my interest as well. I am also not a Conan purist, accepting only the output of Robert E. Howard. I love the character and world he created so much, that I am willing to accept the ideas and voices of other authors.


Conan Pastiche, as it is commonly referred to, is a mixed bag. By my reckoning, John Maddox Roberts produced the highest quality Conan novels I have read, and I have read many. Unfortunately, that Holy Grail, "Conan and the Emerald Lotus" by John C. Hocking yet alludes me. Whispers that the reprint, packaged with a follow-up novel, is being pushed back to 2024 brings me great sorrow. I have also read and enjoyed the Jordan novels, and the Age of Conan series, although the Styiga trilogy was a massive disappointment. I've even read the much derided "Conan the Liberator" by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, which, I have to say, is decent till the Satyrs show up.


A las, it is de Camp and Carter that have led me here.


Before I start in on "Conan of the Isles", I should mention that de Camp and Carter should be lauded for saving REH and Conan from obscurity. Their efforts kept alight the torch of S&S when the Pulp magazines faded away. Both of these authors created characters and works of their own and wrote in multiple genres to varying degrees of success. Carter's Thongor of Lemuria is still spoken of in the shadow of Conan. De Camp's "Tritonian Ring" is barely mentioned at all.


We'll come back to these later.


So, "Conan of the Isles". Is it good?


No.


But also, yes.


It's complicated.


"Isles" is based on a premise that REH shared with Lovecraft via correspondence. Howard expressed the idea that he imagined an aged King Conan sailing off into the Western Sea for one last, rip-roaring adventure. There, he would explore an unknown land and become the progenitor for the Aztec God, Kukulkan.


That sounds badass.


De Camp and Carter deliver on a lot of that promise. Ultimately, it is a rip-roaring take on Conan's last ride, following the very brief description REH provided. At its best, the novel offers up some thrilling scenes of Conan doing what he does best. There are also some very clever scenes where Conan has to navigate conversation in a language he doesn't know. Throughout the discussion, we see the old King of Aquilonia improve his comprehension and grasp of the foreign dialect. I enjoyed this very much. There is one stand out use of sorcery that I very much enjoyed reading. This story has duels with pirates, sorcerers, ship battles, giant sharks, giant rats, giant octopi, and dragons (though not in the traditional sense). There are daring escapes, sword fights, dungeons, everything you'd want in a grand adventure. Some of these scenes do become slightly over the top, more comic booky that I'd prefer, but I'd be a liar if I said it wasn't fun as hell.


Much of the fun, however, is brought down by the authors' world building. There are so many instances of things that just don't feel like Howard.


Because they aren't.


Going back to "Conan the Liberator", I left the book with the distinct feeling that de Camp and Carter were trying VERY hard to connect their own works to the greater Conan mythos. In fact, one of the main villains in that novel is a Lemurian with a distinctly un-Howardian name. The Lemuria this character describes is also not really in line with how Lemuria is eluded to within the context of the Kull stories. That's because it is Thongor's Lemuria that is being referred to. Carter has consciously inserted his own mythology into the timeline of Conan. I don't know if the following statement is true or not, but this occurrence did leave me with the distinct feeling that the authors saw Conan as a backdoor way to sell their own ideas.


The same can be said about "Conan of the Isles".


WARNING: From here on out, I have to encroach on spoiler territory. I just have to. If you are planning to read this book and form your own opinion, do that first. Then come back and tell me if you agree or not. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


"Conan of the Isles" fills in a lot of mythology surrounding Atlantis, even going so far as telling us that Conan has read about Kull and Valusia. The allusions to Howard's world-building end there. I do not know enough about de Camp and Carter as people to claim to know their personal beliefs. It seems like de Camp was a fan of debunking pseudoscience, which means he was very well read on the subject. Much of Carter's Thongor is inspired by Theosophical teachings, but whether he held stock with these ideas, I do not know. REH himself was inspired by Theosophical Root Races, Cataclysms, and Atlantis. However, the history of Atlantis that we are presented with in "Isles" is distinctly Thongor flavored.


Conan mentions that he has read of flying airships powered by a "mysterious energy called vril". Vril, for those not into odd ball pseudoscience and "The Shaver Mysteries" like me, is an energy force that has been conjectured to behind all sorts of phenomena, including but not limited to UFOs and Pyramid building. This is all VERY Thongor, but not very Conan. I'm not saying that because I dislike the idea, just that it doesn't jive at all with the world as Howard originally presented it.


In the novel (and theosophy) the Atlanteans fled destruction across the globe. In the Americas, they intermingled with the native population and became Aztec priest kings. This, as well, as many other ideas brought up in the novel, are lifted wholesale from theosophical teachings. It gives the writing a feeling of proselytizing, like somehow these authors were trying to use Conan as a vehicle to sell us on the idea that we descended from Hyperborean hermaphroditic bird people who laid eggs (yes, this is another real teaching of theosophy that real people believed). I don't know, nor do I think, that was the case, but it was the feeling I left with.


On top of that, there are also metal ships, crystal swords (not obsidian because that is mentioned separately), glass armor, and I swear to Crom on his mountains, scuba gear. Yes, at one point, Conan dons Atlantean Scuba Gear MADE OF GLASS and walks on the bottom the ocean. It's not necessarily un-cool, just very un-Conan.


There is also a lot of language in the novel that just doesn't quite fit. Lots of "forsooth" type stuff that would be more at home in a teenager's first D&D campaign. Also, one character, an aged Vanir pirate and Conan's main companion in this venture, continuously spouts curses in a quickly tired format. "By Thor's Hammer and Shaitan's forked Tail!" "By Lirs green beard and Ishtar's ample bosom!" "BY THIS AND BY THAT!" I got the distinct impression that the authors found his hilarious. At one point it happens five times in the span of two pages. It isn't just the dialogue either, but many of the descriptions are flowery and over the top when compared to the foundation of Howard.


Another thing that irked me was, from the very beginning, the plot hinges on Conan being a chosen one. Epimetrius visits Conan and flat out tells him that the Gods have been guiding his life and preparing him for this moment. That's right, de Camp and Carter retroactively make Conan a chosen one protected by gods throughout his ENTIRE life. Every single thing was preordained, and Mitra held his hand the whole way through. If that isn't the antithesis of Howard's Conan, I don't know what is.


Lastly, I am going to assume de Camp and Carter invented Conn, Conan's son, who makes a brief appearance toward the beginning. Also, Zenobia is dead. She died giving birth to Conan's daughter, who to my knowledge, has never appeared in anything else. This may be a tangent, but I find the concept of Conn boring. I had no idea that Conan supposedly had a daughter until reading this book, but THAT is a story I want to read.


Overall, I can't tell you not to read this, because I think you probably should. When it's fun, it is so much fun. When it's not, you're probably rolling your eyes or shaking your head. A lot may depend on how much stock you take in Howard's original lore and worldbuilding. If you don't mind de Camp and Carter treating it like their own little sandbox with zero regard for what came before, you probably won't mind much of what I griped about. The book itself is brisk and the pacing moves at a real clip, clocking in at a brief 190 pages. I have no doubt you'd be able to find a cheap paperback copy somewhere online. There is an eBook copy available on Amazon, though it appears to be unauthorized and was sloppily scanned into the proper format. Taken as a creative fantasy romp, this book is an absolute joy. Taken as a piece of Conan canon, it is much less so.


-L.D. Whitney


 

Conan of the Isles cover art by Boris Vellejo
Conan of the Isles cover art by Boris Vallejo





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