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  • Writer's pictureL. D. Whitney

Review: Conan the Avenger

Updated: Jul 2

Classic Frazetta Cover
Ace/Lancer "Conan the Avenger"

I've been meaning to write this review a long time, but as some of you know, my world changed pretty drastically about two months ago. After arriving at the doctor's office, my partner and I were informed that her water broke and that we were having a baby. My daughter was born about 3 hours later! I've been on Paternity Leave for the last six weeks and just returned to work today. Since then, I've picked up a number of S&S volumes that I intened to ruminate on, but this is the first of the backlog.

This is the second classic Conan pastiche that I've read with the intent of reviewing and it feels a little weird. This book has been out for a loooong time, it was published before I was even born. Ultimately, if you want to read these, you probably have already. If you don't, I doubt my introspection will change any minds. With that in mind, I'm not going to stray from spoiler territory like I would with more recently published fiction.

For a long time when I was first discovering Howard and Conan, I was really turned off by the prospect of these books because they were not pure Howard. This was heavily influenced by the opinions of others encounted on the age-old Conan dot com forums. As I've grown older (perhaps wiser?), that stance has relinquished its hold on me. So, when I was purusing my favorite bookstore and saw this one the shelf, I knew I had to have it.

"Conan the Avenger" is set immediately after "Hour of the Dragon" which was published under the title "Conan the Conqueror" in the Lancer/Ace line. So, we are greeted by a newlywed King Conan living out the honeymoon period with blushing bride Zenobia. The plot kicks off rapidly when a winged demon swoops down from the spatial abyss and carries off the love of his life. Without delay, Conan saddles up and arms himself to retrieve his queen, ignoring the protests of his advisors and friends. Some may feel this is a weak start down a well-trodden path, and that may be true, but for me it was a refreshingly rapid start to the 190-something page adventure.

The real highlight of this volume are the run-ins that Conan has with previous characters from original Howard tales. The most notable are Pelias the wizard from "The Scarlet Citadel" and Princess Yasmina from "People of the Black Circle". Conan seeks out Pelias early one in order to arm himself to fight the obvious sorcery behind Zenobia's abduction. Pelias' characterization is suitably weird and off-beat, which may not be reflected in "Citadel" but it felt on brand for a recluse wizard addled with lotus. His purpose in the plot is something of an oracle that fills Conan in on the details of who is behind the machinations and what it means for the Hyboian Age at large. This is where hardcore Howard Purists are going to start finding major gripes. I believe a lot of this plot came from Byorn Nyberg, who is a servicable author for this type of stuff but has a more high fantasy bent. Pelias informs Conan that his nemsis is a sorcerer from distant Khitai, where magic is more ancient and far more powerful. It seems Conan is at the center of divine plotting and will be the lynch pin that spells the end for sorcery at large. He also explains the purose of a ring that has come into Conan's possession. Regardless of your feelings on this particular plot point, it serves as another catalyst to send Conan to the opposite end of the Thurian Contient.

Along the way Conan particpates in a number of side distractions that involve battles and intrigue with new, less memorable characters that are using Conan's solo quest as an opportunity to assassinate him and seize the throne of Aquilonia. This serves as something of a sub-plot as Conan continually out manuevers or strong arms their plans. Most of these occasions serve up some decent action in the form of sword fights, tavern brawls, and large scale battles. There is even a dragon toward the end when Conan reaches the jungles of Khitai. One stand out, however, is something of a disappointment and involves the afformentioned ring. While crossing the Himelians after leaving a lusty Yasmina and his old band of Hillmen behind, Conan encounters a monster in the lofty, snow-covered peaks. The beast was hyped earlier to be somehting scary and intimidating. To be honest, given the "greatest hits" nature of the tale, I was seriously expecting an ape battle. I was very disappointed when confronted with the prospect of a snow golem. Interestingly, in the "Legends of Kern" series that released with the Age of Conan MMORPG there is also a battle with a snake-like snow golem that I was equally disappointed with. I think part of it is that my mind does not find the prospect of something made out of snow to be all that intimidating. Ice? Sure. The Ice Atronachs in the Elder Scrolls games are excellently designed and look imposing. Regardelss, this was not a highlight for me.

The climax with the evil Khitan wizard feels a bit rushed and divisive. Conan meets these imperiled Khitan refugees who have fled oppresive rule. In the span of 3 short chapters, Conan fights a dragon, moves in with them, forms a rebellion, infiltrates the palace, and kills the wizard. The wizard evidently kidnapped Zenobia to lure Conan to Khitai because he is aware of Conan's fate and purpose in the grand scheme. Sure, whatever. The fight itself is actually more of a mental struggle as Conan attempts to repel the sorcerous influence of the wizard. The divisive part is that just in time, an avatar of Crom (or Crom himself?) butts in and aids Conan in victory. This is quite un-Howard, but definitely in line with the rest of Nyberg's ideas. In fact, this is foreshadowed a number of times, particulary by Pelias, who suggests Conan sacrifice a bull to his patron deity. Something the Cimmerian reluctantly does.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable, whilwind adventure, and I couldn't help but to smile everytime one of Conan's old friends popped up. The ending isn't going to be for everyone, but it is what it is. This short novel is a little light on the horror aspects, or at least what I consider hotror, but is full of brisk, fast-paced adventure. Putting it beside "Conan of the Isles" is hard. "Isles" felt a little slow in the beginning, but made up for it with such bonkers creativity and imagination in the middle and end that I can't fault it too much. "Avenger" has a much faster start, something I welcome, but lacks some of the more wild ideas I found in "Isles". Regardless, for anyone who doesn't hold fast to Howard canon, this is a light, breezy read full of action and adventure. I left out more than enough to leave you suprised should you take it up.

Have you read "Conan the Avenger"? Let me know your thoughts!

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