THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: John Maddox Roberts’ Conan Pastiches

Thursday , 31, August 2017 13 Comments

John Maddox Roberts wrote eight Conan books.  I have three—Conan the Champion, Conan the Bold, and Conan and the Amazon.  He is best known for his SPQR series, historical fiction mysteries set in Rome at the dawn of the empire.  Roberts may be the best of the Tor pastiche authors.  Robert Jordan may be a better storyteller and wrote his best prose in his Conan books, but Roberts “got” Conan in a way that Jordan did not.

You can find my thoughts on the Robert Jordan pastiches and on Steve Perry’s Conan the Fearless over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

The first Roberts book I read, Conan the Champion, is set farther north than any of REH’s stories.  Roberts’ Conan is cocky and aggressive, “wild and self-governed.”  He will talk some shit, even to the twice-dead corpse of an ice zombie.

“Well, Agiluf,” Conan said when he once again had breath, “you could not slay me when you were alive.  Did you think you would have a better chance dead?”

But Roberts’ Conan is no young hothead.  Not anymore.

There had been a time when Conan would have instantly split the man’s skull for these words, but age and experience had taught him to be prudent, especially in a strange land.  He said simply: “I have no desire to dispute with you here in the home of my friend.  But if you really want to sell me to the slavers, let us go over to yonder field, and I’ll carve your guts out and strangle your friends with them.”

Conan the Champion and Conan the Bold are both set when Conan is young (the Tor books, in general, seem to focus on Conan’s younger days).  Conan and the Amazon was published too late to be included in Robert Jordan’s Conan chronology, but this is obviously an older, wiser Conan than the first two books (maybe late twenties?).  Roberts’ Conan still isn’t quite Howard’s—Roberts leans more on Scottish history; Howard on Texas history and the influence of the Great Depression—but it is pretty damn close.


Conan the Champion

Both of the quotes above are from Conan the Champion.  Conan is shipwrecked in the far north of the Vilayet Sea and has to winter among warring barbarian clans.  The book is notable for a couple reasons.  One, Conan’s would-be romance with the queen of the clan he spends the winter with is prevented by her duty.  Two, Conan journeys to an alternate dimension where he fights some creatures in the very best tradition of the fae—very reminiscent of Robert Jordan’s Aelfinn and Eelfinn and Leigh Brackett’s aliens from People of the Talisman.  This is definitely the weirdest of the three.


Conan the Bold

Roberts does something bold himself—he opens with Conan in Cimmeria!  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Conan scholars might tell you that it is important to his character that Howard’s Conan never appear in Cimmeria, and that no other Cimmerian appear in his stories.  We do not see Conan with his family or his own clan.  By this point he has already spent time as a prisoner north of Cimmeria and exploring the Pictish wilderness.  He could never bear being confined by the rules and authority of his tribe, and he’s itching to see the world at the beginning of the book.  The murder of the Cimmerian family he is staying with sets him on a quest for revenge that will take up the entire book and cover half the map.

Roberts again gives Conan a love interest with moxie—“Mad Kalya,” who lacks nothing for style.  She has her own quest for revenge.  She is missing one eye and speaks with a rasp.  She wanders like a female, medieval Man With No Name wearing a poncho and an eye patch.  Under the poncho?  A literal chainmail bikini, only with one breast bare.

There is a fantasy angle involving meddling Old Ones, but it isn’t very interesting or important.  There are also some fantastical drugs.  Leonard Carpenter’s Conan the Hero is another Tor Conan book that reflects the 80s/90s fear of drugs.  But really this is a revenge story that comes down to bloody swords.


Conan and the Amazon

This Conan story is a little more generic than the other two, but it still may be my favorite.  As he so often does, Conan finds himself in the story by chance.  In need of sword work in a disreputable town, he quickly meets a pack of Hyrkanians, four Amazons, and a dwarf.  They are all hired to help an enigmatic pair of twins find a lost desert city.

Conan’s heart thudded within his ribs.  She was like a magnificent lioness: powerful, proud and deadly.

The titular Amazon queen is the highlight.  Roberts wrote very good feminine foils for Conan.  Achilea has a scarred, weather-beaten face, the hands of a swordsman, and is almost as tall as Conan.  But she is “not in the least masculine,” with “full and womanly” breasts and “sleekly rounded hips and buttocks.”  Roberts may have had Cory Everson in mind when he wrote Achilea.

I won’t spoil the story, but things get pretty darn science fictional in the latter half of the book, in the best pulp tradition.  And speaking of being pulpy, the fight with a crocodile that is depicted on the cover really does happen, and it is awesome.


H.P. is an academic, attorney, and “author” (well, blogger) who will read and write about anything interesting he finds in the used bookstore wherever he happens to be for the moment.  He can be found on Twitter @tuesdayreviews and at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    With the exception of one of Jordan’s books a long time ago, I’ve made a point of staying away from non-Howard Conan stories.

    Thanks for posting this look at the work of John Maddox Roberts.

  • T. Everett says:

    While I certainly agree that Howard’s original stories are far better than any pastiche, in my limited experience John Maddox Roberts is the best of the lot. I was particularly impressed with ‘Conan and the Treasure of Python’, which is probably my favorite non-Howard Conan story despite* the fact that the second half is a blatant re-telling of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, with Conan in the role of Alan Quatermain.

    *Or maybe it’s because of this that I liked it so much.

    • H.P. says:

      I will keep an eye out for that one, but, really, after these three I will buy any Roberts’ Conan book I see when I’m at the used bookstore.

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    I had no idea Roberts had taken a turn with Conan! I love his SPQR stories. This is good news.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Roberts, along with John Hocking (The Emerald Lotus), IMHO did the best Conan pastiche work. Both authors avoid a direct aping of Howard, but keep the spirit of the character. Good stuff

  • Terry says:

    JMR is by far,to me, the best of the non REH writers of Conan. I loved all his efforts and wish he would have done more. Glad to see you giving him some love.

  • Bruce says:

    Robert wrote some great sword and planet stuff: Cestus Dei, and I think the sequel. And his King of the Wood is awesome. And he did some good asteroid stories with Eric Kotani, and his ancient Rome detective stories are good, but his Tor Conans sucked dog balls like all the other Tor Conans. Why? Well, even in the nineties, Tom Doherty was losing it. And SJW editors who deliberately sabotage your cash cows aren’t a plus. But Conans aren’t really all that easy to write.

    Howard’s style is a lot harder to imitate than it looks. He lived at the peak of a golden age of narrative history, and he was GOOD at mining it for saucy details and sprinkling them through the Conans. Poul Anderson stole the first paragraph of ‘Shadows of Zamboula’ four or five times that I’ve noticed, for all sorts of different stories- it’s a model of setting a scene, well worth stealing.

    The only good Conan pastiches I’ve read are by Poul Anderson Conan the Rebel, (really Conan the Grown-up- Anderson treated him as one); Karl Edward Wagner (really Conan the Fascist, Wagner liked stories where the strong do what they will and the weak suffer as they must), and that one by Bjorn something in the early Lancers. But if a Castalia writer really digs the kind of history where Bernardo Diaz is crossbowing Aztecs left and right- let me see their Conan.

    • H.P. says:

      I really wanted to read some non-Tor Conan pastiches but, other than de Camp and Carter’s novelization of Conan the Barbarian, the Tor books were all I found in the used bookstores I visited. I will keep my eye out for those. Wagner, in particular, is a writer I want to read, whether it is his Conan or one of his other sword and sorcery books.

  • Vlad James says:

    The only one of these I read is “Conan the Bold”, but I remember the revenge tale very distinctly, moreso than any of the other Tor Conan books. Mad Kayla was a sympathetic, likable female lead and love interest, and the tale of tracking down the bandits for revenge was executed with zest and hearty doses of action.

    Might give his other pastiche books a try now.

  • Steve Dilks says:

    I thought CONAN AND THE AMAZON was Roberts’ weakest. It’s almost as if the publishers said- “Hey, those GOR books sell- write something like that!” It was his last published one, almost as if he were fulfilling his obligation to finish his contract. Overall, though, am a big fan of his Conan novels. Along with the afore mentioned CONAN THE CHAMPION, his CONAN THE ROGUE, CONAN THE MARAUDER and CONAN AND THE TREASURES OF PYTHON are of excellent quality. Even though I don’t not think highly of AMAZON, even at his most middling, he was still head and shoulders above the usual offerings from Tor.

    • H.P. says:

      I need to read some Gor books, if only for comparison’s sake. Robert Jordan’s editor and widow suggested the biggest problem with the never-published book that launched his career was that it was too much like a Gor book.

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  • Bob Byrne says:

    Roberts’ ‘Conan the Rogue’ is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest.’ It’s my favorite pastiche of them all. Of the multi-book Tor authors, he was the least uneven.

    I linked to a Black Gate post on the Tor series after my email address.

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