How did I get it: I was sent a review copy courtesy of Berkley Boulevard/Penguin Group.
Why did I get it: Over the lack couple of weeks I’ve been reading a lot of Conan stories and having enjoyed them, I’ve been more and more curious about the movie coming out in August. And when I heard that Michael A. Stackpole would be writing this novel, I knew I definitely wanted to check this book out. (This title will also count towards my Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge for 2011.)
How I would rate it: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Born in the fires of battle, Conan of Cimmeria lost his father and village when they were slaughtered by the cruel warlord Khalra Zym. Wandering the world alone, Conan was forged into a peerless warrior by hardship and bloodshed.
Years later, he crosses paths with Zym and his armies. But before Conan can exact vengeance, he must contend with the warlord’s daughter-the seductive witch Marique-and a host of monstrous creatures. Only then will Conan’s quest bring him face to gave with Zym in an epic battle to avenge his people and save the world.
Review: (Note: This review contains mild spoilers for both the movie novelization and the film itself.)
I can’t remember the last time I read a book based on a movie and enjoyed it this much. Everything about Conan the Barbarian was done in a way that paid excellent tribute to earlier works and to Robert E. Howard’s impressive albeit brief writing career. Stackpole breathed an amazing amount of life into Conan, pulling from and referencing the original Robert E. Howard stories in a really great way. I really liked the mentioning of the events in “The Tower of the Elephant” and that Stackpole made significant mention of Bêlit from “The Queen of the Black Coast.” I also liked the various Lovecraft-inspired touches from the tentacled Mask of Acheron to the mentioning of Dagon during a summoning spell because Robert E. Howard was very impressed by “The Call of Cthulhu” and they did write letters to one another and yes I am a really big geek and I’ll stop now.
Anyway, the little details in this movie novelization made me so incredibly happy and I think I was at exactly the right point in reading Conan stories to appreciate the best parts of the book. Those were the ones which focused on Conan growing up to become a Cimmerian warrior with the aid of his father and then his grandfather. The story of a boy destined for greatness while wielding a sword is not uncommon, but it is a very entertaining one. I really loved Corin and Connacht as mentors and role models. I especially liked the details about Conan’s mother and the fact that Conan was born on a battlefield while she was fighting right alongside the rest of their people. So basically the early sections of the novel just felt particularly well-crafted and reading them was a delight.
My least favorite parts of the book were focused solely on the original characters created for the movie or moments that Conan wasn’t really a part of, but then that’s hardly too surprising. And I suspect some of my lack of interest in these other characters stemmed from my dismay in realizing that the movie won’t be borrowing too heavily from actual pieces by Howard or those who wrote with or after him. Still, I thought the villains had sort of a cool if over-the-top method and rationale to their madness even if I did have one issue with the main female protagonist, Tamara. I didn’t mind much that she was a special orphan with special blood or a female warrior monk, but the fact that she also became a love interest caused me a decent amount of eye-rolling. It wasn’t unexpected, of course, but it was irksome. I greatly preferred the brief moments Tamara and Conan spent together where they were more like potential allies than potential lovers.
Thankfully, Tamara’s special specialness wasn’t a primary focus in of itself. Instead it was overshadowed by Conan being completely unimpressed with anything magic-related as well as his desire to get things done or people killed. I also loved that Stackpole added in a lot of moments of Conan reflecting on Bêlit, his first love, who would have made for a really awesome character if only someone had thought to put her in the film. In addition, having read “The Queen of the Black Coast” recently, there was simply no way Tamara could measure up to Bêlit.* But I digress.
Ultimately, what appeals to me about the Conan stories is not the really the villains or the women he may or may not meet so much as it is the character himself and his reactions to the circumstances he stumbles upon. So what mattered to me above all else was that Conan was handled properly, and he really, really was. Stackpole didn’t ignore or dismiss Conan the Warrior/Barbarian/Freebooter/Cimmerian as a joke or a stupid thug, but treated him in much the same manner that Howard did. I could not have been more pleased with his characterization or the way his world was presented from beginning to end.
In conclusion, Conan the Barbarian was really, really great and worth the read. Stackpole gave this novel a lot of substance, thought, and care than I could have anticipated or expected. That said, I have no idea if the movie will be able to articulate anything nearly as well as this particular author. I do hope some of the better lines in the novel and references to Howard’s stories are from the movie itself… but I guess I’ll have to wait until August to find out!