Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Conan the Raider by Leonard Carpenter

I just read Conan the Raider by Leonard Carpenter again after all these years, and it reminded me of just how much I cherish that character.  I have always preferred the novels to the comics and movies, though I enjoy all of it.  It need not be stated that Robert E. Howard's work with Conan sits atop the food chain, but I'll do so anyway.  The Hyborian Age he envisioned is a ripe environment for exciting tales featuring robust characters, and as such, there are riches beyond his work.  I would argue that many fine writers have produced fiction featuring everyone's favorite barbarian.  In doing so, I may rank Robert Jordan and Leonard Carpenter among the very best of those, and Conan the Raider is a fabulous adventure yarn.

For those who aren't in the know, Conan is a barbarian who spends much of his time thieving or serving as a mercenary.  He detests sorcery and strives to avoid it, though his stories almost always demand that he face this fear.  He is a powerful warrior, adept with a host of weapons, and a gifted leader, though his nomadic spirit always finds him joining some fracas as an outsider.  This larger-than-life hero hails from the northern land of Cimmeria, though his adventures tend to take place in larger cities to the south.

Conan the Raider finds our beloved barbarian in Shem, and the book opens with Conan mired in a delicate situation in the desert.  A kind twist of fate sees him join a band of tomb-raiders boasting a one-time comrade, a thief known as Isaiab.  Conan doesn't like the idea of stealing from the dead, though theft is his profession at this point and his situation offers no reasonable alternatives.

The head of this pack is Otsgar the Vanir, a fellow northener and a terrific foil for our unruly hero.  Conan's interactions with Otsgar were at the heart of this book, and I loved the way their relationship evolved.  Otsgar was nearly Conan's equal, and as he was a bit older and led a similar lifestyle, it was almost as if the barbarian was paired with an older version of himself.  Not surprisingly, their alliance was a turbulent one.  They were allies, then there was a betrayal and they became bitter rivals before uniting once again to face a common enemy.  They drank, they brawled, they fought over the affections of a sexy dancer named Zafriti, and they faced the ranks of the undead and a vile necromancer together.

The book saw Conan labor as a thief, a tomb raider, and he even served a brief stint as a gladiator of sorts before becoming embroiled in a vicious power struggle taking place within the kingdom of Abaddrah.  He deftly balanced his duties as a rogue and as the leader of a rebel army in this city-state perched on the River Styx, sitting directly opposite the darkness and iniquity of Stygia.  The king of Abaddrah was dying a slow and unnatural death while his dastardly Queen Nitokar and the court prophet, wicked sorcerer Horaspes, vied for unimaginable power and all of the kingdom's riches.  Innocent young princess Afrit was caught in the crosshairs, and Conan became her unlikely hero.  Typical stuff for the big guy, who somehow survived one scrape after another, cheating death at every turn, all while being pulled deeper and deeper into the intrigue.

I'm a big fan of zombies, so the legions of the undead that rose to wreak havoc during the book's conclusion were a welcome treat, and Conan the Raider offered up a riveting finale that was appropriately grim.  I enjoyed the book just as much now as I had then, though the years had whittled my memory of the title down to such an extent that I might as well have been reading it for the first time.  Yet I was reminded that spending a little time with Conan is seldom a bad thing, that is unless you somehow wind up crossing swords with him.  In closing, if you're a fan of the character and you're looking to recall your inner teenager, maybe you should dust off an old Conan novel.  Conan the Raider would be a fine choice.  I had a good enough time with it that I may even dig into another of Carpenter's efforts before I move on. 

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