Thursday, 14 November 2013

‘Conan: The Road of Kings’ (Sphere)

Despite how it looks, I’m (very) slowly working my way through the books that I brought home from Nine Worlds. There are so many cool looking books on the pile right now that it’s hard to know where to start sometimes (and how cool is that?)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve gone from wanting to read only Howard’s Conan to reading the comics as well and finally just wanting to read anything with Conan on the cover. No matter who the author is, there are core elements guaranteed in a Conan story that will pretty much hit the target with me so it was long past time I widened my scope. I’ve been a bit of a fan of Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Kane’ books (more evidence that ‘grimdark’ has been a thing for far longer than we realise) so when I saw his name against ‘The Road of Kings’ the book pretty much bought itself :o)
‘The Road of Kings’ weighs in at just over two hundred pages long and was therefore just the right book to be reading on a commute where the carriages can get a bit cramped sometimes. It took me a little longer to finish than I’d planned (I’m far too into playing games on my phone at the moment) but, on the whole, was worth the read. If you’re looking for a copy yourself by the way, ‘The Road of Kings’ can only be found second hand; but I’m digressing, onto the book itself…

Conan is about to find himself at the wrong end of the hangman’s rope but the daring rescue of a fellow prisoner catapults him into the murky Zingaran world of organised crime and revolutionary politics. Sedition is brewing in Zingara and Conan is about to play a crucial role in the overthrow of a corrupt King. But what happens next when the new ruler is not only prey to the corruption of power but is backed by an army of stone warriors that even Conan’s sword arm cannot prevail against…?

Well, it’s Conan that we’re talking about here so we know how things will end up, how things have to end in fact. Wagner spins a pretty good tale though, keeping certain secrets hidden until the last minute so the reader has to find out how things tie together. That part of things is done pretty well by the way, we’re given a reasoned theory that is tested to completion rather than a ‘sudden reveal’ which just magically sorts everything out. I was more than happy with another level of uncertainty which moved the plot forward nicely at a critical moment.

Other than that though… Being as short as it is, ‘The Road of Kings’ is an entertaining read but also a read where the plot is forced into a straight line by page constraints. Working within those constraints, Wagner actually does a very good job of giving the city of Kordava (and ‘The Pit’ beneath) enough depth for it to be more than just a backdrop. I already knew that Wagner could write a mean fight scene but he proves it here all over again with enough swordplay and viscera to keep people like me happy. Wagner also has a pretty good idea of what Conan is all about, giving us the viewpoint of a barbarian constantly bemused (and contemptuous) by the eccentricities of southern ‘civilisation’, eager though to make his mark where the situation demands. To be fair, Robert E. Howard laid those guidelines pretty darn clearly, in the original tales, but Wagner makes Conan stand out on the page in just the way that he was always meant to. You can’t ask for much more than that really.

Or can you? Like I said, the plot starts at point A and moves through all the points, in order, ending at point Z. Conan is not as simplistic a character as people might think and I couldn’t help but think that he deserved a plot that would test the limits of his character, not just his sword arm. It was a nice move by Wagner, forcing Conan to confront indestructible stone warriors, and looking for alternative means to defeat them, but I wonder if there was room for more along those lines. I guess there’s only so much you can fit into so many pages but even so…
I couldn’t complain too much though when all the ingredients of a classic Conan tale are present, in ‘The Road of Kings’, and delivered with gusto. A nice little slice of old school sword and sorcery that made me forget about the perils of the commute; if I could have more of that in my reading I’d be a happy man :o)

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