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Conan the Barbarian (Berkley) is the novelization of the 2011 film of the same name, written by Michael A. Stackpole and based on a screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood.
Similar to the movie, the novel is split into two parts: Just prior to Khalar Zym attacking Conan's village to obtain the last fragment of the Mask of Acheron and up to the sack of Venarium (the first 100 pages) and then, as an adult, Conan's tracking of, and battle with, Khalar Zym (the last 200 pages).
Orders of magnitude better than the previous tale of Conan between age 11 and 15, Conan of Venarium, this novel hits all the best parts that appeared on-screen and makes them better.
We do not see, on camera, the opening scene from the movie where Conan was born on a battlefield and his mother passes away moments after naming him. We are told that story at an appropriate time in the first part of the novel.
Instead, the book opens with a boy pretending that a stick is a sword. Stackpole shows us a Conan that, at only 11 years old, cannot wait to get his hands on a real sword.
He also shows us a father, Corin, who realizes that the boy needs to learn to be a man before he can learn to be a warrior. Corin channels the boy's determination and builds the boy's character and wits before he begins to teach Conan how to make a sword, and then how to use it. Corin aims for Conan to accomplish far more than the "great things" his clansmen already expect from a warrior "born on a battlefield."
We see lessons in patience, humility and leadership. We see lessons on strategy and tactics. We see that knowing who and when to kill are more important than how.
More importantly however, after Corin dies in the massacre of Conan's village, we see 20 pages of story that didn't make it into the movie. Instead of a narrated synopsis of the gap between the two parts of the story, we get to see Conan's grandfather, Connacht, not only complete Conan's training, but give the boy a reason to be something other than a one-dimensional vengeance-machine.
From pages 80-98, Stackpole does his best to make Conan a complete character, one that could grow up to become the barbarian that Robert E. Howard wrote about.
Through a chance meeting with Ela Shan, self-professed greatest thief in the world, and Lucius the Aquilonian, one of the mercenaries who helped Khalar Zym destroy Conan’s village many years earlier, the Cimmerian discovers that Zym is searching the Red Wastes for a descendant of the imperial house of Acheron in order to fully unleash the power of the Mask.
Ela Shan tells Conan to seek him in Asgalun, Shem, if he needs to be talked out of trying to assault Khor Kalaba, Zym’s castle. Conan responds that Ela will know who to thank if he hears that Zym was killed in the Red Wastes, thereby freeing Ela to plunder Khor Kalaba without reprisal from the would-be god.
Cut to an unnamed monastery in the Red Wastes surrounded by powerful, magical wards. Although the order is never given a name, we learn that the monks who study there are dedicated to maintaining Order in the world and combating the evils that Chaos can cause.
A young female monk, Tamara Amaliat Jorvi Karushan, rehearses unarmed combat forms atop the battlements as the sun rises in the east. Soon after, the Senior Monk, Master Fassir, tells her that she will go on a journey. On that journey she will meet a man, a warrior but not a knight, and that her destiny will merge with his. Her journey will take her to the order's temple in Hyrkania in the near future, but not yet. He also warns Tamara that she will find the warrior from his vision to be "...a most challenging companion."
Conan returns to the tavern in Messantia. Despite Khalar Zym’s fearsome reputation, Artus pledges his sword, his ship and his crew to Conan's cause but Conan turns him down. He doesn't even know if Zym is actually in the Red Wastes, because Lucius could have been lying.
Artus puts Conan ashore in Shem with plans to rendezvous with the Hornet further southeast along coast, at the end of the Shaipur Pass.
Change scene to an adult Marique, Khal Zym’s daughter, aboard her father's land-ship, a full-sized sea-going vessel carried on land by eight elephants.
Marique is communing with "voices" in order to see possible futures. We find she is almost completely covered with tattoos, the same symbols of power that the Priest-Kings of Acheron used to create the mask. That way, when her father's quest to find the Pure Blood fails, he will need her more than anyone else on earth, for Marique harbors a less-than-wholesome fixation for her father and would gladly take her mother's place at his side...in all ways.
When the two rangers tasked with finding the monastery fail him, Zym summons Marique to the deck of the land-ship. She uses her sorcery to discover the powerful wards that obscure the path to the monastery and sets Zym’s forces on the path to find it.
The wards are also preventing Conan from penetrating into a certain part of the Red Wastes, but using his iron will, he resolves not to be turned from his chosen path and, after a time, the resistance he feels unexpectedly stops.
Khalar Zym’s forces begin their attack on the monastery.
Tamara is one of the first monks to engage Zym's riders who are slaying people indiscriminately; except for the women. Despite her success in personal combat, she understands that the monks are hopelessly outnumbered and retreats into the temple in search of Master Fassir and guidance.
As the land-ship crashes through the masonry above the monastery’s gate, Tamara sees Khalar Zym for the first time and knows that he is the madman whose plans she is destined to try to thwart, but not without the warrior from her Master's vision. As Tamara stands frozen, Fassir seizes her and ushers her to the rear of the monastery.
Confronted on their way there by a squad of Zym's soldiers, Fassir orders her to take the coach he has made ready for her and to travel immediately to the monastery in Hyrkania. Fassir stays behind to battle the soldiers.
Back in the monastery's courtyard, Marique magically interrogates the captured women to see if the Pure Blood is amongst them and learns that her father’s quarry has escaped. Khalar Zym flies into a frustrated rage and he raises his hand to strike his daughter for failing him, and we see her prepared to kill him if he does.
But at that moment, Master Fassir is dragged into the square by a small band of soldiers and presented to Zym. Zym vows to find the monastery in Hyrkania and Fassir goads the madman into killing him.
Conan sees dust from fast moving horses and comes upon a dozen of Zym's men in pursuit of Tamara's coach, driver and six other monks. Zym's men are defeated and their lieutenant, Remo, is captured. But all the monks are killed except for Tamara.
Conan uses Remo to find out more about Zym's plans and then uses the soldier's dead body to send a message to Zym, arranging a showdown at an abandoned outpost at the end of the Shaipur trail.
Marique and Zym arrive at the crumbling fort and engage Conan and Tamara in battle. When Marique fears that her father is not skilled enough to defeat the Cimmerian, she uses poison to weaken Conan so her father can kill him.
Tamara and Conan narrowly escape by lighting the ruins on fire and jumping from the battlements to the ocean below.
Zym, enraged again at the escape of the girl, blames Marique and calls her weak. Marique, in turn, threatens to destroy the mask and watches her father’s reaction, ready to destroy him, as well as the talisman, if he gives even the slightest indication that he is any less of a man than she believes him to be. Instead of more anger or even fear, Zym looks at her curiously and praises her for her fire and spirit.
As Artus’ men pull Conan and Tamara into a longboat and make toward the Hornet, Khalar Zym and Marique return to Khor Kalba to unleash a creature that can bring the girl to them.
As Tamara nurses Conan back to health and he plans with Artus how to proceed, Marique dispatches The Beast That Lurks, a tentacled sea creature living below Khor Kalaba, to assist Zym's men in an assault on the Hornet while it is still at sea. The pirates repel the attack and kill Zym's men.
Marique then creates zombie horses to carry her and a squad of soldiers from Khor Kalaba to Tamara.
Conan goes ashore near another set of ruins, intent on travelling to Khor Kalba, killing Khalar Zym and retrieving the fragment that Zym took from Conan's father. He leaves Tamara aboard the Hornet, with Artus to escort her to the monastery in Hyrkania. Tamara follows Conan to spend the night with him and then return to the Hornet at dawn to continue on to Hyrkania. Before sunrise, on her way back to the ship, Tamara is attacked and captured by Marique. She sends the soldiers to fetch Conan's head while she returns to Khor Kalba. Conan defeats the men but turns aside from Marique's path and instead travels to Asgalun, in southern Shem.
Making contact with Ela Shan, the two travel to Khor Kalba and gain entrance to the fortress through the sewers. They emerge in a torture chamber, presided over by Akhoun...and the lair of the The Beast That Lurks. Ela Shan blinds The Beast with poison and Conan battles Akhoun into its clutches.
Together the pair battle their way, through minimal resistance, to the throne room. As they feared, it is deserted. However, night has fallen and a procession can be seen from the windows, winding its way toward a nearby mountain...a mountain shaped like a skull with lava pouring from it's mouth.
We learn that the mountain was not just the location of Acheronian ruins but likely of rogue Acheronian sorcerers. Marique uncovered knowledge from the ruins not only sufficient to resurrect her mother but even darker, older magics and totems of fouler entities out of time and space. This knowledge she kept to herself...for when she tires of being God Khalar Zym's daughter and desires to become a god herself.
For now, she waits to see what further knowledge she can gain when her mother's spirit possesses Tamara's body.
The unholy rite commences and, as Marique divined, Tamara's blood animates the Mask of Acheron.
As Khalar Zym dons the mask and calls his wife back from hell, Conan arrives.
Part III - Epilogue Edit
Conan has escorted Tamara to Hyrkania.
Tamara has decided to continue on as a monk of her order and invites Conan to come with her.
He respectfully declines.
- Corin - Conan's father, blacksmith
- Connacht - Conan's grandfather. A.K.A. Connacht the Freebooter, Connacht the Far-Traveled
- Fialla - Conan's mother
- Ronan - Warrior of Corin's tribe
- Ardel - eldest son of Ronan
- Mahon - Warrior of Corin's tribe
- Senan - Warrior of Corin's tribe
- Eiran - youth who has begun his Warrior training
- Eiran - elderly warrior of Corin's tribe. A.K.A. old Eiran
- Deirdre - elderly matron of Corin's tribe
- Khalar Zym - Main antagonist. A.K.A. Kalarzin (as 12 year old Conan mispronounces it). A.K.A. Caarzyn (as Artus pronounced it from Conan's drunken stories)
- Lucius - Aquilonian lieutenant of Khalar Zym during the destruction of Conan's village. Conan cuts off Lucius' nose attempting to save his father.
- Marique - Khalar Zym's daughter
- Remo - senior warrior in Khalar Zym's army
- Akhoun - senior warrior in Khalar Zym's army
- Ukafa - Kushite general in Khlar Zym's army
- Aiden - Clan chieftain of tribes located south of Conan's village
- Kiernan - Cimmerian "Outlander" at the sack of Venarium, 10 years Conan's senior
- Artus - Pirate captain of the Hornet, friend of Conan
- Navarus - slaver whose men once tried to capture Conan
- Ela Shan - self-styled "greatest thief in the world" of Asgalun, Shem
- Tamara Amaliat Jorvi Karushan - descendant of the royal house of Acheron. Monk of the monastery in the Red Waste. 20 years old
- Master Fassir - Senior monk of the monastery in the Red Waste
- Maliva - Khalar Zym's dead wife. His quest is to resurrect her using the mask of Acheron
- Bovus - Rogue at the Den of Blades tavern in Asgalun
- Conan's village - northern Cimmeria
- Brita's Vale - site of a historic battle of Cimmerians vs Aquilonians [mentioned by name only]
- Connacht's steading - northern Cimmeria
- Fort Venarium - southern Cimmeria
- Messantia, Argos
- Unnamed monastery in the Red Wastes where a sect of monks strive to serve the forces of Order and defeat the evil caused by Chaos
- Red Wastes - barren region where twisted black trees sprout like thorns from the earth. Earned its name from the blood that the land drank over the years, not from it's geography
- Shaipur Pass between Argos and Shem
- Shaipur Outpost - abandoned fort at the Southern end of the Shaipur Pass
- Khor Kalba - ancient castle fortress in Shem overlooking the Western Ocean, built upon the ruins of an Acheronian city that used to stand in the middle of a broad plain before the sinking of Atlantis and the sundering of the Lemurian super-continent
- Asgalun, Shem
- The Den of Blades - tavern in Asgalun frequented by Elan Shan
- Acheronian temple mountain (unnamed) - shaped like a skull with lava flowing from the mouth, these ruins are shattered by the power unleashed when the mask of Acheron is destroyed
- Hyrkanian plain (unnamed) - near of the second monastery of Tamara's order
- The Mask of Acheron - Made from the bones and fed with the blood of the daughters of the subject kings of Acheron's empire, the Mask gave tremendous mystic power to it's wearer.
- Dragonfly - small metallic child's toy that can hover and fly in the sorcerer's vicinity, if given the proper incantation. Used by Marique to poison her enemies with envenomed wings.
Generally accepted as a very well written sword and sorcery tale, the novel is considered by many reviewers to be far better than the movie upon which it was based. It feels like a Conan story, particularly the first part of the novel.
With the addition of the world-threatening Mask of Acheron, this novel is "high(er) fantasy" than most Conan stories.
More than one reviewer states they would like to see what Stackpole could do with Conan without being handcuffed to this movie's plot.
Part I of the novel would take place prior to and during Conan of Venarium.
Part II of the novel would seem to fit most accurately between Howard's Xuthal of the Dusk and A Witch Shall Be Born.
Placing it within the pastiche stories is more difficult. Given that Conan's thoughts still stray, often, to Bêlit, it would need to fall as near to her death as possible, perhaps somewhere near Hawks Over Shem (which takes place in Asgalun) in the William Galen Gray timeline, his first visit to Shem after her death.
The fact that the story begins north of Shem, in Argos, would suggest that it takes place after Hawks; Conan rides North (to Koth) at the end of that story. In addition Conan seems never to have heard of Ela Shan (who was Lucius' prisoner in Messantia for who knows how long). Traveling to Hyrkania would also explain why Conan is over half-way east to Turan from the Shemitish coast in the following story, Black Colossus.
The best explanation seems to be that the Hornet sailed up the Styx to the Taian Mountains (where the Styx turns south) in Western Shem; about 1/2 the way to Hyrkania and just southwest of Khoraja. If Conan and Artus travelled back from Hyrkania to retrieve the ship, Artus could have sailed back down the river to re-commence pirating and Conan could have gone North to find himself in Khoraja at the time of BC.
Another possible placement, although later in the timeline, is after Shadows in the Dark, at the end of which Conan finds himself in Messantia, the Hornet's home-port in this novel. While the Galen Gray chronology places The Road of Kings next, many argue that it belongs earlier in Conan's life prior to his mercenary career in Conan the Defender. That being the case, as per the explanation in the previous paragraph, we would see Conan wander north to Koth for Conan the Renegade, instead of to Khoraja for Black Colossus. Placement at this point would also explain how Asgalun had cooled down enough for Conan to pass quietly through it looking for Ela Shan.
Chronology Errata: Still there are unanswered questions regardless of where this story is placed...pirates are, traditionally, not a patient or trustworthy lot at the best of times. Why would they wait months for Artus to return from Hyrkania?
Another factor that makes this story not fit well after Hawks is that Conan was infamous as Amra in Asgalun at the end of Hawks, to the point that there was rioting in the streets. That being the case, it seems unlikely he could pass quietly through the city, unrecognized, to find Ela Shan, only a few months later. This is an argument for the later placement
The hardest element to reconcile however, is that Conan thinks of Bêlit often in the story. Her passing seems recent and Conan has not gotten over his loss yet. But Bêlit is not mentioned once in Hawks and the Galen Gray timeline has numerous adventures and several thousand miles (and more than a few women) between Bêlit's death and Hawks over Shem, to say nothing of Princess Yasmela's role in Black Colossus, if this novel occurs after Shadows In The Dark. Perhaps Conan's breakup with Rufia after Hawks and the Amra-riots in Shem made Conan's mind stray back to better days as a pirate and his time with the pirate queen. In any event, no timeline, neither Howard-only nor including pastiches, has Conan anywhere near Shem or Argos very soon after Bêlit's death.
Lastly, and the only problem that I found with Part I of the novel, is: "Why would Conan often return to Cimmeria during his lifetime, as REH described?" The only surviving family member he has left to visit is his grandfather. With the shorter lifespans of such a prehistoric age, Connacht would not likely have still been alive for many of Conan's return trips. After Connacht's death, who was Conan coming home to see?
Odd Plot Devices: Situations occur in the novel that make readers, familiar with the other tales of Conan by Howard and/or previous pastiche writers, wonder to themselves, "What is going on?"
If a talisman like The Mask of Acheron existed in the the world of Conan, it seems inconceivable that Toth Amon, or one of his rivals, is not mentioned anywhere in this story. As one of the most powerful sorcerer's of Conan's time, Toth Amon would certainly have known the histories of Acheron and therefore of the Mask's existence, as would others. That being the case, why would none of them want the mask for themself or, at the very least, actively work against Khalar Zym (or anyone else) obtaining it in order to prevent a rival from gaining the power it promised to bestow?
Even more glaring however, is the slaughter of Conan's village and his lifelong search for the culprit. While handled deftly by Stackpole, this addition to the overall story of Conan's life fundamentally changes who he is in all of the past stories. It seems ridiculous that Howard would not have once mentioned it in any of the original stories or his letters regarding them, to say nothing of it being omitted by every pastiche writer who tried to fill in the blanks between Howard's stories. Stackpole offers up an excellent reason why Conan is not consumed by his desire for revenge, and the passages regarding his grandfather's lessons are expertly written, but a Conan that tells Artus (or anyone else) about Klarzin when he is in his cups is not the barbarian that Howard or the pastiche authors wrote about.
Despite getting a number of continuity elements right, and despite it being the best written Conan-esque novel in more than a decade, the story cannot be considered anything but apocrypha (inaccurate legend only) to any previously established Conan chronology.
Conan the Barbarian (Berkley) (novel) • Michael A. Stackpole • Berkely Boulevard, July 2011