Tuesday, 9 August 2011

‘Conan’s Brethren’ – Robert E. Howard (Gollancz)... ‘King Kull’

On Sunday, I briefly mentioned the possibility that this month could be a ‘Robert E. Howard Month’ which would tie in well with the release of the new ‘Conan’ movie. Being me, I swiftly realised (although not quickly enough to avoid posting in the first place...) that if my past attempts at themed months were anything to go by then this one wouldn’t get off the ground at all. I seem to operate best by just going with the flow and picking books off the pile at random, that’s how I roll ;o)

I really wanted to do something though so have settled on a compromise that will see me aim for at least one ‘Robert E. Howard post’ a week whilst sticking with the tried and tested method of grabbing a book off the pile that has the prettiest cover. Howard wrote in a number of genres and there are loads of short stories to choose from. This leads me rather nicely to ‘Conan’s Brethren’ and King Kull...

Gollancz have already proven themselves to be pretty handy at publishing rather lovely looking leather bound editions of the genre pulp fiction that still has an influence today. They’ve already done it with Howard (focussing exclusively on Conan) and H.P. Lovecraft has a couple of collections as well. My money is on a Leiber collection coming out in the near future but for now its Howard’s turn again with ‘Conan’s Brethren’, a collection of short stories of Howard’s other heroes. These guys aren’t necessarily as well known as Conan but they’re still the kind of guys that you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

I’ll happily admit picking out Kull for the simple reason that there are only two short stories and a poem of his in the collection and I’ve been very busy, with other things, just recently. The relative dearth of Kull, in the collection, suited me fine for this post but I’ll admit to being very surprised that there weren’t more stories about Kull here, especially when a large chunk of the book is given over to random lesser known characters. I guess this approach shows the reader just how prolific a writer Howard was but I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more Kull this time round. Oh well, I think Del Rey have got a collection or two that I could take a look at...

Kull’s story takes place thousands of years before Conan embarked on his quest to win a crown and a throne and  it is remarkably similar in that Kull (a barbarian outlander of Atlantis) wins a crown and throne of his own as well. Kull has taken the kingdom of Valusia, a decadent land that is still powerful yet has seen better days. There is still plenty here to confuse a barbarian with little or no idea of statecraft. Kull is still trying to get to grips with the daily administrative stuff let only dealing with treacherous nobility and other monstrous threats that plague Kull and his kingdom. The new ruler of Valusia hasn’t forgotten his wild roots though and it will be these that help him win through.

Kull’s presence in ‘Conan’s Brethren’ is limited to ‘The Shadow Kingdom’ (Kull finally quells the city states of Valusia but finds a darker menace lurking in his own palace), ‘The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune’ (Kull finds out that there wizards really cannot be trusted...) and the short poem ‘The King and the Oak’. Funnily enough, I was thinking that ‘The Shadow Kingdom’ seemed familiar and it turned out that I’d reviewed the Dark Horse comic book just over a year ago. There’s a lot more to the original text though, it certainly took me a lot longer to digest. Same deal with ‘The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune’.

These two stories share so many themes that I found it difficult to separate them in terms of writing a review. Admittedly, ‘The Shadow Kingdom’ is more of a ‘Sword and Sorcery’ tale, that focuses more on the kind of high adventure that Howard is renowned for, whilst ‘Mirrors’ is a more introspective work focussing on the arcane side of Howard’s world. In this respect, if I had to choose a favourite from the two it would have to be ‘The Shadow Kingdom’; a tale that bristles with suspense, secret passages and short sharp bursts of violence. Just the kind of read you want after a long day at the office! ‘Mirrors’ is a fine read but the narrative plods in comparison and is that much more difficult to get into. The final line was a great way to end it though,

‘... Kull is less sure of reality since he gazed into the mirrors of Tuzun Thune.’

These two tales share Howard’s love of world building, Howard may not hang around when telling his tales but he makes sure that not only does the reader know how long ago these events took place but that these events are relatively recent compared to the backdrop of history that they are set against. Serpent people who have been manipulating mankind since the dawn of, erm... man! Wizards who have lived since the elder days and are still sharp enough cast a spell when you least expect it! The nature of the plot in’ Mirrors’ means that the weight of history plays more of a part but both tales are incredibly well grounded in their setting and you get a real rush from taking it all in.
I also found it interesting that, as a barbarian, Kull must learn about his kingdom (and how to rule it) from Brule, another barbarian. The so called civilised people that Kull rules are too busy plotting against him to offer any real help here; there’s something that’s a lot more honest and pure about a barbarian who offers advice such as,

‘The sooner you learn that men are men whether king, wizard or thrall, the better you will rule, Kull’

There may only be the two tales here but that’s more than enough to make me want to seek out some more tales of Kull, definitely.

It felt like the poem ‘The King and the Oak’ was tacked on at the end almost as an afterthought or a brief reminder that Howard wrote poetry as well as prose. It doesn’t connect with the two short stories, as strongly as they connect with each other, but this tale of a dreamlike fight in a forest gives that real feel of pre-history just as effectively as Howard achieves this in prose form,

‘And through the tossing, monstrous trees there sang a dim refrain.
Fraught deep with twice a million years of evil, hate and pain.
We were the lords ere man had come, and shall be lords again.’

Here, Howard proves that he can give us that weight of pre-history as easily in three lines as he can in a whole short story. There is a wealth of world building here that is all too easy to miss if you’re not careful.

Like I said, ‘Conan’s Brethren’ is very light on ‘King Kull’; almost too light. Luckily for me though, this scarcity merely served to whet my appetite for more. When the reading pile permits, I’ll be back for another helping.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


tmastgrave said...

I've always like the Kull character, even though he seems like a slight variation on Conan sometimes. The movie they made just didn't live up to the character or the stories though. Big surprise there.

Salt-Man Z said...

I definetly like the Del Rey editions for Howard's stuff: 3 books to cover all the Conan stories; 1 book for all the Kull stories; 1 book for all the Bran Mak Morn stories; 1 book for all the Solomon Kane stories; et cetera.

Bets Davies said...

Del Rey--no question. It amazed me, when I finally read Howard, how much of our fantasy base lines and main lines he created. Stunning.