Monday, 13 February 2012

‘Conan: Road of Kings’ – Thomas, Hawthorne, Lucas, Stewart & Jackson (Dark Horse)

I’m not sure how quite it happened but a quick look at the bookshelves will show you that Robert E. Howard was not the only person to write tales of Conan. I’ve only read the Robert E. Howard stuff but I do know that Robert Jordan wrote some Conan tales and Lin Carter was also known for his tales of the Cimmerian amongst others. L. Sprague de Camp also had a shot with a Conan series of his own. When I heard tell that Dark Horse were publishing ‘Conan: Road of Kings’ I thought they’d dug up the old Karl Edward Wagner tale of the same name. Having only read Wagner’s ‘Dark Crusade’ (which is excellent and I highly recommend it) I was really looking forward to getting hold of ‘Road of Kings’ and seeing more of his work; well, something based on his work but you know what I mean…

As it turned out, reading ‘Road of Kings’ and doing a little bit of online research told me that I wasn’t reading an adaptation of the Wagner work after all which is a bit of a shame (I really wanted to read more Wagner…) What we have here instead is an original piece that links ‘Iron Shadows in the Moon’ (reviewed Here) to the forthcoming mini-series ‘Queen of the Black Coast’ (original story reviewed over Here)

So… I went from having some expectations of ‘Road of Kings’ to having absolutely none whatsoever. I like it when that happens :o) I will admit to a little shamefacedness though having sworn that I was finished with Dark Horse’s ‘Conan’ comics. I was especially shamefaced seeing as ‘Road of Kings’ was a very good read indeed.

Conan’s life as a pirate, on the Vilayet Sea, is about to be cut short in a very final manner. Not only has Conan just had his ship sunk from underneath him but also his companion Olivia has been receiving visions of her royal father, begging her to come home.
Home for Olivia lies at the end of the fabled Road of Kings but it’s a long old road and anything can happen on the journey. For Conan it will involve monsters, highwaymen, victims of Conan’s short-lived life of crime and a hired killer who just won’t stop coming until he has Conan’s head. If that wasn’t enough, Olivia is kidnapped and Conan must rescue her…

Having fallen completely in love with Tomas Giorello’s depiction of Conan, I feel that it’s probably best to start things off here with what I thought of Mike Hawthorne’s art. After all, the exit of Giorello, and the entrance of Hawthorne, was what had me swearing off this book on the first place.
As it turns out, I’m not afraid to admit that I was wrong about my original decision (and even if I was afraid, I’ve have to admit to being wrong anyway!). Hawthorne’s work may be a little too cartoonish for me (and that may be the fault of Dave Stewart’s colours as much as Hawthorne’s art) but he captures both the essence of Conan himself and Conan’s world in such a way that I was drawn in far more easily than I thought I would be. The detail may not be there but the passion, energy and expression certainly is. It’s more than enough in fact and that is just what a Conan tale needs in any format; it needs to be brimming over with all three of these things.

There is a lot more politicking and intrigue in ‘Road of Kings’ than I’ve found in the other ‘Conan’ stories that I’ve read and this made for a really refreshing change. Conan doesn’t really have much of an idea what is happening half the time, he just finds himself in the middle of things almost entirely by chance, and this approach lends just the right amount of energy that the story needs to flow as smoothly as it does. Roy Thomas is no stranger to writing Conan stories and, as a result, Conan is able to extricate himself from difficulty in just the way you would expect from him. Sure, all this really involves is a strong sword arm but Thomas also focuses on Conan’s innate barbarian cunning and this means a properly fleshed out three-dimensional Conan, just as Howard surely intended.

The plot itself is full of little twists and turns that keep the reader on their toes as well as Conan himself. All of this in punctuated with some nasty looking huge monsters and the swordsman Gamesh whose remorseless pursuit makes him more than a match for Conan in terms of attitude. I have to say that I read ‘Road of Kings’ in one sitting as I literally couldn’t stop until I was done. If I had one complaint, ‘Road of Kings’ being a ‘bridging work’ (between two other works) robbed the book of some of its tension. You know Conan is going to be around for ‘Queen of the Black Coast’ so you know he makes it through. Having said that though, there is an argument to be made that this is really the whole point of Conan stories anyway… I’m still trying to make my mind up here.

‘Road of Kings’ was nothing short of brilliant then, I just couldn’t get enough of it. The book may link two others but it’s self contained enough that new-comers to the Dark Horse series could do a lot worse than jump on here. I’d recommend that you do just that.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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