So about a month or so ago, I decided to replace my copy of Conan the Buccaneer because the binding on my existing copy was bad. I managed to land a copy on ebay for cheap, and when it arrived I got a bonus: a book called Conan the Champion, by John Maddox Roberts. I figured I had little to lose, so I decided to give it a shot.
At first it didn't seem too bad--I wondered why everyone gets so down on the Tor pastiches (the Robert Jordan ones aside--I've read his indestructible, noble and heroic Conan who may as well have a big red "S" on his chest, and gagged along with the rest of you). I mean, Roberts seemed to "get" Conan as a character. His dialogue was in keeping with the Conan I knew, and the story was even passable, though the book's back cover claimed it took place in Brythunia but Roberts seemed to be writing about some odd hackneyed cross between Asgard and Vanaheim. Still, I was willing to roll with a generic Northern culture not exactly placed within the text. The characters were a bit cookie-cutter, but in keeping with Howard's characters.
Even the story seemed solid for a Conan tale--oh, and I should warn you: spoilers abound below. So if you actually plan on trying to read this...book...you should stop now. Suffice it to say I was shocked at how bad it got.
Conan gets shipwrecked after a piracy stunt gone wrong and, marooned in the North, sets off to sell his sword to get through the winter. He comes upon a three-way war between petty tribes, two of which have kings who want to wed (and bed) the queen of the third. Because the two kings piss Conan off (and really for little other reason) he sells his sword to the queen, Alucina.
Mischief abounds; one of the kings has a sorcerer in his employ, who concocts a diabolical plan to snatch Alucina away using demons. One night, after an assault by the living dead (largely used to draw out Alucina's people and keep them off kilter) a couple of demons swoop in, grab the queen, and fly away, with Conan and Alucina's own wizard in pursuit.
Good enough so far.
That's where things go into left field. The demons don't bear Alucina to the rival king or his necromancer; rather they bear her into the "spirit world," and Conan and Alucina's wizard follow them there.
Take a guess what they find in the spirit world?
No, I'm not kidding. Elves. Evil, necromantic elves, who of course enslave Alucina and Conan until the latter rather easily breaks free and slaughters all of them.
As they flee back to the portal to get home, they have to contend with "the Hunter," who very clearly is supposed to be the Death Dealer, only Roberts and Tor didn't have the rights to the Death Dealer.
The Death Dealer turns out, after they lure him back to the real world and Conan sticks a spear through his eye slit, to be a clockwork automaton.
No, I'm not kidding. A. Clockwork. Automaton.
BUT WAIT! We're not through, yet!
There's this odd side story with the nephew of one of the kings who gets exiled and travels to join Alucina's people (guess what's eventually going to happen there?) Well, as he marches through the northern wilderness, he encounters a giant ice worm, which I'm okay with...but then he is rescued and escorted by...wait for it...
Nope, still not kidding. Elves, dwarves, and clockwork automatons in a Conan story.
John Maddox Roberts should've been strung up by the balls for this piece of garbage.
And that's not even a shot at the guy's writing. He's not a bad writer. But really, this reads like his D&D novel that got rejected by TSR, so he sold it to Tor as a Conan story, and changed a few names. It's really that bad of a Hyborian Age novel. Criminally bad. Worse than the satyrs in de Camp/Carter's Conan the Liberator.