Conan the Barbarian: Off the Beaten Path of Fantasy
Quick. What's the first thing that pops to mind if someone asks you about fantasy books? Harry Potter? The Lord of the Rings? Or perhaps nothing at all if you're not familiar with the genre. A few of you might think of the Dungeons and Dragons game tie-ins. If you're like me, you'll think of plain old swords, sorcery, dragons, and ultimate battles between good and evil. The river of fantasy literature runs much deeper and wider than those titles and tropes, however. The upcoming release of Conan the Barbarian on August 19th is a chance to dive deep into those waters.
Not long ago I re-read a rather infamous essay by British fantasist Michael Moorcock, best known on these shores for his Elric cycle. "Epic Pooh" is a sharp criticism of epic fantasy in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth trilogy or C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. I caught myself nodding at some passages and shaking my head at others, but this essay and the upcoming Conan film got me thinking about books I've read that deviate from the norms Moorcock takes issue with. There's always a special place for Frodo and Bilbo's adventures, but sometimes you just want a break from world-shaking ultimate battles between "good" kings and "dark" lords. Sometimes it's fun to read about the so-called dark lords. Sometimes you just want some good, bloody fun.
It does not get much bloodier or more fun than Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Set in an antediluvian Hyborian Age, the Conan tales were originally written for pulp magazines of Howard's time, primarily Weird Tales. They reflect the prevailing pulp sensibilities of gratuitous violence and sex. They also show a singular obsession with the juxtaposition of civilized values (the decadent city of Aquilonia) with the "barbarian" virtues exhibited by Conan.
Conan is a survivor, a native of the harsh, mountainous Cimmerian lands, and has been honed to a razor's edge of physical perfection. He also supposedly demonstrates a deeper sense of honor than his civilized enemies and allies, though Howard is quick to point out Conan's harsher qualities as well. "Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under his sandalled feet." - from "The Phoenix on the Sword." Go ahead. Find writing of that tone and style in anything by Tolkien or Lewis.
When Howard committed suicide upon receiving news of his mother's impending death, he had completed enough Conan stories to fill three omnibus editions worth. He had also been responsible for the creation of several other gritty, morally shady characters such as Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn.
While we're on the topic of shady characters, we should not leave out the aforementioned Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. Moorcock's fantasy does not address questions of good vs. evil. Rather, they are focused around the balance between Law and Chaos, which must be maintained at all costs by the Eternal Champion. Grim, brooding, and frail, Elric, emperor of dwindling Melnibone, seems a highly unlikely sort for a role with such far-spanning consequences. Reliant on drugs for sustenance, Elric eventually becomes wielder of the sinister and sentient Stormbringer, a monstrous blade graven with runes of blood. Elric's shady character is not exactly helped by the fact that this sword drinks the souls of the slain. Oh and this sword sings too.
Elric spends his life in betrayal after betrayal while fighting as a champion of Arioch, a powerful Duke of Hell and agent of Chaos. Eschewing the usual narrative of good vs. evil, Moorcock relies on a weak, flawed protagonist spawned by a race of nihilistic beings who think nothing of selling out their closest friends or relatives at the first sign of weakness. That Elric is different from his kinsmen is a credit to him, but not that much. Dealings with demons, lords of Hell, and scheming queens abound in this series, and Elric acts according to his situation as opposed to some grand compass of good and evil, while unknowingly serving as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion.
What happens when beings revered as demi-gods for their kindness and power fall from grace? The titular city of Elantris is the result. Elantris is that rare bird in fantasy fiction: a stand-alone novel. Author Brandon Sanderson has made a habit of writing stand-alones as indicated by his oeuvre. Elantris, Warbreaker, and even the first book of his Mistborn series can all be read on their own without needing sequels to wrap up loose ends. Elantris, Sanderson's debut novel, stands out in this regard, providing fully-realized characters in a plot that does not involve an apocalyptic result if the heroes fail.
However, the cursed Elantrians might as well be living in a post-apocalyptic world. Once god-like in their powers, they are reduced to a state of physical and mental decay, perpetually starving, and reviled as outcasts by a world that once worshipped them. Crown Prince Raoden of Arelon, the nation surrounding Elantris, experiences this firsthand when he awakens as an Elantrian one morning and is cast into the crumbling city. Complicating matters is the arrival of Princess Sarene, his bride-to-be, and Hrathen, a warrior-priest of a world-spanning religious empire bent on converting the local citizens.
Sanderson, by the way, is the author charged with completing the work of another fantasy master.
Political and religious strife also abound in many of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, several of which are stand-alones like Sanderson's. A prime example is The Lions of Al-Rassan, a work that moves in a head-long trajectory to a tragic clash in a fantasy setting reminiscent of Moorish Spain before the Reconquista. Like most of Kay's novels, the focus is on utterly human characters coming together or clashing in realistic settings based on historical parallels.
Jehanne is a Kindath physician, daughter of the greatest doctor the world has known. Ammar ibn Khairan is a famous Asharite warrior-poet. Rodrigo Belmonte is a renowned cavalry captain. Ammar and the married Rodrigo both fall for Jehane while developing an unlikely mutual admiration and friendship that must be tested on the battlefield eventually.
As this love triangle progresses, so do the political maneuvers and strife inherent in a holy war as the Jaddites seek to reclaim Al-Rassan for Esperana. Tragedy and grief are the natural outcomes of war and Kay does not shy away from its consequences in any of his work, but most especially here.
Tragedy plays a large part in the formation of Phedre no Delaunay. The heroine of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series, Phedre is sold by her parents to Cereus House, an order of the Servants of Naamah. The Servants are religious prostitutes in the land of Terre d'Ange, a nation founded by Elua, a wandering descendant of the One God, and his rebel angels. Elua's only commandment is "Love as thou wilt."
D'Angelines take this precept to heart. Boy do they ever take it to heart. Carey's work is full of lush eroticism raised to the level of religious fervor. Sex inundates this tale of courtly intrigue and barbarian invasions. Phedre is an anguisette, the chosen of God's punisher Kushiel. She will always find pleasure in pain, and Anafiel Delaunay, a poet and lord in Terre d'Ange, purchases her for use in his political machinations.
Carey spares no detail in bringing Terre d'Ange and its dangerously beautiful inhabitants to life. Since every D'Angeline is descended from one of the rogue angels that followed Elua, they all possess a keen, deadly beauty they exploit at every turn. Sexual promiscuity is the way of life here, while rape is considered heresy as it violates Blessed Elua's precept.
Like Kay's work above, the Kushiel books take place in a loosely re-imagined parallel of our own world, with the cultures resembling Renaissance Europe at its height. For lavish detail, deep politics, and a tender love story, Carey's work fits the need like a silk glove. Or leather, depending on the taste of the D'Angeline in question!
There are many, many more titles that stray from the usual track of fantasy. These works still maintain an epic feel to them, while exploring the more intimate personal, emotional, and even historical details of their characters and settings. This list is just a starter, and I'm sure readers will find many similar titles in their literary explorations.