1/01/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Ace. 326 page paperback. Price: $ 6.99 (US), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISBN: 0-441-01292-2).
check out website: www.penguin.com
The fantasy world created by Robert E. Howard around his most famous character, Conan the Barbarian, needs little introduction. Besides the books, Conan has appeared in comics, games and films and, even when not used directly, Conan has become the archetypal fighting barbarian in everything from the 'He-Man' cartoons through to 'Dungeons & Dragons' role-playing games. So even if you've never read a single 'Conan' novel in your entire life, the basic genre will be instantly familiar.
Howard himself published his 'Conan' stories during the 1930s, most of them relatively short, but many different authors have worked with the character and his world ever since. Loren Coleman is the latest but, unlike the other authors, he doesn't use Conan at all. Instead, he concentrates on other barbarians living in Conan's homeland, Cimmeria. The main character, Kern Wolf-Eye, lends his name to the series of books for which 'Blood Of Wolves' is just the first instalment of the 'Legends Of Kern' series.
On the one hand, creating a cast of new characters sidestep the problem of over familiarity. Conan himself is so heroic that whatever situation he gets into, the reader knows he is going to win the day. By presenting a new cast of characters, the author makes everything much more risky. The reader doesn't know which characters are going to live or die, so any interest in their fate and their ability to solve particular problems is that bit more developed.
But on the other hand, 'Blood Of Wolves' just doesn't grip the reader quickly enough to actually want to care. Partly, it's pacing. The first half-dozen chapters are incredibly slow and, while the writing is competent, it isn't particularly interesting. Long, cold winter. Lack of food. Dying leader. Kern is, surprise, surprise, an outcast of uncertain parentage who manages to show through his courage and skill that he's not just a warrior but a leader. Ho-hum.
The other problem is this book has the overall feeling of an overture. There is a bigger plot bubbling away, but there isn't any resolution. There's a super-strong warrior called Grimnir, who lead a Viking-like tribe of raiders known as the Vanir. So while there are some exciting skirmishes here and there to liven up the quest, the book is mostly about getting the characters from one place to another so that they'll be in the right place for the next book in the series.
Having said this, there are some nice scenes in the book that will hold the attention of fans of the genre. The bit where Kern befriends, if that's the right word, a dire wolf is fun and the wolf, in turn, does help to make Kern that bit different to the usual sword-wielding hero. The strength with which the author describes the scenery is also quite striking, evoking life in a sub-arctic wilderness not just with descriptions of the weather, but also the plants and animals. So it all feels very atmospheric, even if there are somewhat tedious gaps between the battle scenes.
Overall, one for fans of the genre and indeed 'Conan' stories generally, rather than the average reader of fantasy literature.
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