This is the first of the eight novels that John Maddox Roberts wrote in the fifty-book Tor Series, and the first not penned by Robert Jordan (later of The Wheel of Time fame). In William Galen Gray’s chronology it is the thirtieth Conan tale, following Howard’s The Bloodstained God and taking place before Howard’s The Frost Giant’s Daughter.
I commend Roberts for providing an excellent look at life in Cimmeria. I contrast this with the disappointing approach that Harry Turtledove used in Conan of Venarium. The barbarians live in stone huts and put up hide tents; they don’t occupy what is basically a medieval village. The people are nomads and fierce warriors. They fight each other, only coming together when driven by exceptional circumstances. Maddox Roberts also depicts the enmity between the Cimmerians and the Vanheim, which is an important characteristic of life in the north.
The tale begins with Conan hastily swearing to perform an errand for Hathor Ka, a Stygian sorceress. Conan blindly agrees to the task without getting the details first. Really, it’s hard to buy that he was so hard up for money that he just jumped into this deal. Apparently Maddox Roberts wanted to get the story moving so he skimped a bit on the Call to Adventure. Regardless, once he agrees, Conan is committed to visiting a sacred cave in his homeland and things get going.
As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (a must read for any fantasy fan),
“The first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny.”
A wizened old man reads Conan’s future in the very first chapter. He then sells Conan a protective amulet in chapter two. Drawing on Campbell’s Monomyth, strengthens sword and sorcery tales and Maddox Roberts is clearly familiar with Campbell’s work and works elements of the Hero’s Journey into the story.
Maddox Roberts weaves together Conan’s journey, the Cimmerians’ trouble with demon raids, a Vanheim invasion into Cimmeria and a complex plot involving three competing sorcerers on a quest for god-like power. This story has a lot going on and it’s all deftly handled.
The book is low on the sex scale, with Conan bedding a rescued chieftaness in the Border Kingdoms. This happens almost halfway through the book and he doesn’t sleep with any other females in this tale. Maddox Roberts gives us one of the most believable amorous conquests in the entire Conan saga. It doesn’t follow the usual “My, what huge muscles you have, take me, you savage!”
I very much enjoyed Conan the Valorous. Despite the flawed opening, it’s one of the better pastiches and its look at life in Cimmeria is very well done. The complex plot is more than weighty enough to carry the story forward to the very end.