Brak the Barbarian by John Jakes
S.E. Lindberg rating: 3 of 5 stars
Before John Jakes became known for historical fiction, he wrote a series of "clonans" (i.e. Conan-like heroes based off of Robert E. Howard's hero). Jake's hero was: Brak the Barbarian. In his introduction, Jake says he merely wanted to have more stories of the ones he liked. With a little more effort, he could have a really neat hero. Instead, he took a cookie cutter mold of Conan, stripped him free of specific goals, and set him on a general trip "south" toward Khurdisan, an apparently dreamy place worth seeking with one's life and soul... but not apparently good enough to tell the reader about.
Horror and action are good: Jake's writing of Brak excels when he employs his version of horror/Lovecraft-themed weirdness. There are true moments of neat-trippiness and terror that I wish he had done more often.
Shallow motivations are bad. Countering this, Jake over-stressed the "barbarian is more civil than city-folk" theme that RE Howard was known to push (i.e. Brak is always the more honest and honorable than any of the civilized people he crosses). Also, there is the matter of inappropriate attire: no matter the environment (whether its the Ice-marshes or the desert), he wears a loin cloth and rides a pony (he has four ponies in five chapters, each one is new since the others die). He is giant, and must look ridiculous on a pony. And he has braided hair, that is strangely described as "savage." This book has 5 chapters that chronicle Brak's life after being outcasted for reasons unknown and never told to the reader.
I chronicled my own adventure with Brak. I would recommend reading the first and fourth chapters:
Chapter I The Unspeakable Shrine: Brak is indeed a Conan clone; hailing from icelands; wearing loincloth in a tundra? Yob-Haggoth antagonist-god is Lovecraftian. Trippy scenes with Adriane (Yob-Haggoth supporter). Anti-civilization themes echoes REH's approach. More entertaining than cheezy.
Chapter II: Flame Face: This was a sub par story. Brak leaves the ice marshes in his loincloth only to take a slow route to Khurdisan, his random goal in life. He spends months working to buy a pony to carry him south ? Really... A pony? Then instantly gets captured and imprisoned in a mine for 50 days. No worries he escapes, of course, and the random villain gets her due justice.
Chapter III: The Courts of the Conjurer: was par with Ch1. A decent adventure story, some betrayal, and a creature named Fangfish (akin to the nomenclature of Ch2's Doomdog). More "barbarians are more civil than civilization" commentary. Still Brak's desire to ride small ponies and wear no clothes seems forced. Pretty shallow personality and goals.
Chapter IV: Ghosts of Stone: This is the best so far. A ghost city called Chamalor, the best follow up to ch1. A good dose of horror and more info on Septegundus, undying evil wizard. The Thing That Crawls, T'muk, is a nice Lovecraftian creature. Enjoyed this story.
Chapter V: Barge of Souls: Brak meanders south via a battlefield. The good parts include interactions with ghosts and haunted war grounds. Too much weird coincidence undermines some really great touches. Minor spoilers below:
Minor spoilers: There is an evolution of a shield design which was very thoughtful; this was countered by Lord Hel (antagonist) and his Tiger men being nefarious but stupid (they betray a prince, accidentally get rid of the body...but then they need a body for an obvious ritual...but lucky ho... Brak looks like man they need, but they need him dead...but they don't kill him when they have him restrained...instead they decide to drug him...but they don't do that well...Brak escapes... WTH?). At the end Brak could stay with a Queen, who begs him to stay. He says no....I have to go to Khurdisan. She pleads, Why? He says, I don't know. Then leaves on a pony? WTH? He says, he must go in part because of the great stories he has heard. Well that's nice. The reader has heard none of those by the end of book one. That's right, we still don't have a glimmer of what motivates the hero by the end of act one, except that he seems to like to ride ponies
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