Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
At the moment dark fantasy or “grimdark” literature, with its amoral characters and pessimistic themes, is extremely popular. This is thanks in large part to George R. R. Martin and the success of the A Song of Fire and Ice series. However, the genre has its roots in the sword and sorcery epics of Robert E. Howard. Characters, such as Kull and Conan, were far from good guys dealing with situations that were often morally ambiguous to say the least. The immortal words of Thucydides seem to summarize the subgenre best: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
King of the Bastards, written by Steven Shrewsbury and Brian Keene, is modern dark fantasy drawing inspiration from Robert E. Howard’s earlier works. The story follows King Rogan and his nephew, Javan the bard. The two are waylaid while on a fishing expedition, first by a sea monster and then pirates. They learn of a plot to destroy Rogan’s legitimate heirs in Albion by a bastard Rogan sired with a Nubian concubine, but before the two can act against the usurper, they are shipwrecked on an alien coast.
There, Rogan and Javan become entwined in an intertribal conflict between two powerful shaman: Akibeel and Amazarak. Amazarak is bent on conjuring the alien being known as Croatoan – known to fans of Brian Keene’s other tales as Meeble, one of the Thirteen. Rogan and Javan are going to have to deal with this entity if they are to get a ship to take them back home, but it will not be easy. Giants and zombies are just several of the monsters commanded by the shaman and nothing is what it appears.
Shrewsbury and Keene do an amazing job keeping the story moving forward. There is never a dull moment. King Rogan only stops the killing long enough to rut with the women and deliver over-the-top macho one-liners.
This pulp-fantasy formula is not for everyone. Women are objectified; blacks are the bad guys; and the white male is the only force capable of solving the world’s problems. This said, it is all done with a wink and a nod. Shrewsbury and Keene are intentionally copying the style of Robert E. Howard. If you like the Conan franchise, you will love King of the Bastards.