I don’t think I’m spoiling too much when I say that Leo Frankowski’s The Adventures of Conrad Stargard series is unlike Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in more ways than one. Specifically, however, Twain’s cynicism left his protagonist unable to effect change in the past, whereas Frankowski’s hero effects so much change that he begins to rip apart the fabric of spacetime and confound hundreds of years of knowledge about time travel. Which is to say, he soundly routs the invading Mongols in 1241—even at hyperinflated figure of 3 million Mongols, as opposed to the more realistic and historical 10,000—as a result of his widespread and effective technological (not to mention social) changes in 13th-century Poland.
The previous book had seemed like the end of the series, and it was in the sense that it was end of Frankowski’s original story arc and his contract with Del Rey. Since sales of the books were good, the latter wanted more and the former obliged. According to the author, the new deal was for three more books: Lord Conrad’s Lady came out in 1990, a scant year after its predecessor; but Conrad’s Quest for Rubber wasn’t published until 1998, and Lord Conrad’s Crusade wasn’t even published by Del Rey, who no longer wanted it (Frankowski used Great Authors Online instead, who clearly don’t provide editors).
Lord Conrad’s Lady is clearly the most coherent, and in fact is one of the best entries of the original/canonical 5-part series, since it returns to what Frankowski is good at: more logistics, technology, and occasional battles. Having apparently not satiated his desire for dead Mongols, Frankowski invents several new splinter divisions of the original invading horde, and Conrad’s army races around Poland fighting them. After the distant and largely mechanized battle of The Flying Warlord, this new installment hearkens back to the original books of the series, with hand-to-hand fighting in Krakow and elsewhere; additionally, Frankowski writes the invading Mongols as even more barbarous than before: Conrad’s army witnesses a variety of wanton and sadistic cruelty that I won’t detail except to say that was invented out of whole cloth. But The Adventures of Conrad Stargard isn’t a morality play: it’s a fun romp in alternate history, and to that effect, making the enemy out to be comically savage bogeymen merely increases the reader’s joy at their defeat, and I can’t necessarily blame Frankowski for framing it that way.
In the third book of the series, The Radiant Warrior, I noted the controversial rape scene and the tone of chauvinism that it set for the series (and presaged the even more obnoxious sexism in Frankowski’s later books). Though Lord Conrad’s Lady contains no rape (except maybe by the Mongols), one of its primary subplots is the political machinations of Conrad’s new wife, Francine. We first met Francine way back in The Cross-Time Engineer, when she was the attractive French wife of Okoitz’s new priest1; later, she spent several years as the servant/concubine/companion of the elderly Duke Henryk the Bearded, prior to his assassination. Finally, in The Flying Warlord, she and Conrad got married, despite Conrad’s aversion to the institution, his Muslim mistress, and the number of young Polish girls he still took to bed on a regular basis. Personally, I think Frankowski wrote in the marriage as a plot device so that he could give us the narrative equivalent of “Women! Amiright?”.
Francine’s ultimate goal, now that Conrad is the savior of Poland and much of Europe as well, is to make him Poland’s new king, despite Conrad’s aversion both to titles and politics (him being the good, egalitarian socialist that he is). And to this end, she is conniving, manipulative, and a queen bitch. It’s part of Frankowski’s somewhat infamous misogyny2 that his female characters are good when they are sweet, attractive, and generous with sex, but bad when they are powerful, ambitious, or independent. Meanwhile, we are expected to sympathize with Conrad when he doesn’t get laid on a regular basis, and adopt his strange attitude about his own offspring—i.e. have them with as many nameless girls as you want, and don’t worry about them ever again. His child with Francine is no exception to this rule, except that Francine seems to think differently, and one can certainly understand why. This argument highlights the sheer absurdity of Conrad’s (Frankowski’s?) “free love” ideal, and the whole thing is a bit uncomfortable.
From a logistical perspective, Conrad and by extension the reader must now consider how the last ten year’s developments will play out now that the Mongolian sword of Damocles has been deftly avoided. Conrad has a large army that has to be converted mostly into active reserves, several years worth of technological innovation to capitalize (which had heretofore been shelved in favor of production), a war to clean up after, and even better, an army of Crossmen to kill. If there’s a climax to the book, and I’m not sure there is, Conrad’s later battle with the Teutonic Knights (whose champion he killed back in book 2, after which they were banished from Poland) isn’t much of a battle at all, and rather more of an execution. But the event does allow Frankowski to introduce Conrad’s uncle Tom into the mix, inserting yet another rather boring deus ex machina into an otherwise enjoyable story: sufficiently advanced technology removes narrative tension.
Though Lord Conrad’s Lady is not technically the last book in the series, it is by all rights the last canonical book that feels like one of the originals, and it’s not a bad way to go out; certainly it was more satisfying to loyal readers than the abrupt and disappointing The Flying Warlord.