Conan: Blood of the Serpent–The Cimmerian returns in first Conan novel in more than a decade

Review by C.J. Bunce

Robert E. Howard’s fantasy hero Conan has taken many journeys, written by many people, but which is the “real” Conan, and which is your personal favorite?  Is it the virile Cimmerian of short stories in serialized pulp magazine tales written by Howard himself?  Where do you place Roy Thomas’s hero of even more decades of Conan the Barbarian comic book stories?  Do you consider Arnold Schwarzenegger as the definitive Conan, or the way he’s been drawn by painters and sketch artists?  Maybe Jason Momoa is your Conan.  As with Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Tarzan, and so many other fantasy characters, the stories have continued in the form of pastiches written by others, stories that try to perfectly emulate the original writer’s style.  And there’s another way–in this case new Conan writer S.M. Stirling creates his own story of the character without copying the original style.  Conan: Blood of the Serpent is not Howard’s Conan or Conan’s world, but for Conan fans how do you pass up a new novel offered only every decade?  In this new novel, the estate managing the stories officially puts its stamp on a prequel to Howard’s last Conan story, the Valeria story “Red Nails.”  What is surprising is how extremely silly Conan is as a character, then and now.

Conan eats meat, drinks beer, kills every beast he encounters (it feels like one new species per chapter), razzes other warriors, urinates, and sizes up all the women in sight.  Much of the time he may remind you of that oafish fellow at the bar, drunk and standing at the edge of the room just… staring.  He is drawn by Stirling, and even Howard 87 years ago, like Fabio or whoever that guy wason the cover of all the old Harlequin romance novels.  In Conan: Blood of the Serpent he lusts for Valeria, a warrior who is almost his equal in cunning and combat.  Conan follows her from a distance.  Is he admiring her, or is he just a stalker?  In Howard’s original story, it’s pretty clear Valeria thinks he’s stalking her.  Ultimately Conan learns to respect her.  But his style is goofy, awkward, and wrong.  He boasts about himself like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.  Yes, Conan is virile, and he’s almost written as too virile.  Swap in Thor for Conan and Sif for Valeria and this story works all the same, but Conan doesn’t have Hemsworth’s charisma.  Which makes it easy for Stirling’s readers to conjure a young and cocky  Schwarzenegger–the mouthy bodybuilder before he was everyone’s hero–as the face and body of this version.

Stirling likes to talk about stench in his novel, and the biggest takeaway of the story is how stinky the city of Sukhmet must be.  Expect lots of sweating, lots of stench, lots of drunk activity and hangovers and worse.  You can imagine hanging out in the Prancing Pony with the denizens of Middle-earth, or maybe riding a ship on the high seas with Long John Silver, but riding with Conan is not anywhere you’d fantasize about being–especially if you’re a woman or slave.  It’s a vile place with vile people.  Conan is as base, as primitive, as mankind gets.  A step up from the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Despite his popularity, It makes sense Conan’s world is probably the least memorable and least known of all classic fantasy worlds.  Conan doesn’t do singular heroic acts that are remarkable.  Compare the exploits you think of related to Conan with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan or Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon–other than Red Sonja from the comic book, most fantasy readers are going to struggle when it comes to the original Howard stories.  A choice that is both good and bad for this new novel is the inclusion of “Red Nails,” first published in Weird Tales in 1936, it was the last Conan story.  It makes up the last 100 pages of this 400+ page book.  I recommend reading it first, because it shows readers what came before.  But it’s then jarring to read Stirling’s new work because it is so markedly different.  If you understand his story is not a pastiche, and enjoy it as a new author’s interpretation of the character, you’ll find a very densely drafted story here.  It plods along, but there is no doubt a niche of Conan fans that will find this worthy of the character.

The story is centered on encountering Valeria as she rebuffs a man’s advances, a man that isn’t going to forget that she almost killed him.  Conan befriends Valeria and then it’s all sword and sorcery action, but without the sorcery.  The action and violence feels more like Frank Miller’s 300 than vintage Howard.  And nothing compares to Roy Thomas’s many decades of comics, as adaptations go.  Howard’s writing is succinct, and Stirling is verbose, describing too many things that don’t drive the story forward.  It creates mood, but not so much a visual setting.  It almost has scent though.
Conan’s dialogue is all over the place, sometimes smart and sly, other times rather dull and dumb.  “It too easy,” he says, like Tarzan’s “me Tarzan, you Jane.”  Howard wasn’t all that sexist in his treatment of women in his stories, frequently placing women in strong, powerful roles.  Valeria is one of those, and Stirling makes a good effort to flesh out her character in some of the hundreds more pages than Howard had in his Weird Tales word limitations.  But this is mainly a Conan journey.  For the tastes of any modern reader, the author tries to take Conan into the 21st century.  But his inner monologue about women and the killed beast of each chapter/monster of the week approach may make you wonder whether Conan is best left in the past.
A bonus in this book that any reader and fan of Conan should love is the vintage style illustrations peppered throughout by artist Roberto De La Torre.  It’s a nice hardcover volume, with good artwork, and it delivers enough of the necessary vibe of Howard’s world and hero to please any Conan fan.  Who is the real Conan?  That’s up to the reader, who has many options from the world of Conan adaptations across the decades, to decide.  Conan: Blood of the Serpent is worth a try.  Order Conan: Blood of the Serpent now here at Amazon.


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