Robert E. Howard never wrote about Conan’s origins. His earliest story chronologically was the Frost Giant’s Daughter (if, like a sane person, you place that immediately after Conan departed Cimmeria). Conan of Venarium most faithfully follows what the narrative claims in brief reference later on: That Conan came to the civilized world of Hyboria following a clash with Aquilonian forces at Venarium.
This book is brought to us in 2003 by Harry Turtledove. I haven’t cross-referenced all the books I’ve read with Harry Turtledove’s complete bibliography, but I’m pretty sure Conan of Venarium is the first of his novels I’ve read. I’ve heard of him a lot, but he writes a lot of alternative history, a genre which I tend to avoid because of how often it’s littered with historical fix fics in which a defeated army is instead victorious, thus ushering in utopia. And it’s never “Trotsky took over after Lenin and everything was great forever,” which, while not really any improvement of craft over the other style, would at least be a nice change of pace from all the “the South won the Civil War and then abolished slavery all by themselves and lived in a Libertarian paradise forever” stories.
Turtledove has written a “the South won the Civil War” alt history series, Wikipedia informs me, but I’m on too tight a deadline to even bother reading the summaries of all twelve-ish books in that series, so I have no idea how it portrays the South. I’m gonna guess that it’s not “evil empire in which sadistic aristocrats reign over an economy sustained by one of the most brutal systems of chattel slavery in all human history while using racist tensions to keep the unlanded majority of whites loyal to their cause despite their having been ghettoized in impoverished bayous.” In fairness, though, I haven’t actually read any of them, so I won’t hold that series against Turtledove here.
Also, Macmillan, the seller of this story, has offered it DRM free at the request of Tor Books, which is neat.
Wagon wheels groaned. Horses’ hooves drummed. Above and behind and through all the other sounds came the endless thump of heavy boots in the roadway. Lithe Bossonian archers and the broad-shouldered spearmen of Gunderland made up the bulk of Count Stercus’ army. They eyed the small number of heavily caparisoned Aquilonian knights who rode with Stercus with the amused scorn freeborn foot soldiers often accorded their so-called social betters.
Thus we enter Hyboria. Through this particular aperture, anyway. There’s also three other ways in, which, like video game protagonists intentionally avoiding the main plot to check all the side paths first, we will be doubling back to after we finish up here. In this particular opening, we see the Aquilonians crossing into Cimmeria.
Here, though, Vulth was more interested in sniping at the Aquilonian aristocrats than in scoring points off Granth. “Why, [the knights] use [the horses] to flee, of course,” he replied. “They can run from the wild men faster and farther than us poor foot sloggers.” Granth laughed. So did several other soldiers in their company.
But their sergeant, a scarred, grizzled veteran named Nopel, growled, “Shut your fool’s mouth, Vulth. If the count hears you talking like that, you’ll be lucky if he just puts stripes on your back.”
“I’m not afraid of him,” said Vulth, but his wobbling voice gave the words the lie.
So here we’re establishing that the count leading the army is definitely the bad guys, which we have to do early on because almost immediately thereafter we learn that Aquilonia has totally legitimate grievances with the Cimmerians:
“Mitra!” muttered Granth. “Why do we want that miserable country, anyway? Why would anybody in his right mind want it?”
Nopel grunted. “Plain you didn’t grow up on the border, the way I did. You ever had a pack of those wild wolves come howling down on your farm or village to steal and burn and kill, you wouldn’t ask stupid questions like that.” The sergeant spat in the roadway.
Which is immediately afterwards coupled with a reminder that no really, the Aquilonians are the bad guys:
But, however much Stercus despised his own men, he reserved his most savage loathing for the Cimmerians. How many times had he harangued the army about the barbarous savages they were going to face? More often than Granth could easily remember; that was certain. If Stercus had his way, he would wipe every Cimmerian off the face of the earth.
This whole bit isn’t specifically marked as a prologue, but it’s a prologue. We see the Aquilonians advancing, and that gives us an immediate sense of danger. Nothing’s happened yet, sure, but it’s inevitable. It’s coming. This means that when we flip to little baby Conan in his village, the story has momentum. This passage:
Iron belled on iron. Sparks flew. Mordec struck again, harder than ever. The blacksmith grunted in satisfaction and, hammer still clenched in his great right hand, lifted the red-hot sword blade from the anvil with the tongs in his left. Nodding, he watched the color slowly fade from the iron. “I’ll not need to thrust it back into the fire, Conan,” he said. “You can rest easy at the bellows.”
It isn’t boring, because it has that sense of impending doom. And we didn’t need an explosive border skirmish where Cimmerians ambushed the Aquilonian column to get there. We just established a villain was on his way, and for all that I snarked at that villain for having a ham-handed intro, it wasn’t too ham-handed, it was exactly ham-handed enough to communicate his villainy very quickly, so that the prologue didn’t end up dragging on for a whole chapter. Two and a half pages of soldiers marching and we know what we need to: Count Villainous is coming, and he hates Conan before he’s even met him.
I can’t remember if Conan’s father was ever named as a blacksmith by Robert E. Howard, and I haven’t read every Howard story. I do know that his father was definitely a blacksmith in the 1982 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite following the Howard stories rather than the movie’s own very distinct lore, it’s possible that Conan of Venarium inherited this bit of Conan’s backstory from the film.
From the back of the smithy, from the rooms where the blacksmith and his family lived, a woman called, “Mordec! Come here. I need you.”
Mordec’s face twisted with a pain he never would have shown if wounded by sword or spear or arrow. “Go tend to your mother, son,” he said roughly. “It’s really you Verina wants to see, anyhow.”
“But she called you,” said Conan.
“Go, I said.” Mordec set down the blacksmith’s hammer and folded his hand into a fist. “Go, or you’ll be sorry.” Conan hurried away. A buffet from his father might stretch him senseless on the rammed-earth floor of the smithy, for Mordec did not always know his own strength. And Conan dimly understood that his father did not want to see his mother in her present state; Verina was slowly and lingeringly dying of some ailment of the lungs that neither healers nor wizards had been able to reverse. But Mordec, lost in his own torment, did not grasp how watching Conan’s mother fail by inches flayed the boy.
Wow, Conan had a shitty father. And also has a mother who can’t get through a sentence without hacking up blood. Basically there’s a whole lot of reasonably adept wielding of cliche going on here, but the storm of cliches is definitely noticeable. Also, I’m not sure if the narrative has noticed or will notice that Mordec is a shitty father.
Running feet pounded along the dirt track that served Duthil for a main street. “The Aquilonians!” a hoarse voice bawled. “The Aquilonians have crossed into Cimmeria!”
“The Aquilonians!” Conan’s voice, though still unbroken, crackled with ferocity and raw blood lust. “By Crom, they’ll pay for this! We’ll make them pay for this!” He eased Verina down to the pillow once more. “I’m sorry, Mother. I have to go.” He dashed away to hear the news.
“How dare they walk on our dirt! We’ll make them pay for this!” Like, sure, crossing an army into the borders of another sovereign nation is clearly an act of war and justifies a military response, but the diction here implies that the Aquilonians have somehow wronged Conan personally just by showing up at all.
Conan’s village questions the man yelling about the Aquilonians.
“I’m Fidach, of Aedan’s clan. With my brother, I tend sheep on one of the valleys below the tree line.”
Nods came from the men of Duthil. Aedan’s clan dwelt hard by the border with Aquilonia—and, now and again, sneaked across it for sheep or cattle or the red joy of slaughtering men of foreign blood.
Conan is a barbarian, and a consistent part of his characterization is that, though canny and intelligent, he doesn’t really care about art or philosophy, instead motivated usually by material gain or revenge. Still, it’s kind of weird for a book written in 2003 to mention not just that the Cimmerians are raiders, which is perfectly in keeping with Conan as mercenary and brigand, but as psychopaths who kill their neighbors for giggles. Like, I talked about how the count was effectively established as a villain by his racial spite for the Cimmerians earlier, but I’m kind of warming up to him now.
Fidach tells the men of Duthil that the Aquilonians are coming with an army, and Mordec tells some of the other Duthilians to go warn nearby villages and gather an army to meet the invaders.
“This is well done,” said Fidach. “And if you have sent men to Uist and Nairn, I will go on to Lochnagar, off to the northwest. My wife’s father’s family springs from those parts. I will have no trouble finding kinsfolk to guest with when I get there.[“]
Thanks for the update on your traveling accommodations, random stranger.
Conan returns to his home, his mother urges Mordec to kill all the Aquilonians for sure, and then we cut back to the Aquilonians building a fort for the night.
Another sergeant, also a Bossonian, set hands on hips, too. “If standing around talking without worrying about whether you work isn’t lazy, Mitra smite me if I know what would be. So work, you good-for-nothing dog!” The lanky man hastily got back to it. The sergeant rounded on Granth and Vulth. “You lugs were just rattling your teeth, too. If you’ve got more stakes, bring ‘em. If you don’t, go cut ’em. Don’t let me catch you standing around, though, or I’ll make you sorry you were ever born. You hear me?” His voice rose to an irascible roar.
“Yes, sir, Sergeant Stereotype, we’ll get right to it!” I get the feeling this is meant to illustrate the difference between the free Cimmerians and the subjugated Aquilonians, but the time when heavy-handedness may have been justified is well and truly passed and now I’m just wondering why the Hell this iron age military has sergeants at all. That level of organization isn’t really necessary or useful to formation fighting. Romans did have a sort-of sergeant, in that each eight-man tent group had a decanus, but he was elected from amongst the ranks of the tent group to represent their interests to the centurion (the centurion was not elected and had no particular incentive to listen to a decanus, but having ten decanii to keep track of made it a lot easier to keep an eye on morale than trying to pick up the mood of eighty individual legionaries). A decanus who was a relentless asshole like this Bossonian prick would get himself voted out of office in a hurry. Aquilonia is under no obligation to follow the military traditions of real life Rome, of course, but it’s pretty noticeable when those military traditions get passed up for a stereotype pulled from the author’s own contemporary culture.
As darkness began to fall—impossible to say precisely when the sun set, for the clouds and mists of Cimmeria obscured both sunrise and sunset—a long, mournful note blown on the trumpet recalled the Aquilonian soldiers to the camp. Savory steam rose from big iron pots bubbling over cookfires. Rubbing their bellies to show how hungry they were, men lined up to get their suppers. “Mutton stew?” asked Granth, sniffing. “Mutton stew,” answered a Bossonian who had just had his tin panikin filled. He spoke with resignation. Mutton was what most of the army had eaten ever since crossing into Cimmeria. The forage here was not good enough to support many cattle. Even the sheep were small and scrawny.
And this isn’t filling me with a whole lot of confidence, either. Stew is terrible trail food because it takes like an hour to make. Why waste daylight cooking instead of marching (or nighttime cooking instead of sleeping) when your troops could just pull out their salted beef, dried vegetables, and hard bread from their packs and eat on the spot in fifteen minutes?
Someone asked, “What are we calling this camp?” Count Stercus had named each successive encampment after an estate that belonged to him or to one of his friends. Granth supposed it made as good a way as any other to remember which was which.
“Venarium,” answered another soldier. “This one’s Camp Venarium.”
Title drop (sort of)! Except, Conan’s twelve, and he fought at Venarium when he was fifteen, and no matter how much this story tries to convince me that he has mighty thews from his work as a blacksmith’s apprentice, I am not ready to buy a twelve-year old being a competent member of an infantry force. Fifteen I can accept, for a primitive culture like the Cimmerians where the quality of warriors tends to be scattershot in the first place. Some teenagers are alarmingly beefy, that’s fine. Don’t try and sell me on twelve.
Conan was anything but methodical. He sprang into the air in frustration and fury. “Take me with you!” he shouted, not for the first time. “Take me with you, Father!”
“No,” growled Mordec.
We’re off to a good start, here, as the narrative pivots back to Conan.
But the one word, which would usually have silenced his son, had no effect here. “Take me with you!” cried Conan once more. “I can fight. By Crom, I can! I’m bigger than a lot of the men in Duthil, and stronger, too!”
Getting a lot worse, now.
“So you want to see what it’s really like, do you?” asked Mordec. “All right, by Crom. I’ll let you have a taste.”
He had hit Conan before; as often as not, nothing but his hand would gain and hold the boy’s attention. But he had never given him such a cold-blooded, thorough, methodical beating as he did now. Conan tried to fight back for as long as he could. Mordec kept hitting him until he had no more fight left in him. The blacksmith aimed to make the boy cry out for mercy, but Conan set his jaw and suffered in silence, plainly as intent on dying before he showed weakness as Mordec was on breaking him.
And Conan might have died then, for his father, afraid he would fall to an enemy’s weapons, was not at all afraid to kill him for pride’s sake.
Like, really, rather than Mordec beating Conan halfway to death to “show him what battle is like” – pretty clearly a paltry excuse to just try and beat him into submission, and if the author intended otherwise, he has failed utterly to communicate it – Mordec could’ve just broken Conan’s leg. Good luck marching to war on that, kid, I’ll see you when I get home. It would’ve been barbaric, sure, but also effective. Barbaric like Robert E. Howard’s barbarians are, apathetic to moral philosophy or notions of justice, but instead doing whatever works. Instead, this just seems like an easily provoked lout lashing out, blind and stupid, who doesn’t know how to respond to a problem with anything else but violence, who’s too dim to do anything but apply more and more force and hope that eventually the problem breaks.