The “disconnected vignettes” problem affects the reviewing more than the reading. It’s almost impossible to know which, if any, of the details of these stories is going to come up later. Is Conan being tested by the Three Trials of Crom which will culminate in his transforming into a Super Cimmerian with golden hair and green eyes, or are monsters just showing up because there’s a protagonist around to fight them now and it’s a good way to mark time while we wait for Conan to turn fifteen?
On the other hand, the episodic nature of the story isn’t actually bad. Individual vignettes are sometimes bad, like when Count Villainous shows up to creep on a piece of cardboard with “jail bait” painted across the front, but the episodic nature means that no matter how shoddy one vignette is, it has practically no bearing on the quality of the next. Sure, the “character arc” of the protagonist is not really an arc so much as frequent callbacks to previous stories, but if I wasn’t happy to read about Conan killing a giant snake just for the Hell of it, I wouldn’t be reading Conan at all. That’s like forty percent of Conan stories.
But, still. Aquilonians are out looking for their missing man, so Conan gets sent off to help the shepherd whose flock got attacked by the bat demon. He and the shepherd fend off hawks. At one point Conan shoots a wolf. They talk about how much picts are just, like, the worst. Eventually Conan goes home. Hooray for sheep, I guess? I don’t know what this was supposed to accomplish, besides occupying another few weeks of Conan’s time. Feels like an idea for a side-plot that never actually grew into anything, yet which was not cut in editing.
“Of course I’m all right,” answered Tarla. In Conan’s ears, her voice might have been the chiming of silver bells, even though she continued, “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Why? Because of that—that blackguard Stercus.” Conan had learned some fine new curses from Nectan, and wanted to tar the Aquilonian nobleman’s name with all of them. Somehow, though, he did not think that would improve his standing with Balarg’s daughter, and so he swallowed most of what he might have said.
Tarla tossed her pretty head. Sable curls flew. “Oh, he’s not so bad,” she said, and sniffed. “At least he bathes now and again.”
Even a few weeks earlier, that sally would have sent Conan off in headlong retreat. As much as anything else, what made him stand his ground was the loathing he felt for Stercus. Once more in lieu of worse, he said, “He’s nothing but a damned invader.”
The weaver’s daughter tossed her head again. “And what business is it of yours, Conan, who I see or what I do?”
In the incessant wars between the English and assorted Norse throughout the Dark Ages, there was, much to the chagrin of the conquered men, a habit amongst the conquered women of shacking up with their conquerors. Not because of any desire for protection or wealth or anything. Just because the conquerors had way better hygiene. Those of you who know your history will be aware that England was never a conqueror of any amount of Norway or Denmark or wherever, so I am therefore talking about how the barbarian viking invaders had way better hygiene than the more civilized English.
Now, the Dark Ages were a low point for European civilization in general, and Aquilonians are based on Imperial Rome who had baths and stuff (although they’ve taken on a very late medieval vibe in this story, with their heavy cavalry and pikemen). What I’m getting at is not a historical nitpick of specific cultures, but rather that, if this is an attempt at setting up a “barbarism vs. civilization” contrast like Conan do, it is a failure. Cultures that are less technologically advanced can and often do care more about bathing.
But after Conan botches his encounter with Tarla, there is this line:
“It’s ruined,” said Conan. If something was wrong now, it would stay a disaster forever. That was a law of nature, especially when one was thirteen.
Which captures being thirteen pretty well.
That Melcer guy comes up again, as he and Conan fairly regularly interact. I want to point something out that I’ve glossed over in the past, though:
“No special quarrel, eh?” Melcer unobtrusively shifted closer to the pike. Now he could grab it in a hurry if he had to. “And do you have a general quarrel with me?”
This encounter doesn’t end in violence, but Melcer’s weapon of choice is a pike. Pikes are generally speaking a minimum of about ten feet long. They are very unwieldy. Now, you can jolly well smack someone with a good thick wooden shaft even if they’re quite close, but swinging a pike around is a slow process just on account of how long it is. You’ll also need two hands to wield it, which means you can’t wield a shield. It’s a formation weapon. Get fifty of them pointed in the same direction and you don’t so much need a shield, but if you’re on your own, you’re better off with a shorter, and therefore cheaper, five to seven foot spear, something you can choke up on and wield one-handed along with a shield and swing about to turn to face an enemy faster.
Anyway, the conversation is so unremarkable that I’m not sure why we even had it. Conan demands to know what Melcer knows about Count Villainous. Melcer, being some random farmer, doesn’t know much, but he’s heard rumors that Villainous is a lecher. This is apparently news to Conan? This book does change perspectives a lot, so maybe this is actually the first time Conan’s heard of it, but it’s like the first or second thing I, the reader, learned about him, so I’m not sure why we spent a scene re-learning it.
It is now summer.
After three or four such visits, there could be little doubt of Stercus’ intentions. Conan, in his jealous rage, had seen through them from the first. Mordec was loath to believe that his son could be right, that the Aquilonian had conceived an unhealthy passion for a girl so young.
“Golly, do you think the known child predator who’s openly flirting with one of the village girls might have bad intentions?” I can’t remember if Conan had heard those rumors before now, but I pretty clearly recall Mordec hearing them.
Mordec speaks with some Gundermen about Villainous.
“Why put up with such a man?” asked Mordec. “In Cimmeria, he would not last long. His first crime would be his last.”
The Gunderman stared at him owlishly. “You haven’t got noblemen in Cimmeria, have you?”
“Noblemen?” Mordec shook his head. “We have clan chiefs, but a man is a chief because of what he has done, not because of what his great-great-grandfather did.”
“I thought so. That explains it,” said the Gunderman. “We put up with bad nobles, you see, for the sake of good nobles—and there are some. If you know who’s on top right from the start, you don’t need to fight about it all the time. You can get on with the rest of your business.”
That made more sense than Mordec wished it did. Tiny, pointless wars between clans or, even more often, within clans had plagued Cimmeria for centuries uncounted.
But feudal societies almost never suffer from bloody power struggles. Hereditary monarchies definitely aren’t critically unstable governments that constantly lurch from one succession crisis to another. Totally uncontroversial and peaceful transitions of power, they are, every time.
Our next vignette is Conan meeting with a seer, who is apparently just here to tell him that he’s Player One, but in a cliche cryptic way:
“If you will not hear, you shall surely see.” Rhiderch remained cryptic. “Like a migrating bird, your fate flies high and far. Where you will end your days, and in what estate, I cannot say, but no Cimmerian’s weird is stranger.”
It’s spelled “wyrd.” The modern English “weird” is descended from that word, but they have completely different meanings and are very definitely different words (“wyrd” loosely means “fate”).
We’re over halfway through the book now. Still enough time for the story to tie all its meandering themes together, but it’s looking more and more like this whole vignettes thing is exactly what it looks like, so going forward I am strongly considering just not summarizing or commenting on the bad vignettes at all, at least not unless they jump out as bad in some new way I haven’t already talked about. And since the final vignette of this chapter is just repetitive, that’s where we’re calling it, even though I’m 500 words short of my usual mark. I will point out that there was yet another vignette of Count Villainous creeping on Tarla, and this book is unable to even muster up any offense at how clumsy the portrayal of a predator grooming a victim is. That’s the level of boring these vignettes are operating on. It certainly doesn’t help that so many of them are practically the same thing over and over again. How many times has it been established that Count Villainous has an unhealthy interest in Tarla? That Melcer and Conan are weird sort-of friends even though Conan hates all Aquilonian settlers in general? That Conan knows how to shoot a wolf?
The next post may well be the last one of the entire novel (before the summary and contents). The longer this book goes on, the less it demands any kind of line-by-line reviewing, as it does the same things over and over again and isn’t really building to anything.