Conan of Venarium: Fourteen Year Olds In Frank Frazetta

Chapter 9

That seer guy is hanging around Duthil doing odd jobs to earn his keep whenever he can’t get by selling visions. Conan asks him to look into the future of Cimmeria and see whether they’re going to win against the Aquilonians.

The seer suddenly went stiff. His eyes opened very wide, so that white showed all around their irises. “Crom!” he muttered, whether calling on the grim northern god or simply in astonishment Conan could not have said. In a voice that might have come from the other side of the grave, Rhiderch went on, “Gore and guts and grief and glory! War and woe and fire and flame! Death and doom and dire deeds! War, aye, war to the knife, war without mercy, war without pity, battle till the last falls still fighting!”

Conan shuddered. He had got more in the way of a vision than he had bargained for. Rhiderch twitched like a man in the throes of an epileptic fit. Hoarsely, Conan asked, “But who will win?” Nothing else mattered to him. “Who will win?”

Now Rhiderch’s gaze thrust through him like a sword. “War and woe!” repeated the seer. “Duthil dies a dismal death. The golden lion—” He twitched again. “Aye, the golden lion flaps above your head.”

At first, I was worried this was going to turn into another “oh, isn’t Conan so great” moment, where a fanboy oohs and ahs over his favorite fantasy hero right in the middle of a narrative. But no, this is actually just a misleading vision, in the way of prophetic visions everywhere, about Conan becoming king of Aquilonia. And also about Duthil getting razed, apparently. I don’t know how this book, specifically, will end, but my guess is that Duthil is the price Cimmeria pays for victory.

In a subsequent vignette about Conan tailing some Aquilonian soldiers (specifically, the viewpoint Aquilonians whose perspective we periodically pivot towards):

Clan chiefs won their places not thanks to their fancy bloodlines but by virtue of the strength and wisdom they displayed. Anyone might challenge them, and men frequently did. If being frozen in place from fear of a wicked nobleman’s status was what went into civilization, then Conan wanted no part of it, vastly preferring the barbarism in which he had been raised. His father had seen that benefits also accrued from a social system more highly structured than Cimmeria’s, but he was blind to those.

This false dichotomy is a major theme of the story, and it agitates me. Now, it’s perfectly possible to conceive of Cimmeria and Aquilonia as two specific societies, one of which is full of internecine violence driven by pride and the other which is more stable and hierarchical. But you can also have a society in which no one’s willing to accept any other as their inherent superior without things constantly rising to violence, and with people still able to organize themselves. Every American considers themselves a temporarily embarrassed millionaire, which brings all kinds of problems of its own, but definitely gives the lie to this whole “explicit feudal hierarchy or constant internal violence” dichotomy. You can quibble that societies like England’s tendency to put things like “born to a [class] family” as though origins defined someone forever count as an “explicit feudal hierarchy,” or at least close enough to support the book’s theme, but even ignoring how much of a stretch that is, America not only does not define people by their class, we love rags to riches stories. We love them so much that we make them up for billionaires who wouldn’t know a rag if they were strangled with one.

Indeed, a lot of the more militaristically successful and/or internally stable nations of the world have been comparatively less authoritarian and hierarchical than their neighbors. The Roman Empire was a shadow government that secretly ruled with absolute power when it was first established, and it wasn’t until centuries later, long after all expansion had ceased, that they stepped into the light and a hard division between noble and common classes was written into law, and most of the expansion happened under the Republic anyway. The Song Dynasty defused instability caused by military aristocrats with an imperial exam system that promoted people based on scholarly merit. On the other end, as I’ve mentioned before, medieval Europe was both very hierarchical with an uncrossable divide between nobles and peasants, and also constantly wracked with generational if not seasonal warfare both between and within kingdoms.

Cimmeria has more respect for individual worth but is also more prone to internal violence as compared to Aquilonia, fine. Those two aren’t historically correlated, though. You can talk about whether internal violence is a price worth paying for greater class equality, but if someone tries to frame it like internal violence is the price you pay for greater class equality, they’re just wrong.

A vignette or two later (the intervening ones, as has so far been the case, have no impact on what follows):

“I do not,” said Mordec. “But do you deny that even his own officer warned us against Stercus? Do you deny he has given her more attention than is her due? What he has done is no guide to what he will do, or to what he would do. And you will also have heard the stories the Aquilonian soldiers tel, that he was cast forth from their capital, cast forth from their kingdom, for liking young girls too well? He has done these things, Balarg. Given the chance, he will do them again.”

Emphasis is mine. The first one because it contradicts what Mordec says later. Now, you can figure out what he means here: Just because Stercus hasn’t done anything but flirt with Tarla so far doesn’t mean he won’t do something worse later. But actually, what he has done is very much a guide to what he will do, in that it is precisely his actions so far which serve as red flags for his intentions. But really, I wouldn’t be nitpicking this slightly confusing phrasing if it weren’t for the “tel” typo later on. This book was published by a big company, not a scrappy indie operation where the author is also his own editor.

Chapter 10

There’s a vignette here where Captain Stercus is getting super cocky about the conquest of Cimmeria, despite Captain Trevarius’ efforts to warn him of the coming reckoning, with far more of the Cimmerian clans answering the call to arms this time than the last.

“If three or four more rise against us, we’ll smash them again, aye. But Cimmeria has clans by the score. If thirty or forty rise against us, that is a very different business. How could we throw back such a swarm of men?”

If Cimmeria’s got ten times the troops waiting in the wings, it makes the whole fight kind of a foregone conclusion, doesn’t it? The Battle Adjacent to Venarium was supposed to be a pretty close thing, so obviously the Cimmerians showing up with an order of magnitude more men will make it plainly one-sided. Kind of takes the drama out of it. Or am I supposed to be on the Aquilonians’ side?

Later on in the same vignette, as Stercus muses about Conan:

The hatred in Conan’s blazing blue eyes could not be disguised. And the Cimmerian, though still smooth-cheeked, was already six feet tall, with powerful shoulders and chest a man twice his age might have envied.

This has been a consistent theme in the book, and it’s always bugged me that Conan is supposed to be so big and massive already. For starters, he fights almost exclusively with a bow or javelin, so his mighty thews are rarely relevant to what he actually accomplishes. Second, it’s weird that in Conan’s coming of age story, he already looks pretty much exactly like the standard image of Conan. The whole story has Conan acting his age (and there’s even been less of Conan growing into the barbarian warrior he’s destined to be than I expected), and I keep envisioning him as big for a thirteen year old, but then the story asks me to imagine him as already being a Frank Frazetta painting.

Every heartbeat left Tarla older. Soon, too soon, she would no longer be his image of perfection, only what might have been.

Thinking of that made all Stercus’ hard-kept patience blow away like the mist. “We’ve already waited too long, my darling,” he said urgently. “Come away with me now.”

She shook her head. “I cannot. I will not. I belong here.”

Rage rose up like black smoke from the fire that burned inside Stercus. Had she been playing him along all this time, playing him for a fool? She would be sorry—sorrier—if she had. “You belong with me,” the nobleman said. “You belong to me.”

There’s all that Aquilonian noble’s grace with words on display again. “You belong with me,” thinks a nearby Cimmerian, “why didn’t think of that line?”

Count Stercus cared nothing for the freedom of Cimmerians. “By Mitra, you are mine!” he cried, and, leaning down, snatched her up onto his saddlebow. The bucket went flying, water splattering the already muddy street. Tarla shrieked. Stercus cuffed her. She shrieked again. He hit her once more, harder this time.

One of the boys playing ball in the street threw a rock at Stercus. It clanged off his backplate and did him no harm. Another youngster ran toward Count Stercus with a stick of firewood—the first weapon he could find—in his hand. Stercus’ sword sprang free. He swung it in a shining arc of death. The Cimmerian boy tried to block it with the wood, but to no avail. The blade bit. The boy fell, spouting blood, his head all but severed from his body.

“Wirp!” cried Tarla. But Wirp would never answer.

Wirp was introduced about twenty pages ago, when he had one line in an unrelated vignette. This is the first time he and Tarla have ever appeared onpage together. This is a literal Some Kid Died moment, and it’s not like we haven’t had plenty of opportunity to introduce this kid. He, Conan, and Tarla could’ve been a power trio, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Then this scene would’ve had real teeth. Giving Tarla more than a few stray conversations with Conan would’ve made her come across as far more sympathetic compared to what we got, where her characterization is limited to fluttering her eyelashes as Stercus and then about-facing here to tell him to fuck off instead. I can imagine a characterization where that’s consistent. Maybe she was trying to make Conan jealous so that he’d fight for her, which is particularly stupid when the person she’s trying to get Conan to fight is a goddamn conquering general, but she’s thirteen-ish so I’ll let that slide. Maybe she was flirting back with Stercus out of fear? Although it’s not clear, then, why she’d assert Stercus’ cleanliness to Conan when the count is out of earshot anyway. We never actually got any of that characterization, though, so what characterization could have saved this scene doesn’t really matter.

Side note: Jesus, spellcheck, how popular does Harry Potter have to be before you stop putting red lines under “Hermione?”

Stercus gets away, the Duthilites are super angry, and the garrison marches out to put down the uprising, at which point we get another demonstration of how bad Harry Turtledove is at portraying mass pre-gunpowder warfare (I’ll extend the benefit of the doubt that he might be better with other eras – he’s definitely better at depicting skirmish-scale fights).

A door flew open. A barbarian charged out swinging an axe. He chopped down one Bossonian and left another bowman pouring blood from a great gash in his leg. The pikemen turned on the barbarian then and stretched him lifeless in the mud, but not before he had taken more from the Aquilonians than they could ever take from him.

Why do you even have pikemen if you don’t even put them on the flanks to protect your archers? Do you just send them in first and hope the Cimmerians are sporting enough to attack your front lines even as you march directly into the heart of the village where you’re surrounded?

So many of the Cimmerian – women and children included – are going to blows against the Aquilonians that they end up exterminating the village, Conan’s mother included:

Serpents, though, never stung back so savagely. Granth was one of the Gundermen who used a log to batter down the door to the smithy. The only person they found inside was a skeletally skinny woman whose gray eyes blazed in a face ghost-pale. She came at them not with a kitchen knife but with a long, heavy sword. She wounded two men, one of them badly, and fought with such ferocity that she made the Gundermen slay her.

Everything about this is wrong. Conan’s sickly, bedridden mother gets to down two trained, fully armored soldiers just because she’s a named character, and yet the battle is told in such detached summary as to not be particularly interesting. When I read the line about Conan’s mother coming at them with a sword, I was ready to see her fight, but instead I got a police report about how she wounded two men. She would’ve been ten times more badass if she had not inflicted a single wound, but we actually got to see her fighting against the half-dozen or however many soldiers who burst into her home.

Although, really, I’d expect a reasonably competent swordswoman to be able to hold off pretty much any number of pikemen in close quarters until her sickness-eroded stamina gave out, because pikes are really bad weapons to clear houses with.

So there’s that prophecy from last chapter fulfilled. Certainly Harry Turtledove doesn’t hang onto his setups for very long before paying them off, but hey, at least he’s got setups and payoffs in the right order. That’s more than some authors can say.

Mordec, Balarg, and Nectan rendezvous with a massive Cimmerian horde, and then we pivot back to Conan as he discovers Stercus, having escaped Duthil, trying to rape Tarla on the spot. They have a scuffle.

Stercus soon found the fight warmer than he really wanted. He tried to knee Conan in the groin. More by luck than by Conan’s design, Stercus caught him in the hipbone instead: a painful blow but not a disabling one. Conan seized a fallen arrow and scored the back of Stercus’ hand with the point. Stercus’ laugh was more than half snarl. “You’ll have to do better than that, barbarian!” he said.

The Aquilonian brought his knee up again, this time into the pit of Conan’s stomach. The air whooshed out of the blacksmith’s son. He writhed on the ground struggling to breathe, all else forgotten. Tarla wailed in despair. Count Stercus laughed once more, this time triumphantly.

But even as he rose to finish Conan, he suddenly gasped in horror. “I burn!” he whispered. “Oh, I burn! Poison!” He shook all over, like a man with an ague. His eyes rolled up in his head. Foam started from his mouth. He let out a bubbling shriek of supernal agony. The foam gave way to blood. Now Stercus was the one whose breath failed, and his failed forever. Tearing at his own throat for the air that would not pass, he fell over, dead.

This isn’t a bad fight, despite how much better it would’ve been if all his dialogue in the final paragraph had just been removed to let the effects of the poison stand on their own. We actually get to see individual actions, and there’s even a callback to the snake fight. There’s not really any thematic connection. It seems like Turtledove is following your standard “thing hero did early on saves him at the end” formula without understanding why it works. Now, for all I know, Harry Turtledove could go on at length about the thematic relevance of the giant snake Conan killed and why it made him worthy to overcome Stercus here. Just because it seems one way doesn’t mean it is that way. That said, Turtledove isn’t here to look over my shoulder and explain his brilliance. For the book itself, what it seems like is what it is, because seeming is all it does.

We do get this bit shortly thereafter:

When Conan got his breath back, he looked at the arrow that had slain Count Stercus. Sure enough, it had a greenish discoloration on the head and several inches down the length of the shaft: it was one of those he had envenomed from the fangs of the serpent he slew in the temple out of time. He had not known that when he grabbed it and used it. But who had proved mightier here, Mitra or Crom?

So maybe the idea here is supposed to be that Crom set up Conan to win. Except, Crom does not do that, both in Conan in general and in this book in particular. He is a detached god who’s abandoned his people to make their own path. The Cimmerians are all deists.

Stercus had ripped Tarla’s tunic off when Conan came across them, and when she replaces it:

But even after she donned it once more, it scarcely covered her, for Stercus had torn it in taking it away.

Has Turtledove just kind of forgotten that Tarla is like fourteen, and that creeping on her is specifically what made Stercus villainous? Sure, Conan’s also like fourteen, so it’s not super weird that he’s into Tarla, but Conan’s been around for seventy years at the time of publication. Someone who’s been reading Conan since they were fourteen could plausibly be in their eighties when they read this book. Someone who got into Conan through the Schwarzenegger movies when they were fourteen would be in their thirties. It’s not like the book even describes Conan reacting to her half-dressed state. She’s just depicted, again like a Frank Frazetta painting, except, y’know, several years underage.

“Aye,” said Tarla softly. “I—I was wrong to let Stercus have anything to do with me. I did it partly to make you jealous. I’m—I’m sorry.”

Oh, good, we’re not going to let Tarla’s last minute pivot to defiance get us out of victim blaming her. Let’s go ahead and explain her motivations now, after the danger is passed. We don’t want to use character motivations to raise any stakes, good Heavens no, but we do need to make sure it’s clear that the victims are responsible for being raped, because apparently if Tarla had fluttered fewer eyelashes at Stercus that would’ve deterred him.

You might think this brings us to the end of the story, and that the final battle with the Aquilonians is left mostly offpage or described only briefly or something. But, nope, we’ve still got a full three chapters left, despite our main villain having already been killed. There was more to comment on than I expected, particularly in chapter 10, but not in a good way.

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