I don’t want to leave the first two posts unattached until I have enough Conan reviews to do a collected post like I have for LitRPG, especially since it’s entirely possible that I’ll wander away from Conan to review something else entirely after the next book. Honestly, the only reason I’m not doing that after this book is because Harry Turtledove only wrote the one, so there’s good reason to hold out hope that the next might be better. Anyway, this means that there’s two posts in this table of contents that have nothing to do with Conan of Venarium specifically.
Part -1: Conan the Introduction
Part 0: Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out Of The Way
Part 1: Parenting the Conan Way
Part 2: The Battle Adjacent to Venarium
Part 3: Double Villain
Part 4: Disconnected Vignettes
Part 5: Reruns
Part 6: Fourteen Year Olds In Frank Frazetta
Part 7: The Battle at Venarium
There was actually a thirteenth chapter I didn’t include in the review, in which Conan goes south into Aquilonia, becomes a raider with several other Cimmerians after the main force withdraws, and then once his band gets whittled down to nothing, becomes a thief headed south past Aquilonia, setting up the thief-era stories. Which, in my chronology, means that immediately after this Conan about-faces and begins heading north to Asgard and Vanaheim to become a mercenary instead.
That’s not why I didn’t include a review, though. I didn’t include a review because it doesn’t matter. It isn’t the climax to anything. Conan of Venarium has no arc. It’s just a string of vignettes related only in that they follow the same character in chronological order. Conan’s confrontation with the primary antagonist happens 75%-ish of the way into the book, with the rest of its length then dedicated to a battle at Venarium against rando Aquilonians. The presence of Aquilonian viewpoints could’ve made that work, with Conan’s final battle being against sympathetic characters, but this fails on two counts, first that both the Aquilonian viewpoints characters are defeated (one killed, the other routed) in a skirmish at the outskirts of Venarium, before the final battle at Venarium itself, and second that the viewpoint characters are all defeated with basically no fanfare at all. Conan doesn’t have a moment where he embraces his barbarism and strikes down someone he knew for being an invader, nor does he have a moment where he declines to strike down someone he knew and becomes disgusted and cynical with the whole bloody mess of war. He loves killing Aquilonians, except for the small handful he knows personally, which is exactly where he was when he started.
The final battle has Conan fighting with a sword and later an axe, relying on proper melee weapons of war where previously he’d been using bows and javelins as a hunter, but this isn’t the “Conan the barbarian has arrived” moment the narrative seems to want it to be, because Conan was always here, he just didn’t fight in melee until just now due to entirely mundane circumstances. It’s a symbol that’s forgotten its meaning.
We could’ve had a story about, say, Conan becoming disillusioned with Cimmeria and striking out on his own because there’s no goddamn difference between Cimmeria and Aquilonia anyway, so from now on he’s in it for himself. Or a story whose early acts focused heavily on Conan’s relationship with his Tarla and Wirp and his relationship with his parents, so that we really would’ve felt like the climactic battles of the book had completely burned down what everything else had built up, leading to us really feeling how there’s nothing left for Conan in Cimmeria. His parents in particular are frequently mentioned, but only ever a burden or an obstacle, which makes it hard to care when they die because, sure, children love their parents by default and all, but they aren’t my parents so I don’t.
Without either of these emotional arcs or any other you might think up, Conan of Venarium relies on the quality of individual vignettes to survive, so it’s a problem that half of them suck. Every time Harry Turtledove tries to write mass, classical/medieval combat, he fails. He makes basic research failures like getting what a pike is and how fortresses work wrong to a degree that makes the fights hard to parse (it took a while to figure out that Gunderman “pikes” are like six feet long, maximum) or hard to follow (the Battle Adjacent to Venarium had no stakes because the mishandling of the fort made it inescapable that the course of the battle would be dictated by authorial whim). He depicts in gory detail the first few individual fights in a greater melee, then gets bored and wanders off into detached summary for its climactic moments towards the end.
His smaller scale skirmishes work better. When it’s just Conan versus one man or monster, the fights work pretty well, which means that at least his fight with the main villain Stercus mostly works. Other than that, however, it’s difficult to find anything to praise about Conan of Venarium other than “at least it could’ve fucked up harder.” It victim blames its female characters for being targeted by rapists, but at least it lets the women join the fray towards the end. It’s got a lot of meandering vignettes, but at least it’s mostly able to stay on-theme regarding the Aquilonian invasion, so even though nearly all events in the story are totally unnecessary to its climax, they are at least loosely related.
And, of course, there’s the way that the villain is ham-handedly sign-posted by being a rapist pedophile. It was hard to even get all that worked up about it because of my total apathy towards Tarla as a character, plus its use of gratuitous rape as a plot point is pretty tame compared to Succubus, so I guess that’s the standard my subconscious operates on now. Like, Stercus is at least a believably depicted predator, although also the book engages in a fair amount of sexualization of Tarla, his underage victim, which is super weird when Tarla being too young for people of the author’s (and large portions of the audience’s) age to be looking at her like that is a plot point used to vilify the primary antagonist.
In the end, Conan of Venarium is an aimless jumble of vignettes that doesn’t build to much, botches the climax for what plot momentum it does manage to build up, and whose average quality vignette-to-vignette is mediocre.