Today we’re starting in on the first 11 chapters of Conan the Barbarian (2011), the novel based on the movie of the same name, which got such awful reviews that I didn’t bother with it. These first 11 chapters recount Conan’s childhood up to the eve of Venarium, which makes them basically an alternate account of Conan of Venarium. Conan of Venarium was pretty hit and miss, but this book is based off of an apparently mediocre movie, so we’ll see if it does any better. Initially I had planned to first review the novelization of the 1982 film, but it doesn’t seem to exist in digital format and I’m now debating whether I should order a paperback copy while reviewing this one, so that it’ll show up in time to use that novel to round out the string of Conan origin stories I’ve been reviewing. This whole review thing is much harder when I have to type in quotes myself, and I’m considering just watching the ’82 movie and making a one-post review instead.
For now, though, Michael A. Stackpole wrote a novelization of the lame 2011 reboot. You may have heard of Stackpole because he was behind a lot of the bigger Star Wars novels that sustained the franchise in the 90s, including a couple of the X-Wing novels.
We’re opening with Conan’s father, still a blacksmith (this seems to have laid down by Robert E. Howard, but I’m not sure where, exactly), here named Corin, watching a bunch of Cimmerian teenagers being drilled in swordplay. Like, actually drilled.
A dozen young men, some showing only the first wisp of a beard, practiced with the fellows in a circle of hardpacked snow. Two warriors circulated among them, snapping order. The youths’ swords came up and flashed out, high cuts and low. Warriors lashed the youths’ bellies when their charges displayed sloppy guards, and tipped elbows up and kicked feet into their proper place. Smiles betrayed boys who thought learning the deadly arts was but a game; and harsh cuffs disabused them of that notion.
Which…what? Cimmerians don’t do this. It’s one of their defining attributes. Barbarians don’t form up and pass on institutional knowledge. If you want to know how to do a thing, you find someone who’s good at it and follow them around until they teach you. If all or most people in your culture have a certain skill set (like being a warrior), then whoever you end up following around will pass that skill onto you. Sure, that teaching is definitely going to involve practicing the same motions over and over until you get good at them (if it doesn’t, then you will suck at sword fighting, full stop), but it’s still built on personal connections that occur naturally to human beings, not an institution of education with a specific age cut-off for joining in. Having formal drills shared by the entire village is borderline Roman in its organization.
I get the feeling that Stackpole, coming from a massive, modern society that uses bureaucracy to keep itself organized despite its immense scale, cannot imagine how a village of just a few hundred people can just do whatever and everything will seriously just sort itself out nine times out of ten. Not because they develop institutional traditions like these combat drills, but because you can build a society that small on nothing but personal relationships.
Conan’s too young to be one of those kids, but he’s swinging a stick around nearby.
Conan’s father ran a hand over his beard to hide a smile. Conan’s movements did not ape those of the young men; if anything, his fluidity mocked their stiff awkwardness. Where they were slow and tentative, he moved quickly and with certainty. Though battling at shadows much as they were, Conan was winning, whereas they would die easily.
Pride swelled Corin’s breast, but the soft voice of his wife came to him. Her dying words echoed inside his skull. In their wake came a weariness of the soul, and an ache that reminded him of old wounds. He composed his face, his brows narrowing, and turned to face his son.
“Boy, what are you doing?” Conan froze, stick quivering in an aborted thrust.
“Father, I was—”
“I sent you to gather firewood, Conan. My forge grows cold.”
The boy pointed at a stack of wood. “But I . . .”
“That’s a thrust near the heart, Conan, not in the heart.” Corin shook his head. “I give you a simple task and then find it half done, and you playing with a stick like one of those Aquilonian sorcerers in your grandfather’s stories.”
Conan dropped the stick as if it were a viper. “Father, I wasn’t . . . that wasn’t a wand. I was watching the others and . . .”
Apparently Conan’s parents being colossal assholes is an inviolate aspect of the Conan lore. Bear in mind: Conan has finished the chore he was assigned and is so good at swordplay that he has surpassed without instruction boys several years his senior. All of which is a perfectly fine level of accomplishment for baby Conan here (it doesn’t say how old he is, but I’m guessing, like, twelve?), but what I’m getting at is that Corin is a terrible father. His son has an aptitude for the most valuable skill in their society, and a really strong aptitude, and apparently his response is “better quash that while I can.” The sooner he starts learning, the better he’ll be. Why are you getting in his way? What the Hell is Corin’s motivation?
Corin raised an eyebrow. Aggressiveness that will be welcome in a warrior is a nettle in a headstrong son.
Fuck all the way off. Traits you want your kid to have as an adult are traits you want them to have as a kid, full stop. You don’t get to just flip a switch and turn a docile, obedient child into an independent adult. You raise them to be docile and obedient and they will remain so into adulthood for as many years as it takes them to undo your shoddy parenting.
Corin calls himself “son of Connacht” in his opening narrative. I assumed early on that this was a reference to his coming from the village of Connacht, but apparently in this book that is the name of Conan’s grandfather.
It goes on too long to quote, but this chapter opens with Corin teaching Conan the importance of logistics in war by relating the story of how Connacht and the other Cimmerians defeated an attempted Aquilonian incursion. And also by threatening to withhold his dinner. It’s a lot less dickish then it sounds like (it’s not like Conan actually misses dinner, for starters), and is more thought than most books get. Probably this is partly just because it’s 2011 and we now have an internet. Information propagates very rapidly and it’s easy to be knowledgeable about things like the importance of logistics in war. But also maybe Michael A. Stackpole is just way smarter than Turtledove or de Camp or Howard.
Also, Corin gives Conan a sword to practice with and makes him promise not to sharpen it until Corin gives him permission to, and despite having been introduced as a total asshole, generally comes across as a pretty good father in this chapter.
In which Conan learns how to sword. Corin has Conan do weird things like smash a block of ice with the pommel in order to learn how to use the base as a bludgeon, and practicing with a lead sheathe for a while so that when it’s removed the sword feels light enough to be used lightning fast. Also, he throws snowballs at some of the older boys and calling out like a Pict (one named Ardel is called out as their leader, possibly laying groundwork as a sort of rival, although Conan makes a mockery of them here), and the boys report it as an actual Pict warband, and Conan gets into hella trouble for the false alarm.
These chapters don’t have a lot to comment on, mainly because Michael A. Stackpole is actually quite good at this, so there’s not much to do except provide summary. The plot structure is pretty non-standard in that it’s basically just the episodic non-adventures of Conan learning to barbarian, but each episode works because it’s smart. Probably this formula can’t sustain itself for a full 11 chapters, but even just in these first three I care about Corin way more than I care about whatever the name of Conan’s father was in Conan of Venarium.
It’s worth noting that Corin’s attitudes are frequently bizarrely modern, but that is not only fine, but actually a good thing. The Hyborian Age is not remotely historically accurate, not just in the details of which civilizations were coterminous with others but also in that it treats historical eras as disconnected vignettes with no cause and effect leading to the rise or fall of civilizations at all. At the beginning of the Hyborian Age all of the Hyborian nations form in rapid succession. At the end, they all quickly collapse. In between, there is hardly any budging of the borders at all. Nations are treated not as a human endeavor that can succeed or fail, but as a terrain feature that are inviolate for centuries before being jumbled up in some great calamity. Ultimately, this doesn’t matter to Conan stories, which are about one guy going on an adventure with a maximum of like five friends, but it does mean that going for historical authenticity was a lost cause from the very beginning. You may as well just do what Stackpole does and give your iron age barbarians bizarrely modern sensibilities, because it was going to be bizarrely something the moment you committed to writing a Conan story, and you may as well make it bizarrely relatable to modern audiences.
Conan was born on a battlefield. This has come up a couple of times, but in this chapter, Corin tells us what that actually means. What that actually means is that their village got raided by Vanir (called Vanirmen here) and Conan’s pregnant mother wound up holding the line against them, but was mortally wounded. She handed Corin a dagger and told him to give her a Caesarean to save the baby. Conan is phenomenally lucky to have survived such an early delivery in the iron age. His warrior’s destiny from being born on a battlefield was far more likely to have been “died within days due to having weak lungs,” but he beat that fate and how.
Corin pressed his hands together. “She knew she was dying and she said to me, ‘See that there will be more to his life than fire and blood.’ And then, with her last breath, she named you Conan.”
I’ve got bad news for you, Conan’s Mom.
After telling Conan the story, Corin tells him to forge his first blade, the tip of which he’s allowed to sharpen. Corin then immediately smashes it into splinters. This isn’t actually Corin being a dick: A human being, even a particularly strong one, should not be able to shatter a sword just by swinging it into an anvil real hard, so clearly Conan’s first attempt here wasn’t fit for purpose. Which, y’know, kid’s like twelve, so that’s not surprising. Corin tells Conan that ice is more important than fire to making a good sword, which is true, in the sense that making a good blade requires quenching it in cold water immediately after forging so that the carbon doesn’t distribute itself unevenly during the cooling process, but Conan totally did quench his sword, so I’m not sure what practical lesson Corin is trying to teach here? The chapter ends with this line:
’Tis a lesson best learned now, my son. “We’ll begin again, Conan.” Corin knelt and began gathering metal shards. “You’ll learn what makes a great sword makes a great warrior. By the time you know that, you will be ready to wield the blade we shall make together.”
In relation to the “ice is more important than fire” bit, this seems meant to imply that cold analysis is more important than fiery rage in being victorious in battle. Which is not a terrible theme to have, but again, Conan did quench his sword, and indeed it’s hard to imagine a blacksmith’s son failing to do so when quenching is such a dramatic and easy to imitate action, so the metaphor doesn’t really work. Is there some other use of ice in forging that I’m not aware of, and which the narrative hasn’t bothered to inform me? If so, that’s a problem, because while I’m not any kind of smithing expert or anything, neither is the average fantasy reader, so it’s not like my need to be caught up on the smithing metaphors is unusual. If this was supposed to be mystifying because Conan is confused, the scene should’ve been written from his perspective, not Corin’s.