Conan the Barbarian (2011): The Battle at Venarium, Again

Chapter 5

The chapter opens with Conan forging a sword, and mostly consists of Corin dispensing more fatherly wisdom. I’m often baffled by people highlighting seemingly random passages from these books, but the highlights here are reasonably good lines:

[“]Men learn in one of two ways. Some observe, ask questions, think and act. Others act and fail, and if they survive their failure, they learn from it.[“]

 

[“]We all disappoint others. If we never do, it’s because we never take a chance, we never live.[“]

 

“If you remember nothing else, my son, remember this: it’s not the man who slays the most who wins a battle; it’s the man who survives who wins it.”

You can’t chalk this up to living in the age of widespread internet access expediting research. Michael A. Stackpole is just way better at this than Harry Turtledove.

It’s not completely perfect or anything. Corin’s font of wisdom schtick is pretty incessant, and it’s beginning to grate. I’d be a lot more forgiving if so much of the book wasn’t from Corin’s perspective. Corin is a pretty good parent and is teaching Conan skills he badly wants to develop, so it makes perfect sense that Conan would idolize him like this. Children naturally idolize their parents, usually even when those parents are terrible, and Corin has done nothing that would dissuade that in Conan. The problem is that the narrative is often written from Corin’s perspective, giving us Corin’s thoughts. Rather than an idol to Conan, Corin comes across as though he is literally an incessant font of fatherly wisdom, some kind of weird Platonic ideal of fatherliness with no other qualities.

The whole “temper fire with ice” theme gets laid on pretty thick in this chapter, but it doesn’t seem to be sticking to Conan. Taking a whole chapter to make the point that the “be colder” lesson isn’t taking is a questionable use of pagespace. If this is setting up a major theme of the entire story, or even if just learning this lesson is some kind of critical turning point for Conan early on, that’s fair enough. On the other hand, if Conan just takes a while to learn because he’s stubborn, that may be perfectly realistic, but it’s still wasting time on a lot of repetition that ultimately amounts to nothing.

Chapter 6

Not only is Stackpole’s Corin way better as a source of wisdom as compared to Turtledove’s Mordec, his rival for Conan Ardel is much more compelling than Conan’s pining after Turtledove’s Tarla (and the one kid who was introduced only to be killed almost immediately). In this chapter, the boys of the village are having a race in which each must carry an egg in their mouth to the finish line, winner gets to train with the warriors. Both Conan and Ardel quickly figure out that keeping the egg intact is as much a part of the race as just going fast, which, really, how come everyone didn’t figure that out? Why did these kids think they were required to carry an egg in their mouth, if not because eggs are fragile and therefore keeping it intact during a race would be hard?

But Ardel is kind of wasted here, because Conan and Ardel’s rivalry has barely even begun to materialize when Picts ambush the kids, and Conan spends the rest of the chapter killing four of them. It’s not a bad fight and it’s a much better accomplishment for young Conan than the snake and bat fights that Turtledove threw at him, but it does mean that what could’ve been an interesting story of Conan pulling away from Ardel in competence, going from being merely one of the best fighters in the village to a fledgling hero whose accomplishments will one day be the stuff of legend, instead Conan is dunking on Ardel so thoroughly and incessantly that it hardly seems necessary for Ardel to even show up.

Chapter 7

And the Aquilonians are now attacking. This chapter picks up right where the last one left off, so it seems the Picts had been raiding near the Aquilonian border (it was mentioned their clan often did so) when the Aquilonians pushed through, driving the Picts before them. The Aquilonian attackers are extremely multi-national, though. The scouts Conan encounters early on are Zamoran (he recognizes them from his grandfather’s stories), and once he arrives back at his village to find it burning, there are not only Aquilonian heavy infantry and heavy cavalry, but also some Kushites:

Hulking warriors whose skin was so dark it almost appeared purple, with round shields and long spears, rushed through the village, impaling victims. Before Conan could finish the Aquilonian, one of the Kushites knocked him to the ground. Conan leaned away from the thrust that should have pinned him to the earth, then stabbed up. His blade opened the man’s belly and he ripped the sword free. Blood sprayed and the warrior fell, but Conan was already up and away.

Kush is south of Stygia. If Stackpole has mistaken it for an Aquilonian province rather than an independent nation unto itself, then he must think that Aquilonia rules practically all of Hyboria. That seems like a pretty severe lore oversight. Maybe they’re mercenaries?

The Aquilonian infantry have an odd crest on their shields:

And their shields, tall ovals, were standard in Aquilonian legions, though he’d never seen the crest before. A human face, or so it appeared, with tentacles writhing around it—the very sight of the crest set Conan’s flesh to crawling.

Our Aquilonian villain may secretly be some kind of Lovecraftian cultist?

Upon cutting his way to the smithy to which Corin has been beaten back into (Ardel is found dead along the way, so much for that guy), Conan sees his father facing off against the multi-national leaders, and apparently the Aquilonians are not in charge here. A villain identifies himself as “Khalar Zym,” and the Aquilonian general is subordinate to him along with a Kushite war band, some kind of amazon archers, and the Zamoran light cavalry. Khalar Zym is after the final piece to “the Mask of Acheron,” which apparently Corin has. The chapter ends with Khalar ordering his Aquilonian general to finish off Corin.

Chapter 8

Conan is having none of that, and attacks the final boss. He’s still like twelve or thirteen, so this ends very poorly for him. Khalar Zym has a daughter around Conan’s age who’s got spooky sorcery powers, which she uses to find the missing piece of the Mask of Acheron. Zym then chains Corin in place and places a helmet full of molten metal over his head, leaving the counterweight in Conan’s hands, so that if he drops it, it shall pour over Corin. It’s not really clear from the description how exactly Corin is able to pull the helmet full of molten metal onto himself (Conan is holding a counterweight attached to a chain looped over a rafter, where the helmet full of molten metal dangles – Corin isn’t touching it at all, is he?), but he does, telling Conan to flee and save himself instead of standing around in the burning smithy until his hands gave out.

Conan stumbles out of the smithy and into the snow, briefly wonders whether he should even bother getting up or just lay in the snow until he dies, but then this attention is stirred by one of the raiders scalping a Cimmerian woman. This drives Conan to rise from the snow, driven by the Conaniest motivation of all.

I Heard Your Story - Revenge

Chapter 9

Fleeing the ruins of his village, Conan finds his grandfather, who treats his wounds and tells him more about the Mask of Acheron.

The older man laughed. “I’m not that old, Conan. Acheron fell in ancient days, before there was a Cimmeria. It was an evil place, so they say. Swing a dead cat, you’d hit a necromancer or three. Put four of them in a hut together and you’d have a dozen plots hatched. An evil people wanting to take over the world. So they went and concentrated and made this thing of power. A mask. And they gave it to their god-king or whatever they called him. He and his hordes cut a swath . . . well, from what you and Aidan said, you know. But imagine kingdoms falling, Conan. Nations just wiped from the face of creation.”

Acheron is a post-Howard invention, though not nearly an invention of this book or its associated movie (Acheron comes up frequently in Age of Conan, an MMO released three years earlier). This is a pretty good summary of how they roll.

Conan begins training with Connacht, which differs from his training with Corin principally in that Connacht doesn’t resign himself to fighting dirty out of the necessity of survival so much as take to it like a fish to water. They train hand-to-hand for a while, and at the end of the chapter, he says he has just one more task for Conan to accomplish before they begin training with the sword. He tells Conan to lock himself into a shackle attached to a short length of chain bolted to the ground, and after Conan has done so, says they’ll start practice once Conan gets his sword, out of reach from the shackle.

Chapter 10

In which Conan finds a way out of the shackle. After a fruitless day trying to find some way to pull himself free of it, or carve the other end of the shackle out of the floor, Connacht offers some advice. That advice is to give up on revenge. In a Conan story.

“You haven’t listened to me.” The old man glanced out toward the yard. “I told you, out there you will learn what it takes to kill this man. You will learn what it takes to kill any man—which makes you very useful. And in the big world, you will see many wonders, and have many adventures, that will make you forget Klarzin. Imagine that instead of him and his horde, it had been an avalanche that wiped out your village while you were hunting. Would you go to war against it? Would you look to slay avalanches or mountains?”

“I will never forget him.”

“And you would never forget the avalanche, but you wouldn’t spend your life hunting avalanches. You would learn to spot them, you would learn to deal with them, to survive them. You would make sure that an avalanche would never hurt you again. If you could, you would act to stop an avalanche from hurting others. But vengeance? Life is too vast to allow it to be focused on so tiny a thing. You want to live, to slay, to love; these are what you want, not to hunt down a single man who likely has no more memory of you and your village than you do of the first snowflake you ever caught on your tongue.”

You don’t hunt avalanches because 1) they can’t be killed and 2) even if they could, they have no intentions and therefore killing them sends no message except that you’re crazy. Connacht makes a decent point that focusing your life around revenge is virtually guaranteed to do more harm to you than the person you’re seeking vengeance on, but his problem here is that the real argument against revenge is that individuals seeking vengeance under their own initiative is harmful to society and, in that regard, strictly inferior to a transparent trial in which justice is served based on evidence presented. That’s a very civilized way of thinking, though, and about as pure anathema to Conan the barbarian as you can get.

Connacht does have a bit here where he says the most important lesson from all of this is that it was dumb for Conan to lock himself in the shackle with no idea how he was going to get out of it, which I like.

Chapter 11

The story here timeskips to Venarium, three years later. Conan has learned all kinds of barbarian tricks from Connacht, and the two of them join the Cimmerian horde massing to pull down the fortress. Conan is already a man with no home, a wanderer and an outsider even amongst his own people. His village is destroyed, and he and his grandfather join up with a band of wanderers and vagabonds pulled into the horde, rather than with the warband of any specific village. Conan meets another wanderer named Kiernan, who confides in him some nefarious plan for taking the heavily fortified Venarium. Specifically, they’re stealing that one plan Olga of Kiev allegedly used to burn down a rebel city, where they demand a bunch of birds and rats and so on from the city, and the commander of Venarium shrugs and rounds up a bunch of random vermin to pay off the Cimmerians, figuring it gives him time for reinforcements to show up. Then the Cimmerians tie burning embers to the animals and release them, whereupon the animals flee to their homes in the city, lighting them all on fire. In the panic, they come in through the sewer grate and kill everything. The whole battle is given in detached summary, though.

Chapter 12 takes us far into Conan’s future, when he’s already well into his career as a pirate, which means here is where the book ends for us, at least for now. This is actually pretty fitting for the book’s theme so far, in that I’m not so invested in this whole Khalar Zym plotline that I feel the need to jump into its resolution rather than first read all umpteen adventures in between.

Still, these first eleven chapters can’t be judged as a story unto themselves, because they’re only a setup for what’s to come. Still, I’m pretty comfortable in saying that the story is harmed by splitting itself across two time periods like this. Venarium, which should be a mini-finale in which Conan fights and wins his first major battle, is instead barely even mentioned and of little importance to Conan’s emotional arc at all. Michael A. Stackpole was novelizing someone else’s movie, a movie which I never saw, so I don’t know how much it’s his fault that Venarium is so anti-climactic, so trivial that it barely merits description. I do know that Venarium being treated as such a minor thing is hurting the story.

At the same time, this is by far the superior description of Conan’s early years. Harry Turtledove tried to make Venarium the climax of his story, but Mordec was so consistently a condescending asshole of a father, Conan’s mother so infrequently brought up and with such cliche when she was that I can’t even remember her name, and Tarla such a piece of cardboard that I had no concern at all when any of them died. Corin being a source of fatherly wisdom did get a bit tiresome and he lacked any side to his personality outside of being Conan’s father, so his death didn’t really bite the way it might have, but at least it stirred some emotional reaction from me. It didn’t really feel like Corin’s death cost Conan very much, because it had that same problem of “sure, a child will undoubtedly grieve over their father’s death, but that’s not my father, so why do I care?” But, y’know, I liked Corin at all, so, progress. The story definitely started stronger than it “ended,” but I’m also only reading the first act, and while having a weak climax to your first act isn’t good, it’s something that a story can recover from.

I still can’t track down a digital version of the novelization of the 1982 movie, so I’m falling back on my plan of just actually watching that movie and giving that a one post review for Wednesday.

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