You know that thing where the men of a fantasy species will look like some weird lava monster or a crocodile person or whatever, and the women will look like human women but with blue skin and pointy ears? Conan the Defiant’s prologue gives us an example of that. Our villain, Neg the necromancer, is interrogating his zombie minions as to the location of some powerful talisman called the Source of Light. All the zombies are decayed and rotten, except for one called Tuane, a beautiful zombie woman whose beauty Neg has preserved. When Neg tosses some magical salt to destroy a zombie minion who has displeased him, a single grain of it lands on Tuane, scalding her, but also freeing her from his control, thus initiating the plot. Naturally, the grain of salt lands upon one of her lusciously curved breasts. Free of the necromancer’s control without his knowing, she then breasted boobily to the door, and titted up the stairs.
Almost immediately, this book sets itself up as an immediate sequel to the Thing in the Crypt. Possibly this is gonna be like the ice worm story, where it strenuously places itself at a certain point in the timeline for basically no reason except that the author really wants to put it there, even though it has no impact on the story, and even when its placement in the story creates problems which must then be explained away. So far, the only difference is that 1) Conan is entering Brythunia from Hyperborea, and 2) he has a sweet crypt sword. There’s also a bit about how reanimating dead bodies can only ever be bad news that will possibly be relevant to his future encounters with Neg, but it might just be intended to set up that Conan doesn’t like necromancers, something which isn’t really directly informed by his encounter with the thing in the crypt. Particularly since that wasn’t even the first time he fought a bunch of zombies. Hyboria in general is just lousy with undead.
Conan’s thinking about his next move, and decides that having just crossed over from Hyperborea to Brythunia, the best thing to do is to go to Zamora and try to rob people there. Conan being a thief is part of his morally ambiguous schtick, how his moral code doesn’t really align with a modern person’s at all, so that’s not particularly notable. What’s notable is that Hyperborea is north of Brythunia and Zamora is south of it. Immediately upon arriving in Brythunia, his first thought is “I should cross this entire country to be a thief in a different country on the far side.” Now on the one hand, this isn’t an unreasonable goal for Conan to have. He just crossed all of hostile Hyperborea unarmed to get here, crossing largely-neutral Brythunia with a sword should only be easier.
Conan encounters a priest who’s been ambushed by mountain bandits. The priest is of an order called the Suddah Oblates (or maybe that’s the name of the holy site where they live?), and they’re a pacifist sort of religious order. The priest fights with a cane hoping to incapacitate his foes without killing them, and after Conan saves him and they get to talking about his pacifist ways, he explains that they don’t eat any meat but fish.
On the way back to the temple, which sits upon a tiny spire of rock, they are attacked by some reptilian monster called a stith. Here, the book engages in the classic Conan tradition of bald-faced thesaurus abuse:
Conan leaped to the right and raised his sword, just as the stith spat a stinking stream of glowing emerald liquid at where the man had just been. The effulgent lance spattered upon the rocky ground, and the expectoration raised dank smoke where it touched.
This is some Eye of Argon shit here.
The fight with the stith (spoiler alert: Conan wins) doesn’t seem to establish anything except that the Suddah Oblates live in incredibly dangerous territory and yet carry nothing but sticks for protection.
Upon arriving at the Temple That Shall Not Fall (despite all probability), Conan discovers they’re an all-male order. He asks how they have children, and Cengh (the priest he saved) explains that they don’t, but that acolytes come from all over to join them. The thing is, there’s children in this place. I don’t think these nine-year olds are coming from across the world to join this religious order. Are some of these acolytes bringing their (male) children with them when they join? Are they kidnapping kids? Cengh does say that the life they offer is good for “the children of poor men,” because they offer food and shelter and clean clothes and such. So are men bringing their kids here? What happens to their wives? What about female children? There’s men with sons but no daughters or wives, are they exclusively the ones who come here? Or did a couple of these acolytes ditch half their family to come here?
In any case, the plot approaches, as Neg is spying upon a message delivered by Cengh. The story does not reveal what the message actually is, but apparently Neg’s plan is approaching completion, and he shall have his world-dominating power SoonTM.
Also, Tuanne, that zombie woman from the prologue, has escaped the evil necromancy temple where she was enthralled, and is now seeking the talisman that can destroy her former master. And the narrative would like you to know that her clothes are being torn apart by the thorns of the forest, exposing more of her “ivory skin.” Conan, meanwhile, is receiving a full breeches-and-tunic ensemble from the Suddah Oblates. I’m fine with the idea that in Hyboria everyone is always wearing about half an outfit at maximum, but here we have a pretty egregious double standard.
Conan is eating the fish and fruit of the Temple with his hosts. Skeer, that spy in Neg’s employ, is also present. But while Conan finds himself pleasantly surprised by how good the fish and wine on offer are, Skeer takes no pleasure in either of them. For him, there are only two good things in life: The company of women, and smoking “hemp-weed.” This is so 80s I kind of have to laugh at it. Conan is both a thief and a violent brigand, and his primary aims in life are wine, women, and the bloody thrill of combat, but his barbarian honor would never allow him to stoop so low as to smoke marijuana.
Conan then engages in some practice bouts with the best student of the monastery’s cane master, and of course absolutely trounces him, because Conan is instantly awesome at all weapons. You’d think this would be setting up a bout with the old master where Conan is beaten and there’s the stock moment where he realizes that he is not invulnerable, but no. Given that, you might think that Conan trouces the old master, too, but the story isn’t that far up Conan’s ass. What happens is that Conan circles with the old master a couple of times, realizes that any attack he makes, the old man will be ready for, and then he just gives up and leaves. The old man praises his wisdom, and in fairness, that seems like the kind of thing a pacifist monk would say to someone who has decided to walk away from a fight. So I can give the fight points for both originality (this isn’t either of the two most obvious ways for the fight to have gone) and for not breaking character, but it still feels like it’s doing that thing where it oohs and ahs over how awesome Conan is in a way that starts to feel very Mary Sue, very quickly.
Also, Tuanne has got herself some proper clothing, so the double standard evidenced earlier on is at least not going to be omnipresent. On the other hand, she got that clothing by offering to sleep with the merchant. Back on the first hand, the merchant, though attracted to her beauty, was repelled by the corpse-like feeling of her actual skin. The basic vibe I’m picking up is that the book feels obligated to be some amount of sexist because that’s how Conan do in the 80s, and the author isn’t really morally opposed to that so much as just bored with it, and is looking for ways to keep the general vibe interesting with the zombie girl approach. Now, I have no particular insight into author Steve Parry’s actual motivations at all, but the book he’s produced definitely reads like this is the case.
Conan finds a false priest hidden in their midst, but it’s not Skeer. It’s a woman, who attempts to stab him to death with a dagger when she sees she’s been found out. After Conan pins her, she demands to be released. If you wanted to talk your way out of this one, your opening gambit probably shouldn’t have been murder. Conan, however, knows the secret of the Standard Female Grab Area, and thus obligingly gets off of her after incapacitating her by holding the special part of her arm that renders her helpless. Also, he gropes her chest to double check that she’s a woman and not a particularly effeminate man, because that was absolutely necessary to include. A lot of 70s/80s Conan actually goes out of its way to paint Conan as not being a sexual predator, out of what I presume is a desire to distance itself from 30s Conan who was an outright (attempted) rapist in at least one story, but this one apparently doesn’t feel the need to keep that distance.
Also, the narrative describes the woman as “spirited” but really it means “pointlessly antagonistic jackass.” She goes from directly insulting Conan to begging him to let her go to accomplish her assassination in the space of the same paragraph, without any response verbal or otherwise from Conan to justify such a sudden change in tack:
“Barbaric fool! I must get to that priest before he reaches the highest Oblate! I am sorry I mistook your intent. Please!”
Conan ultimately lets her go, but too late. Cengh has been assassinated by Skeer, who has taken the Source of Light, with which Neg will be able to summon undead legions for world domination. So between this and Lair of the Ice Worm, the number of stories where the plot happens only because of Conan’s refusal to listen to a better-informed woman is now two. In fairness to Conan, this time the better-informed woman was on a homicidal hair-trigger, and better-informed or not, it makes sense not to immediately do as asked by someone who’s just tried to kill you for basically no reason.
Conan pursues Skeer, because now he wants revenge for his dead friend. This story is probably incompatible with Conan the Bold (Conan would have to have gone from Stygia all the way north to Asgard for Legion of the Dead, the Thing in the Crypt, and subsequently the intro to this story, which gets us the “teleporting Conan” problem), the origin story for Conan in which he chases a band of slavers across most of Hyboria, which is too bad, because otherwise it’d be setting up a recurring pattern of Conan vowing revenge and pursuing villains across hundreds or thousands of miles on behalf of people he’s known for less than a month.
In any case, Conan is unable to catch Skeer, and instead finds the woman who was following him. After she’s threatened with some kind of torture (Conan has never exactly been a nice person), she offers up what she knows to Conan. Her name is Elashi, she’s after the Source of Light, the name of which Conan already knows from Cengh’s dying words. Elashi is stunned by the revelation, but apparently not so much that Conan knows as the force of the vibrations from the volume he speaks it at:
This statement shook her, literally. “How did you know that?”
Conan offers to travel together to hunt down Skeer, she to retrieve the Source of Light as part of her ultimate goal of assassinating Neg, and Conan just to kill the guy who killed his friend (of 36 hours). She accepts, though makes it clear that she’s not interested in sleeping with Conan, at which point Conan does end up doing the distancing thing:
Conan was quick to take her meaning. In truth, the thought of bedding her had crossed his mind; but, if she was uninterested, he had no problem with that. He did not force himself on women – there had never been need of that.
So he’ll grope women on a whim, but rape is beyond the pale. I guess this is still progress over Frost Giant’s Daughter.