My queue is usually a day or two ahead, so getting out blog posts on Christmas is actually easier than getting out blog posts right after Christmas. We’re back now, though.
The Disguise Master that Conan cornered earlier (somehow, that bit happened in the missing pages so I don’t know exactly how it happened) is seething and plotting revenge. No one else had ever seen through his disguise, and he figures that once Conan is dead, he can honestly say that no one living has ever seen through his disguise. Which kinda strikes me as being ogre stealth. “Is that ogre in a tophat trying to pass himself off as Lord Foppish?” “Shhh! He kills anyone who sees through his disguises! Just play along!”
He’s not actually gonna use his disguise skills to kill Conan, though. He’s just gonna hire someone.
Conan came up from sleep, sword in hand, looking for the threat. It proved easy enough to dispatch when he found it.
One of the black spiders scuttled from Elashi’s blanket. Before it moved far, Conan trod upon it. It made a crackling, pulpy sound as he crushed it.
Isn’t Elashi supposed to be a desert nomad? How is she freaking out about a perfectly ordinary spider? Dumb gender role tropes have haunted the narrative from pretty much the moment Elashi was introduced, but this is reaching the point of not just bolting on dumb gender tropes where they don’t belong, but actually burning down other elements of her character to make way for them. Elashi’s supposed to be a reasonably accomplished swordswoman and tracker. Where is this princess shit coming from? Like, perfectly ordinary people freak out about spiders in the modern world, but that’s because we live in a sci-fi wonderland where it’s easy to live in an environment strongly controlled for comfort even if you’re pretty poor. Particularly wealthy people can live in conditions where seeing spiders is rare enough that you don’t have to learn how to deal with it, but most people should be seeing them on, like, a weekly basis, very much including people who spend enough time outdoors to become skilled survivalists! This would stick out less if this book weren’t so thoroughly slathered in its dumb gender tropes, if it just seemed like Elashi had a particularly intense phobia, but in the context it’s actually in this is very obviously just a braindead importation of sitcom tropes from 1987 into the iron age with no thought at all given to what it would change.
Also, Elashi asks for a threesome (with Tuanne) immediately afterwards, with the only justification being “women have strange and mysterious moods.” And despite the fact that touching Tuanne is supposed to be like touching a corpse, to the point where Neg never slept with her and didn’t plan to do so until after retrieving the Source of Light. The necromancer felt the need to power up his necromantic mojo before sleeping with a walking corpse, but apparently Conan doesn’t mind a bit of necrophilia.
The rest of the chapter is a montage of assorted villains. Skeer is afflicted with spider nightmares. The Disguise Master hires the Brute to chase Conan to Neg’s stronghold. The Men With No Eyes are moving with the inexorable determination of the dead towards their quarry. Neg is equally excited about fucking Tuanne as he is about achieving unlimited necromantic power with the Source of Light. The last time tension was built up like this, the ultimate confrontation was barely an inconvenience to Conan, so I’m not really feeling it this time around. Also, the montage ends with a shot of how thoroughly pleased the women are with Conan’s barbarian lovemaking. Aren’t you guys pursuing someone and badly need to reach him before he reaches Neg’s stronghold? Why are you wasting energy fucking? This kind of thing would be a lot less objectionable if the story weren’t already straining my interest in these three far past the breaking point. Conan is often kind of a boring character, and it’s on his companions to keep character arcs going. Here, we have companions whose characterization has wilted in proximity to Conan in order to show off how strong and virile he is – his two most boring traits.
We open with…basically the same montage as the last chapter closed on, complete with ongoing gloating from Conan about how awesome at sex he is. And also, Skeer’s scene has him arriving in the village of Rain Town at the edge of Neg’s domain, where he requests a prostitute from the locals, and is familiar enough with them to know what to expect based on the name the innkeeper gives him:
Imelda kept herself relatively clean, talked little, and asked no questions. Good. What he wanted now was company and sleep, more the latter than the former, a measure of how tired he was.
Is this supposed to be vilification? It’s definitely pretty slimy, but slimy in the exact same way that the narrative is itself slimy just a couple of pages back when two beautiful women fling themselves at Conan despite being on the trail, in uncomfortable conditions, and exhausted from marching (well, Tuanne doesn’t care, but it’s Elashi who initiates anyway). Wanting a woman who talks little and asks no questions is slimy in the exact same way as fantasizing about beautiful women who offer up sex at random and in defiance of earlier characterization.
‘Course, it might also just be that Skeer doesn’t want to leave behind a trail of people who know he’s been past, but I’m not really feeling a need to give the book the benefit of the doubt at this stage. Nothing has been more consistent in this narrative than its terrible handling of gender.
Conan and company come across a ruined rope bridge that Skeer doesn’t seem to have dealt with for some reason. Conan decides he’s going to climb down the ravine to retrieve the remnants of the bridge and repair it. His companions ask if he’ll be alright climbing in the dark.
He laughed. “Morning would be better. Even a Cimmerian avoids climbing on wet rock in the dark unless there is a compelling hurry to do so.”
“Perhaps we should bed early,” Elashi said, “so that you will be strong in the morning?”
Conan smiled at her, then at Tuanne. “Aye. A good idea.”
You are chasing someone!
And the purpose of the whole bridge scene is mainly just to easily dispatch another threat. The dead Men With No Eyes are catching up (probably because you went to bed early last night) so Conan waits until they’re halfway across the bridge and cuts the ropes, sending them plummeting into the ravine below. It doesn’t actually destroy them, but it does mean they have to climb back out of the ravine to catch them. And that’s the chapter.
The village lay before Conan and his companions, and it seemed little different from a dozen other such hamlets the Cimmerian had seen before. But he reined his mount to a halt when he saw what lay beyond the sleepy-looking town. Few cities of any size were likely to sport such a castle as he now saw.
Is this supposed to be Raintown, with Neg’s stronghold visible in the distance? If so, Neg has pretty much won, hasn’t he? His stronghold is visible from Rain Town, but Skeer is far enough ahead that Conan and company can’t see him. Obviously it is easier to see a castle (especially what is apparently one of the largest castles in the world) than a person, but that still suggests that Skeer was pretty far ahead of them before they had to spend half a day repairing a bridge at the ravine. Skeer did spend some time trying to figure out if Neg has turned on him (he doesn’t know what the Men With No Eyes were doing in spider town and wants to make sure Neg hadn’t decided Skeer was a failure and dispatched other agents to finish his job), but he also pretty specifically says that spending a full day dithering about would draw Neg’s ire, so he can’t have spent more time gathering information than the half-day that Conan spent fixing the bridge.
So what I’m getting at here is that Skeer is still far enough ahead that Conan can’t even see him, but his destination is in view. Conan would have to be moving a lot faster to catch him at this point. A few paragraphs in and Tuanne confirms: The Source of Light is within the castle. So, points for reasonable time scales, I guess, but either the abilities of this Source of Light were seriously overblown or else Neg has won. Like, obviously, there was going to be a moment where Neg places the Source of Light in its place and achieves UNLIMITED POWER, but I was anticipating it would be for, like, five minutes, and then Conan would kill him before he could really get going with it. But apparently he’s gonna have this thing for at least a full day.
They’re not even in a rush to get inside. They decide to bed down in an inn for the night (and presumably have yet another threesome). Isn’t Neg gonna have a giant army of the undead by then? Does this Source of Light thing actually have a huge wind-up time?
All these tiny nits I’m picking are mainly just a testament to how, ever since they came to spider town, this story has been so consistently mediocre that everything that doesn’t immediately justify itself feels like it must be an oversight. Losing the trust of your audience is a big deal!
Some of the Disguise Master’s goons show up at the inn where Elashi and Tuanne are staying while Conan’s out scouting Neg’s fortress. They kidnap Elashi quickly and easily, and Tuanne passes up a perfectly good opportunity to shank one of them with her zombie invulnerability, and instead opts to just scare him off by demonstrating that invulnerability by carving her own arm open. She hasn’t seemed like a particularly merciful type before now, and the reasoning behind her decision not to just stab the guy (she has a dagger) isn’t given.
Brute, the man hired by the Disguise Master to kill Conan, taunts him about the missing Elashi upon his return to the inn, and then tries to kill him.
“I would have you know the name of your slayer, Conan. I am called Brute.”
If you care about your name so much, why did you pick a generic alias? One that’s kind of demeaning, at that. This is the name of someone who doesn’t want to draw a whole lot of attention except from people who specifically want to hire unscrupulous muscle. Or are we meant to believe that “Brute” is his actual birth name? After Conan lands a mortal blow, Brute tells him where the Disguise Master is hiding with Elashi. The whole idea where a worthy foe helps you with your quest after you’ve scored a mortal wound, because he respects the hero as a fighter and only fought him to see if he could win and, having found out he can’t, has no further enmity, that’s a pretty cool beat and I’m cool with the story including it. What I’m not cool with is how this has completely failed to sap Conan’s resources, consolidate his foes, or in any other way impede his ability to succeed. It’s a completely self-contained problem that he solved before it could have any knock-on effects on any other problem. The story would be the same if there was no Brute at all, and probably if the Disguise Master had never sought revenge at all.
It wasn’t even a particularly thrilling fight, mainly because Conan seemed only moderately challenged. This is technically an escalation of the stakes over previous conflicts where he didn’t even seem particularly challenged, and was at worst annoyed and briefly slowed down by his enemies, but going from that to “I guess I’ll have to actually try” isn’t nearly enough movement, even if it is in the right direction.