This is the episode where I realized after I’d already shot and written everything that the show may be categorically mediocre without the Commander, without having enough time to actually change anything about this one, which is heavy on plot and light on reasons to care. The limitations of not being able to introduce any new characters unless they’re either bit parts with just a few lines or can be represented with voice modulation is also seriously inhibiting my writing.
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.
The Buu arc of Dragonball Z is generally agreed to be the weakest of the bunch. The arc contains several beloved plot beats, like the relationship between Mr Satan and Fat Buu and Vegeta’s excellent character arc, and also contains many interesting concepts like fusion, Gohan’s relationship with Videl, and even Majin Buu himself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t gel together at all. Many of the most interesting additions to the story are totally extraneous, and the relentless focus on the rivalry between Goku and Vegeta undermines the conclusion of the Android/Cell arc where Gohan is supposed to be taking up the mantle of Earth’s defender from Goku, who is falling behind the rising power of his son. That passing of the torch lasted all of one fight before Goku shows up, having far exceeded Gohan once more.
Arthuriana thrived on its ability to discard or rewrite bad stories while keeping good ones word for word. I think losing this ability, in part because of copyright and in part because cinema means that cutting together films shot in different eras makes the seams extremely obvious, makes modern storytelling weaker. Given a chance to reboot Dragonball Z, I’d make only minor edits to the Saiyan/Freeza arc, and while I’d revise the early Android/Cell arc (the androids themselves are wasted as villains), I’d want the conclusion to be mostly a shot-for-shot recreation. For the Buu arc, however, I’d go with a total reconstruction with the goal of salvaging the good bits while reframing the context such that they actually matter. In the existing Buu arc, all fusions and every action taken by both Gohan and Mr Satan could both be completely excised and it would change nothing about the ultimate conclusion.
Given the opportunity to rewrite the arc, I’d implement what I call the Three Buu Solution: Having not one, but three pink demon genies, each of Buu’s three different forms being different characters altogether, who appear right alongside one another. This allows for three coterminous plots that can emphasize three different sets of characters without reducing some of them to a sideshow in which a heroic effort is made to defeat Buu and it just doesn’t work, so everyone ultimately may as well have just waited for Goku to do it. Again.
The Thing In The Crypt is the first story of the first book of the post-Howard Conan era, when de Camp picked up the torch left behind by Robert E. Howard some thirty years earlier and began expanding upon Conan for the first time since then. This story inaugurates Tor books Conan and introduces one of that expanded universe’s most prolific authors, L. Sprague de Camp. There’s a lot of history in this story, is what I’m getting at, and we’ll see whether or not it’s actually good.
This book also inaugurates the use of italicized narratives to give us information that the stories themselves could have as easily conveyed, with the primary information given being exact placement in the timeline.
Conan is being chased by wolves, having recently escaped his Hyperborean captors. The story then backs up to briefly recount Conan’s escape:
He had not, however, long remained in slavery. Working at night while others slept, he had ground away at one link of his chain until it was weak enough for him to snap. Then, during a heavy rainstorm, he had burst loose. Whirling a four-foot length of heavy, broken chain, he had slain his overseer and a soldier who had sprung to block his way, and vanished into the downpour. The rain that hid him from sight also baffled the hounds of the search party sent after him.
By the time he makes his escape, however, Conan is deep in Hyperborean lands, so rather than fleeing directly for Asgard, he instead flees south towards Brythunia and Zamora.
The year before, Conan had had his first taste of the luxuries of civilization when, as one of the blood-mad horde of Cimmerian clansmen that had poured over the walls of Venarium, he had taken part in the sack of that Aquilonian outpost. The taste had whetted his appetite for more. He had no clear ambition or program of action; nothing but vague dreams of desperate adventures in the rich lands of the South. Visions of glittering gold and jewels, unlimited food and drink, and the hot embraces of beautiful women of noble birth, as his prizes of valor, flitted through his naive young mind. In the South, he thought, his hulking size and strength should somehow easily bring him fame and fortune among the city-bred weaklings. So he headed south, to seek his fate with no more equipment than a tattered, threadbare tunic and a length of chain.
De Camp was the one who first set down in his chronology that the Frost Giant’s Daughter occurred long after Conan left Cimmeria, rather than immediately afterwards. I bring this up because it means that according to the chronology de Camp himself was pushing, this is Conan’s origin story, bringing him from the barbaric north into the civilized (though very corrupt) land of Zamora, whereupon he begins climbing towers of the elephant and so forth.
Side note, if Conan’s only equipment is “a tattered, threadbare tunic and a length of chain,” does that mean he doesn’t have pants?
This short story is a lot longer than the usual Robert E. Howard shorts, being that it was written as part of a Tor books short story collection and not as part of a pulp fiction magazine. Thus, although it’s considerably shorter than a full Conan novel, it does have different chapters.
It opens with an italicized narration explaining that Conan returned home following Venarium, but found himself restless, and thus joined the Aesir in their raids against the Vanir and the Hyperboreans. The latter are ruled over (at least in part) by an evil cabal of sorcerers called the witchmen, and it is a raid against these witchmen that Conan is taking part in when our story begins. I don’t know why any of this needed to be communicated in italicized narration rather than just part of the regular prose. It’s pretty straightforward exposition, and half of it just places it at a specific point in the timeline, which seems unnecessary.
The story introduces us to an Aesir man who’s traveling with Conan as the two of them hunt a deer, presumably foraging as part of a raiding party.
Now pushing back the hood to peer about, he revealed a head of curling golden hair, slightly streaked with gray. A short, roughly trimmed beard of the same hue clothed his broad cheeks and heavy jaw. The color of his hair, his fair skin and ruddy cheeks, and his bold blue eyes marked him as one of the Æsir.
I draw attention to this mainly to highlight a flaw not of this story in particular, but the whole Conan story: Races are insanely uniform in their appearance. Things like eye color distinguish races from one another, despite the immediately observable fact that all real races in the entire world have multiple eye colors, and that while certain hair colors are near-exclusive to certain races, ordinary black or brown hair is also common in those same races. And also, when I say “certain hair colors are near-exclusive to certain races,” what I mean is “red hair exclusively is found primarily amongst a handful of closely related northwest European ethnicities.” And in fairness, blonde hair was probably pretty unique to Scandanavians in the distant past. But the Aesir and Vanir are supposed to be distinguished from one another by their blonde and red hair, respectively. Ethnic divisions have never been so clear cut in all of history. There may have been a time when only Irish people ever had red hair and only Swedes ever had blonde hair, but both ethnicities have also had brown or black hair.
This, of course, is the result of the undead influence of Robert E. Howard’s pre-Conan flirtation with Nazism, which persisted into the 80s by way of imitation even from authors who (probably) never had any Nazi-grade racist leanings at all. The mythical notion that there were at one point neatly sorted races who then intermixed is obviously false given even a cursory understanding of evolutionary history, but misunderstanding evolutionary history is pretty par for the course for Conan.
I probably should’ve included those last two paragraphs in my post intended to fully discuss the issue of racism so we wouldn’t have to do it over and over again in individual reviews, but the main reason it’s coming up now is not because this is a particularly egregious example, but because there’s little else to discuss for the first several pages of this book, which are entirely about Conan and this Aesir guy hunting a deer.
$1,021 is not a small amount of money and my Kickstarter is reasonably likely to succeed based on current momentum. It’s a lot less than $1,312, however, which is how much Strangers in Ramshorn had on day 5. Only a tiny fraction of my previous backers have shown up so far, with the as many people backing the current project at $25, for copies of both the original and the sequel, rather than $15, for only a copy of the new .pdf.
Now, RPG campaigns are big and unwieldy things, and it’s possible that the reason people haven’t responded well enough to Petals and Thorns to want to buy the sequel is because they haven’t actually run it. There could be delayed success here where, in a year or two when people have actually played Petals and Thorns, they find they really like it. MailChimp also indicates that two-thirds of my audience haven’t even downloaded the .pdf link I sent them for Strangers in Ramshorn, which would indicate either that they decided they didn’t want to read the adventure after already paying for it, or else that a huge proportion of my audience prefers the VTT version, which I decided not to promise for Heroes of Ramshorn on account of Roll20 having atrocious distribution capabilities. It’s even possible that people liked Petals and Thorns on first reading, and simply haven’t heard about the sequel – the email I sent out to existing backers was a Kickstarter update, which is frequently ignored once people already have their rewards. Certainly every time I’ve run the game, it’s been very popular. Plus, it’s still possible that the Kickstarter will be saved by sudden surges in popularity towards the middle – it was always impossible to predict when things would suddenly leap up several hundred dollars for the first one, and it’s possible (though not likely) that these unpredictable leaps will occur more towards the middle of this campaign than they did for the first, where they mixed with the initial surge of backers to create continuous amazing fortune in the first week.
But I must also acknowledge the possibility that the reason people like the game when I am running is because I am running it, and that I simply will not be able to scale this whole tabletop RPGs thing up at all. It can still serve as seed income for other projects, but it may not be able to serve as the seed audience for anything.
Today we’re looking at some of the stories set in the frigid Hyborian north, the lands of Asgard, Vanaheim, and Hyperborea. We’re doing this because Conan the Bold and Conan of Venarium turned out to be mostly compatible with each other timeline-wise, as Conan the Bold doesn’t actually contradict the idea that Conan fought at Venarium, just that he permanently departed Cimmeria immediately afterwards. In this vision of the Conan timeline, Conan’s northern adventures detailed in the Frost Giant’s Daughter, the Legions of the Dead, and the Thing in the Crypt would represent an excursion out of Cimmeria taken between the ages of 14, when Conan fought at Venarium, and 17, when he hunted Taharka with Kalya the Aquilonian. This is also a good chance to snap up some short stories to break up the deluge of novels that form Conan origin stories. For some reason, nobody seems to think that Conan’s departure of Cimmeria could be covered in less than a hundred pages.
While we’re on the subject of the timeline, it’s worth bringing up one of its flaws: The 1980s book were written before the Marek and Rippke chronologies, and many books were written under the assumption of teleporting Conan. For example, Conan the Valorous is a story in which Conan criss-crosses Hyboria to thwart a sorcerer’s plot against Cimmeria, and ultimately ends up with him heading into Vanaheim to link up with the placement of the Frost Giant’s Daughter in the timeline. Short stories set immediately after the Frost Giant’s Daughter directly reference stories set in Turan, halfway across the continent to the east. Basically, while the placement of the Frost Giant’s Daughter early in the timeline easily makes the most sense when looking at just the Robert E. Howard works, the Tor books tend to follow timelines that paid less attention to geography and assume that Conan spends a lot of time making a beeline for his next adventure and apparently having no interesting adventures for weeks or months of travel across the breadth of Hyboria along the way. Some Tor stories fill in these gaps in Conan’s travels (like Conan the Valorous bringing Conan out of the lands between Aquilonia and Stygia, where his early career is largely set, and back up to the far north for the Frost Giant’s Daughter), and others teleport him around even more.
Is there any way to make a timeline of Conan’s complete adventures work without ignoring large sections of the stories – not just a stray chapter in a book that was completely aimless anyway, like Conan of Venarium, but references to previous character interactions that actually drive Conan’s motivations, and thus move out of the domain of minor retcons and into full-on reworking of the stories to fit a unified saga? We’re gonna find out eventually. Right now, let’s go clobber some frost giants.
The Frost Giant’s Daughter
We’re finally looking at a Robert E. Howard story, and one of the first Conan stories ever written. The opening is cold in more ways than one, with Conan introduced standing across from a final enemy in a corpse-strewn battlefield:
Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face.
Both were tall men, built like tigers. Their shields were gone, their corselets battered and dinted. Blood dried on their mail; their swords were stained red. Their horned helmets showed the marks of fierce strokes. One was beardless and black-maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.
I find it noteworthy that despite how married the Tor books Conan was to the fur diaper look, here in the second Conan story ever published the dude is already wearing a full corslet of chainmail. Granted, this is partly because it’s super cold up here, but it’s pretty cold in Cimmeria, too. I’d halfway expect an 80s-era Conan story set in Asgard to depict Conan wearing a loincloth because jackets are for soft, civilized people.
The second episode of this weird podcast theater/board game let’s play hybrid thing-y sees the emergence of some kind of actual plot.
Part 1: At Least They Know How Forts Work
Part 2: Chainmail Bikini
Part 3: Racist Against Bossonians
Part 4: Priest Of The Ancient Aliens
Part 5: Oiled Up Gladiators
Part 6: The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Be King
Part 7: Cthulhoid Cancer
Conan the Bold begins as a regular Conan story in which Conan has a personal stake in a small scale plot. The stake is dumb, in that he decides to pursue a pack of bandits across nearly the entire length of Hyboria because they killed some people he’d known for like three weeks, but after the first chapter is over it’s not too hard to accept that Conan is motivated by revenge and to enjoy the story based on that.
Unfortunately, while the Nemedian gladiators arc works well, with Conan and his companion Kalya nearly having a falling out (on stupid grounds, but whatever) and then coming to trust one another again, it doesn’t last. Things become more aimless in the Ophirian bandits arc, where it seems like the story is just marking time and Conan ultimately accomplishes nothing except to incidentally learn how to throw knives from a friend he meets early in the arc and leaves at the end of it. There’s not really any significance to Conan learning how to throw the knife. It’s not something he would’ve refused to learn when he began, nor does he learn it from someone he wouldn’t have associated with when he began. He just ran into someone who was able and willing to teach him how to use throwing knives, so he did.
Throughout these two intermediate arcs (following the first two chapters where Conan’s motivation is established and he allies himself with Kalya, respectively), there are occasional references to priests of some snake-headed god who isn’t evil Stygian snake god Set, but instead some kind of Ancient Aliens thing that is perhaps trying to lean on Conan’s ties to the Lovecraft mythos (and if so, doing a horrible job of it). This plot tumor eventually grows to devour the main story, turning what had been a Conan-esque iron age swords and sorcery plot of personal stakes into a sudden epic fantasy struggle between good and evil. It’s not just that this doesn’t fit with Conan’s general milieu, it’s that it doesn’t fit with this specific book’s milieu. Outside of the occasional half-chapter about the Ancient Aliens priesthood speaking to one of the characters, the entirety of this book before its climax is entirely focused on a standard personal stakes swords and sorcery plot. The sudden escalation to a battle between divinely appointed champions for the fate of the entire world is a sudden genre shift in the final chapter, not unforeshadowed but still jarring for how it yanks the story out of place. To the extent that I cared about Conan the Bold – and I did care, enough to be disappointed by the ending – it was because I cared about Conan and Kalya’s personal feud with Taharka and Axandrias. Slathering the battle for the fate of the world on top of that just felt like the story was trying too hard.
This Ancient Aliens plot tumor grows out of control in the final chapter, but the damage by that point was already done: Kalya’s final battle with her nemesis Axandrias ended just as it was starting to build momentum. With Kalya’s victory having defused the tension, the perspective shifts to Conan’s battle with Taharka, which then has to build up momentum all over again. Kalya is killed at the conclusion of Conan and Taharka’s first duel, and Taharka is powered up by Cthulhu for the second one, but Conan has enough time to wrap Kalya up in a tapestry before leaving the site of the first duel to pursue Taharka to the second, which means the tension built up by the first duel is defused by the time Conan arrives for the second, which once again has to build up tension all over again. Siloing these fights off from one another meant that one could not build up tension for the other, and instead the chapter constantly stops and starts and its fights are always ending right as they feel like they’re building up momentum.
The final fight would have gone much better if it had cut back and forth between the two duels with reversals of fortune just before each cut, something that the narrative seems to understand elsewhere, as in other fights Conan and Kalya frequently intercede to save one another’s lives. That running theme even could’ve been paid off with Taharka skewering Kalya, leaving Conan alone. The standard source of reversal for our two protagonists – the other protagonist showing up to bail them out – would have been yanked away in the middle of the final battle. Also, if Taharka must get an Ancient Aliens power-up halfway through the fight, have the fight move from the villa to the ruined temple organically, without Conan stopping to wrap Kalya’s body in the middle and thus letting out all the tension. Likewise, instead of the priesthood of the Ancient Aliens paralyzing the two of them to explain the stakes, just let Taharka pledge to conquer the world in the name of snake Cthulhu in exchange for a power up, which can then serve as a reversal. Finally, Conan’s final reversal should be something he learned from Kalya, not some character he met for one out of the story’s four major arcs and who had no thematic significance whatsoever.
Unfortunately, that’s not the finale we got. The finale we got was junk, and dragged Conan the Bold from what could’ve been a pretty good Conan story into being pretty mediocre.
Petals and Thorns II: Heroes of Ramshorn, an adventure about power and what you’ll do to keep it, is now live! The Lunatic Court, the Order of the Lion, and a menagerie of other factions are going to blows over the Eastern Coalition. How far are you willing to push your luck to get as much done as possible before taking a long rest and giving your enemies time to march? How many compromises are you willing to make to win the loyalty of enough allies to crush your enemy and install your regime? What do you believe in – and who are you willing to sacrifice to those beliefs?
Reminder that Kickstarter gives projects visibility based on the total number of backers, not the total amount pledged, so even a $1 pledge can be very helpful in getting the project in front of more people. If $1 is all you can or want to give, don’t be discouraged by thinking that it won’t make much a difference – it can make a bigger difference than it seems.