Conan the Barbarian (2011): Parenting the Conan Way, Again

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.

Chapter 1

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.

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Conan the Viking: The Thing In The Crypt

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.

Chapter 1

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?

Continue reading “Conan the Viking: The Thing In The Crypt”

Conan the Viking: Legions of the Dead

Chapter 1

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.

Continue reading “Conan the Viking: Legions of the Dead”

Conan the Viking: The Frost Giant’s Daughter

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.

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Conan The Bold Was Ruined By Ancient Aliens

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.

Conan the Bold: Cthulhoid Cancer

Chapter 11

Hey, so remember last time when I said that probably this confrontation in Ophir would do in Axandrias? Well, I’m no longer so certain about that, due mostly to this passage just a few paragraphs into chapter 11:

[Axandrias] had awakened that morning with a ringing head, a sour stomach, and a general feeling that death was not an undesirable thing. He had drunk too deep the night before, as had recently become his habit. So, as an experiment, he had halved one of the pills with his dagger and swallowed it. He used no spell this time, so surely he could take no harm from it. In minutes he was fully recovered, feeling like a youth again. He had spent the morning at sword practice with a succession of men.

Axandrias is developing a dependency on the space cocaine he got from Ancient Aliens priest #1. He might be the second most evil barbarian that Ancient Aliens priest #2 referred to, although he doesn’t seem to have the qualities that this story refers to as making a man a barbarian, i.e. an unwillingness to be ruled over by either direct authority or indirect tradition. It’s all very Nietzschean, though not in a bad way (I wonder if John Maddox Roberts even realized the story he was writing was Nietzschean, or if he just osmosed the concepts second-hand from having read other Conan stories?).

It’s possible that he becomes more dependent on the drug during the battle, but paying off this setup in 24 hours isn’t easy and it seems reasonably plausible that Axandrias is getting out of this alive. And if Axandrias gets out alive, probably Tahakra does, too, so possibly we only lose the Hyperborean here. Except, I’m pretty sure the Hyperborean has already left with the captives they plan to sell into slavery in Stygia (they definitely discussed having him leave early in the last chapter). Taharka and Axandrias do have a secret escape tunnel they haven’t told anyone else about, so that it won’t be jammed with other bandits if they should ever have need of it. And really, since the Hyperborean joined team evil halfway through, it’s only the length left in the book that’s got me convinced that he is probably not getting replaced by a new lieutenant when they leave.

In any case, this chapter opens with the Ophirian cavalry arriving. They decline to wait until nightfall so Conan can scout the hidden cavern lair of the bandits and instead charge in, whereupon they are decimated by ambush. Retreating the Ophirian officer admits that Conan was right and they should wait for nightfall for him to scout. It never says how many cavalry the Ophirians have, but I guess it must be enough to prevent the bandits from just leaving? ‘Cause it’s not like they’d be unaware that their hideout has been discovered.

Conan’s headed out for his scouting run.

As he had anticipated, most of the men were asleep near the small fires, their weapons close to hand. There was little to fear from a night attack by a civilized army. Men unaccusomed to such warfare more often killed friends than enemies.

But Cimmerians have darkvision, I guess?

Conan scouts the camp and returns with one of the sentries as a prisoner, from whom they confirm that the captives taken from the caravan are being taken south to Stygia, led by the Hyperborean. Conan resolves to finish his vengeance that night before chasing down the Hyperborean to free the captives.

“So, they are both alive,” [Kalya] said when he was finished. “Perhaps, tomorrow, our vengeance will be accomplished. If that is so, do you still propose to follow the rest and free Ryula and the others? Truly, they are not our affair. The Hyperborean had no part in your woes or mine, and he may live forever as far as I am concerned.”

“That is true,” Conan said, “but, having taken this up, there is something within me that makes me want to see it through. I told them, albeit half in jest, that they had naught to fear while I guarded the caravan, yet Ryula was taken from under our noses. And Vulpio has been a friend.”

I haven’t glossed over a bunch of scenes with this knife-throwing Vulpio guy, by the way. There was one conversation with him, back in the tavern where Conan say the prophetic magic show, and then also like four lines exchanged after the caravan battle where he confirmed his wife was taken. He isn’t a well-developed character at all, but I do admire his spirit in chasing down the bandits who captured his wife despite throwing knives not exactly being a weapon of choice for bandits or soldiers.

The “battle” actually turns out to be a total rout as disorganized bandits crumble under the Ophirian assault, Taharka and Axandrias having slipped out the past night to make their escape. That was disappointing.

Continue reading “Conan the Bold: Cthulhoid Cancer”

Conan the Bold: The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Be King

Chapter 8

Conan and Kalya come to a market town in Ophir, hoping to dredge up rumors of a Keshanian leading a band of brigands. As Ophir is at war, the place is under a bit of a lockdown.

“Very well,” said the scribe. “You must arrange for lodgings for yourselves and your animals. There will be no sleeping on the streets or in the public square. As soon as you have found a place that will take you in, you must report your location to the office of the city watch. Each day of your stay, you must confirm your location before noon, or the watch will search you out and throw you into the city dungeon if you cannot pay the fine. When you leave, report to me so that I may cross your names off my list. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly,” she said through gritted teeth. They paid their toll and rode into the town.

“I have slain men ere now for using such a tone,” Conan said. “If this is the way cities are run, I prefer the life of a barbarian.”

She smiled at him, a rare occurence. “I have been in far worse places, where a stranger is issued a papyrus which must be signed each day by the authorities and surrendered upon demand to any official. If you are caught without it, they clap you into the dungeon. But, do not worry. The worst places are the small remote cities like this one. They are eager to prove how civilized they are, and so they insist upon these niggling little rules. The great cities like Tarantia are wide open and there you may do as you like, within reason.”

This is a lot of administration for an iron age society. Even Rome didn’t tend to enforce any laws more strict than “only legionaries are allowed to carry swords within city limits,” and Rome was head and shoulders above their contemporaries in terms of legalism and efficient bureaucracy.

During Conan and Kalya’s trawling for rumors while watching a tavern show:

The acrobats made a sweaty exit and were followed by fire-eaters and jugglers. These were followed by a spell of more sedate entertainment as a group of minstrels played upon instruments, singing of the latest news from near and far. Conan and Kalya listened closely to these songs, but none mentioned the men for whom they searched.

Don’t get me wrong, minstrels serving as primary means of hearing news is a perfectly reasonable way for an iron age society to work, but it makes me think of a world where Autotune The News and similarly gimmicked competitors are people’s primary news source. It’d be better than the world we’ve got, where people’s primary news source is Twitter and Facebook.

Continue reading “Conan the Bold: The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Be King”

Conan the Bold: Oiled Up Gladiators

Chapter 6

Taharka and his band have run into trouble with Nemedian law enforcement and Taharka sacrificed several of his followers to stop them. By astonishing coincidence, this appears to have been pretty much all of the followers who weren’t on Conan’s hit list. I can appreciate that 1) we don’t want the list of targets constantly growing and 2) it makes little sense for Taharka to raise 30 bandits for his slave raid into Cimmeria and then stick with just four or five when operating at the Nemedian/Aquilonian border, but the straightforward solution to this is just to have him overwhelm the Cimmerian homestead without losing obscene numbers. There were only four defenders. It would perfectly sensible if just nine or ten bandits could overwhelm them taking only a handful of losses.

Sure, Conan personally regularly takes on like five guys and wins, but he’s supposed to be exceptional. A hero in the Greek sense. Random Cimmerians don’t need to be that awesome, and if they are, how come they don’t all end up kings of Aquilonia?

The trouble with the Nemedians’ only purpose is to winnow the slaver band back down to the guys in Conan’s quest log. He gets back to the border town just fine. Apparently it was the Bossonians’ job to train the new slaves, so Taharka learns they’re dead from the guy the innkeeper had to hire to replace them.

“Killed!” Taharka exclaimed. “Without asking my permission! What insolence!”

I like this line.

Continue reading “Conan the Bold: Oiled Up Gladiators”

Conan the Bold: Priest of the Ancient Aliens

Chapter Five

The chapter starts us off from the perspective of the mysterious wizard that the one Aquilonian bandit wizard get his cocaine from. Apparently portents have informed him that Conan knocking around town are of great importance, and he reports this to some mysterious face he conjures up from the smoke of a cauldron bubbling up from assorted magical ingredients and incantations.

“What these things portend I cannot as yet say. It is difficult to imagine such puny human matters attracting the interest of higher Powers.”

“All the pieces are not yet in place,” said the face. “You will keep us informed daily of new developments. Until this matter is resolved, we will devote much observation to events in that sector. Hold yourself in readiness for the return of the Masters.”

“Sector” makes me think of sci-fi, like the big twist here is that space aliens are keeping tabs on primordial Earth. I don’t know how out of place that would be in a 1989 Conan story. I tend to associate that kind of crossover where sci-fi and fantasy are considered practically interchangeable genres more with the 70s and earlier 80s, but that’s not really backed up by careful study or anything, just a vague intuition.

So far, it’s been ambiguous whether this story is planning on being episodic or more interconnected. There’s an episode where Taharka kills that one woman Conan knew for like three weeks, and an episode where he meets Kalya, but whether that’s just the story getting its ducks in a row before the the plot gets rolling for real or a sign of the episodic nature of things to come isn’t yet entirely clear. This bit indicates that probably there’s going to not only be an overarching plot in which latter parts depend upon earlier parts for context and pace, but also that the overarching plot is going to be way more important than just Conan and Kalya getting some revenge. This bothers me. This story didn’t need any higher stakes than a story of personal vengeance against a particularly dickish bandit.

The mysterious priest finds Conan while he’s on a midnight stroll, hoping to find the rest of Taharka’s band when they return from a slave raid to sell off more gladiators to the fighting pit. The priest says he can tell Conan more about the slavers he’s seeking, so Conan pays a visit to the temple.

“The beings to whom this temple is dedicated,” the priest said, “are not gods in the usual sense. They are beings unimaginably ancient and vast, but they are natural creatures of this universe, as are we. Their powers are truly godlike, as men reckon such things. We their priests do not truly worship them. We contact them. We do their bidding, and in return they grant us powers and other rewards.”

Seems like we’re definitely leaning into the whole ancient aliens thing here.

Continue reading “Conan the Bold: Priest of the Ancient Aliens”

Conan the Bold: Racist Against Bossonians

Before we get rolling, I want to back up and comment on something that I’d missed in the last chapter (hazard of pushing these out on a deadline is that sometimes I don’t give them as much thought as they deserve). What Kalya’s said to bring to the party is mainly that she understands how civilization works. As a story specifically set towards the very beginning of Conan’s career, Conan has only a vague idea of how things like law enforcement and criminal networks work. Kalya’s a less fearsome fighter than Conan, but she can handle herself alright and she has a valuable understanding of civilization. Perfectly good team-up, right?

It would be, except that Conan pays basically no price for his barbaric lack of subtlety in the town where he met Kalya. Sure, he gets ambushed by Rario, but he hacks his way out with no difficulty and if losing a potential informant was a major setback to their pursuit, neither Conan nor Kalya brings it up. Kalya doesn’t even bring it up when telling Conan that she’s joining his party, and you’d think if it were actually that important, she would have: “If I’d made inquiries instead of you bullrushing into every conversation, Rario would’ve told you where our quarry is” is a lot more compelling than just “we both want the same men dead.”

Chapter 3

I find shockingly little to discuss in the front half of this chapter. We’re following Taharka and his men again as they arrive at a lawless border town between Aquilonia and Nemedia, where the local gladiator business has been gummed up by a crackdown on the slave trade by the Aquilonians. Taharka hatches a plan to kidnap people, teach them how to fight with simple weapons, then drug them up so they’re manic and vicious and set them fighting each other. So far as villainous plots go, it’s pretty well-suited to the story. It’s clearly evil, there’s obvious profit in it for the bad guys so they’re not just doing it for the evulz, and the stakes are comfortably local for something this early in Conan’s career. There’s not really anything new to comment on, though. It’s a pretty similar Taharka scene as was in the last post, and I’m kind of wondering how important these Taharka scenes are going to end up being to the narrative. The closest thing to something notable I can think of is mainly in the descriptions of the town, but, I mean, it’s a lawless border town in a Conan story. Imagine Tortuga but with more sand and scantly clad women and you’re basically there.

It’s the back half of the chapter, when the Aquilonian sorcerer guy goes poking around for the aggression-inducing drugs he’ll need for the gladiatorial scheme, that things start to get more noteworthy.

Axandrias saw a light in the dense darkness at the far end of the room. With some trepidation, he began to walk toward it. Several times he stopped and squinted upward at the serpent heads above. Always they were blank and enigmatic, but as he walked he had the uncanny sensation that they moved slightly, and from the corners of his eyes he kept half-seeing a flash of motion, as if long, forked tongues darted from scaly mouths.

He reached the source of the light, and found that it was a flame burning in a brazen bowl. The bowl stood on a tripod, and he could see no trace of fuel to feed the flame. This did not disturb him unduly. Since he was something of a conjurer, he assumed that most wizard’s feats were the same sort of trumpery.

Something disturbed him, and he looked back the way he had come. The bright rectangle of the doorway was at least fifty paces away. Yet, when he had stood before the temple, he had estimated that the city wall was no more than twenty paces away. That meant that this structure must extend through and well past the wall. It was another mystery, but he had not come here to sort out puzzles.

“What brings you here?” The voice came from behind him and Axandrias whirled, his hand darting to his sword hilt. The speaker was a tall, gaunt man dressed in a featureless black robe. He was shaven-headed, his cadaverous face as immoble as those of the stone serpents.

With a relieved sigh, Axandrias relaxed. “Your pardon, good priest. You startled me. I did not hear your approach. Are you the sole priest of this temple?”

“I am. The gods I serve are ancient beyond the dreams of men, and are all but forgotten in this decadent age.” The priest’s accent was strange. Axandrias was widely traveled but he had never heard its like. There was something odd in the man’s phrasing as well.

What with the strong snake themes, I’d assumed this was just a temple of Set, but Axandrias would presumably recognize a Stygian accent, considering he travels in the company of someone from even further south.

Feigning scholarly interest, Axandrias convinces this priest fellow to show him where they keep the magic around here. One book in particular quickly catches his eye.

“Great indeed,” intoned the priest in his sepulchral voice. He opened the cover and exposed the first page. It was an oddly thick and creamy parchment, inscribed all over in tiny characters the color of rusty iron. Axandrias touched the page and found it strangely smooth. He commented upon the fact.

“This is a book of spells written by the wizard-king Angkar, of the pre-Atlantean Empire of Walkh. To one who can read these characters are revealed the secrets of communication with beings that ruled the universe ere the earth was created. He was a sorcerer of all-embracing evil, such as is not seen in these times. He compiled this book as the masterwork of his reign. He had his fifty subject kings send him their daughters, more than nine hundred in all. These pages are made from the flayed skins of those princesses. The characters were written with the blood of royal infants. When the book was complete, he had the bones of his own face set into its cover, cut from his skull while he yet breathed. The binding is his own skin.”

Axandrias jerked his hand away as if the page was red-hot.

Oh, don’t act all surprised, Axandrias. This was clearly a standard-issue Necronomicon from the first sentence of description.

This weird snake prince guy really likes to show off his voodoo, and they end up looking at another bit of it:

“I can see,” Axandrias said, desperate to change the subject, “that I have come to the right place. To one who is privy to such secrets, the trifling things I seek must be as naught.” Idly, he raised the hinged lid of a plain, copper bowl. Inside, he saw a mind-shattering vista of the gulfs of deep space. He was looking as if from above into a monstrous whirlpool of stars. Abruptly he slammed the lid shut and tried to make his stomach return to its accustomed position. The wizard seemed not to have noticed.

This one’s more original than the bog standard Necronomicon, at least. A bowl with space in it doesn’t seem all that mind-bending and I’m not sure why you’d actually want one, but it’s a neat curiosity, anyway.

The next item on the tour is the murder steroids that Axandrias is actually here for, which need to be activated with some kind of spell to get their full effect. Axandrias leaves the temple and finds that it’s some weird space-time folding thing that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside:

When Axandrias reached the mouth of the alley, he looked back and saw the face of the temple once more. Consumed with curiosity, he hurried down a side street until he came to a stairway which mounted the city wall. With his prize tucked inside his tunic, he went up the stair and then made his way gingerly along the ruinous wall. When he saw the two warehouses which flanked the temple, he leaned over and surveyed the view. As he had estimated below, the flat, featureless roof of the temple extended about twenty paces from the paved alley until it disappeared into the wall.

He turned and crossed the thickness of the wall, a distance of less than four paces. He leaned over the parapet, expecting to see the greater bulk of the temple extending beyond. There was nothing. Just a featureless face of rough stone wall and beyond that, a grassy field where oxen placidly cropped the vegetation. His scalp crawled and his mind reeled. Where was the rest of the temple?

And…that is the chapter? I’m really not sure what we accomplished, here, but it’s still early enough in the story that this could be going somewhere.

Chapter 4

Conan and Kalya have lost the trail of our villains when they check into a small roadside inn, who warns Conan that he shouldn’t be traveling with just a girl for a companion in these parts, because there’s been a spate of slave raids targeting healthy, strong men, specifically. You might think this justifies the previous chapter, in which the reason for these slave raids is set up, but I think it’s the reverse. Here, in these first two pages, we’ve set up all we need to know about the slave raiding operation in this part of the country. As an audience, we can guess that it’s not a coincidence that there’s mysterious raiders, and we don’t need to know the details of Taharka’s plan in order to follow Conan’s story, so long as we know everything that Conan knows, including why Conan cares. Indeed, Kalya figures out where this is going just a few paragraphs later:

When the woman had returned to the hut and the others were engaged in their conversations, Conan leaned across the table. “What think you of this? Might it have aught to do with Taharka and the others?”

“I cannot say, but I feel that there is some connection. The man is full of plots and schemes, and this may well be one of them. What its nature is I cannot yet tell, but it must be something crafty and devious.”

“Yet the slavers are said to be Nemedians,” Conan said.

“Nemedian clothes are as easy to put on as any. Raiders of any kind know how to use false colors. I think this is a good area in which to concentrate our search. If there is any new villainy being done, we can be fairly sure that Taharka and Axandrias are at the center of it.”

Of course, we’re still early on in the story, and there’s plenty of time for that spooky temple that got set up to be paid off later. We’ll see whether or not that actually happens.

Conan speaks to Kalya about his past:

“I am not like my countrymen,” Conan agreed. “Before I was old enough to hold a man’s sword I was always at odds with any who would rule me or order my life. My father, the village elders, the chieftain of my clan, they all had a go at thrashing me until I grew too large for such treatment. When I earned my warrior’s standing at Vanarium, they gave up trying.”

This makes him different from most Cimmerians? I thought refusing to bend the knee was a whole thing for not just Cimmerians, but Hyborian Age barbarians in general. In any case, this explicitly sets the novel after the events of Venarium. It’s even consistent, if vague, with how Second Venarium went for Conan, specifically:

“You were at Vanarium?” she said. The news of that battle had been all over Aquilonia and the borders a few seasons before; The Aquilonians had pushed across their borders onto ancestral Cimmerian lands and had built the city of Vanarium, manning it with Gunder and Bossonian frontiersmen. The Cimmerians had annihilated the settlement in a day and night of screaming slaughter. All three races were warlike in the extreme and fought without mercy.

Conan’s face twisted, as if this had turned his thoughts down paths he did not wish to follow. “That is past,” he said shortly. “Let us see what is to be found in this town of rogues.”

Conan lost everything at Venarium, so it makes sense he wouldn’t want to talk in detail. It’s really Conan of Venarium’s final chapter alone that’s fucking with the placement in the timeline. Without that, these two stories don’t have to be alternate origins at all. Personally, I have no difficulty just ignoring that final chapter and assuming Conan returned to Cimmeria after raiding Aquilonia for a while, and that this story is then a sequel.

Their investigation quickly brings them to the inn where Taharka has been selling his gladiators:

“A fighting-pit,” Kalya murmured. “Have you ever seen such?”

“Aye,” Conan said. “In Vanaheim and Hyperborea.”

So not only does this post-date Venarium, it probably post-dates quite a few stories taking place in Conan’s viking mercenary days (including the Frost Giant’s Daughter and a few post-Howard stories I have’t read). I didn’t expect the Chamomile Chronology I’m piecing together to stand superior to others, but now that I’m seeing such obvious cracks in the existing chronologies, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

Conan and Kalya observe a gladiator battle.

Although the swords had clipped, upturned points, they were better designed for cutting than for the thrust.

What do you mean “although?” The word you’re looking for is “because.”

There’s a whole thing here where Conan and Kalya are trying to figure out what’s going on. I know I’ve knocked points off Threadbare for hanging its entire plot on “what’s going on” instead of “what will happen next,” but that doesn’t mean that a book like this, where we have to watch our heroes figure out what’s going on even though we already know, is much better (although it is better). Threadbare gave us a mystery but neglected to give us any reason to care about the answers besides “ooooh, it’s mysterious,” but here in Conan the Bold the story has given us a reason to care about the answers (Conan’s personal grudge with Taharka is really dumb, but accepting that he has a personal grudge, we want to know what Taharka’s up to) but then gives us all those answers way ahead of Conan.

They do eventually start closing in, though.

“There,” he said, pointing, “against the far wall, between a Kordavan poleax and a silver-headed staff. Two Bossonian longbows. We are far from the Marches to see two such weapons.”

Kalya smiled, and the demented gleam returned to her eye. “There are two men nearby with whom we should have some words.”

Conan leaned on his elbow, chin cupped in a hard palm. He did not take his eyes from the bows, lest the weapons should be retrieved while he and his companion were not looking. “How should we go about this? Should we slay them, or take them aside and question them, or follow them to where the others are?”

“I recommend we take them to some private spot and find out what they know. If you slay them out of hand, part of your vengeance will be done, but I will be no closer to mine.” She sipped at her ale meditatively. “It may be that the others have ridden on and these two have stayed behind. If so, we must know of it. As for following them,” she thought for a moment, “it is tempting but dangerous. If they have separated, we might trail them for days accomplishing naught while the others draw farther away. Even should they lead us to the band this very evening, we might find ourselves facing six hard men. And it is likely that the band has grown. Your business is only with the six you were tracking. Mine is only with Axandrias. We do not want to take on perhaps ten or twenty at once.”

And shortly thereafter, they spot their quarry on the balconies with some whores:

There was no mistaking their nationality. Both were stocky men of medium height, strongly made. The hair of both was brown and square-cut. They closely resembled one another save the eyes of one were gray, those of the other, brown.

I’m not racist, I’m just saying all Bossonians kind of look the same to me.

The two ambush the Bossonians.

“Speak!” Conan barked. “You can die easy or die hard, but die you shall! Where are the rest of those who raided the Cimmerian steading? I want Taharka and the two Gundermen and the Aquilonian, Axandrias. Are they all still with you?”

Murtan shrugged, eyes still on his weapon-belt. “What are they to us? Aye, the wily Keshanian is still our leader. The Gunder brothers do this bidding as well.”

Okay, sure, no honor among thieves, but you aren’t exactly being offered a lucrative reward, here. For that matter, you’re not in a super compromised position. I’ve skipped the ambush, but they’re just being held at swordpoint in some alleyway. Odds of getting away alive are very slim, so if Conan and Kalya were offering to let them go, that’d mainly be a question of whether or not the Bossonians believe them. But it’s not like they’re strapped to a chair or deep in enemy territory. Odds of being able to force captors to either kill them or let them go are pretty solid. Just go for the swords at your necks and if they slit your throats, they were gonna do that anyway, and if they don’t slit your throats, you’re now in a position to run away.

“We have learned what we needed from them.”

Conan said to the woman. “Have you any further use for them?”

“Nay.” She dropped her point from Ballan’s throat. “These two are nothing to me. It is Axandrias I want. Do as you will with them.”

As she stepped back Conan snatched the weapon-belts from her hand and cast them at the feet of their owners. “There are your swords,” Conan said. “Use them!”

Or just run away. Granted, you do have him two-to-one (he asks Kalya not to get involved, and her vengeance is only with the Aquilonian), but he’s also got a proper length arming or maybe long sword, and you’ve got a pair of short swords used as archer sidearms. Plus, you’ve been making bank off of this slave trade thing, you could probably get a whole lot of reinforcements if you run into a heavily populated area and promise money to whoever brings you the Cimmerian’s head. It’s doubly weird that the Bossonians settled for “die quickly” when – as they confirm – they were confident that Conan would let them fight for their lives and were only afraid of immediate execution from Kalya. They could’ve just demanded that Kalya back off in exchange for the information and promised to give Conan the honorable(?) vengeance he was seeking.

But, no, the Bossonians attack head-on like idiots and get chopped to pieces. Kalya even confirms that they’ve got tons of money on their person while looting the bodies in the aftermath.

Also, Kalya’s musing on the fight in its aftermath just makes me dislike Conan:

A fight that consisted of three blows, two of them mortal. All of them struck by one man before his foes could strike effectively. Her swordmasters had told her that the ascending backhand blow was the weakest possible stroke, as the descending oblique was the strongest. The latter had the full weight and most of the muscle power of the body behind it, while the former utilized only the muscles of one shoulder. They had taught her that certain very skilled fighters could use the muscles of the flank and the leading leg as well. She had seen that blow tear through leather, bone and flesh as through so much smoke. The man’s art was minimal, but his speed, strength, timing, and coordination were little short of supernatural.

Conan isn’t actually good at anything, he’s apparently just arbitrarily granted perfect reflexes and super strength. Of course, in reality, using specific moves and stances is how amateurs fight. It’s a foundation that you build general situational awareness and familiarity with your own body’s capabilities on top of. And if you want to be super strong, you have to actually work for that, it doesn’t just happen. Sure, some people are more pre-disposed towards it than others and natural talent can disqualify you from being competitive in certain fields (including melee combat) no matter how hard you try, but nobody gets to peak performance without even trying.