Conan the Cimmerian

This is a wrap-up post for all the stories covering Conan’s early years, which I am assembling under the banner of “Conan the Cimmerian,” not to be confused with “Conan of Cimmeria,” a collection of short stories only one of which was actually covered by the reviews linked in this post.

Conan the Introduction
Let’s Get The Conversation About Racism Out of the Way
Conan of Venarium is Aimlessly Meandering
Conan the Barbarian (2011): Parenting the Conan Way, Again
Conan the Barbarian (2011): The Battle of Venarium, Again
Conan the Viking: The Frost Giant’s Daughter
Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm
Conan the Viking: Legion of the Dead
Conan the Viking: The Thing in the Crypt
Conan the Bold Was Ruined By Ancient Aliens
Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Ordinarily these posts gathering up a bunch of reviews in one place are accompanied by an overall review of the complete work (Conan of Venarium and Conan the Bold, linked above, get such reviews). This is not one of those posts. This is a collection not of posts all referring to the same work, but of reviews of multiple different works (two of the posts do relate to the same work, because Conan the Barbarian (2011) is not getting a full review until we come to the point in the timeline where its main plot occurs). There’s not anything to sum up here, except that the quality and tone of the writing vary significantly from one story to another, which should surprise no one, on account of their having lots of different writers.

As such, these are listed not in the order they were reviewed, but rather the order in which they more or less fit into the Chamomile Chronology I’m haphazardly constructing. This project could pull itself apart under the strain of its incompatible objectives at any time, but so far it’s worked surprisingly well, despite Lair of the Ice Worm’s stringent objections.

The basic conceit of the Chamomile Chronology so far is that Conan was left aimless and meandering after Venarium, his ties to Cimmeria cut, and began raiding with the viking Aesir until he was captured by Hyperboreans. After making his escape from there, he briefly cut across the Brythunian and Border Kingdom wildernesses on his way home to Cimmeria, where he soon grew restless again, heading into the Pictish wilderness. After stumbling from there half-dead, he was rescued by some Cimmerians he were then tragically put to the torch while he was out hunting, leading him on a hunt of the slavers who’d attacked them that took him across most of Hyboria. At this point Conan had firmly left his home behind and no longer even used Cimmeria as a home base for his wanderings, but instead became completely unmoored.

This chronology makes a couple of assumptions:

  1. Conan the Barbarian (1982) is tossed from the chronology completely, because it conflicts not only with other early Conan stories, but also my recollection of many Conan the thief stories. When I come back to Conan for the thief era, I may find that this recollection is incorrect, at which point I may swap in Conan ’82 to replace all the other stories from this era, since it is superior to basically all of them. This will also almost certainly require tossing the latter two-thirds of Conan the Barbarian (2011).
  2. Conan of Venarium and the early chapters of Conan the Barbarian (2011) are mutually incompatible. Conan the Barbarian (2011) is way better, therefore Conan of Venarium is getting junked.
  3. The Frost Giant’s Daughter, the Lair of the Ice Worm, the Legions of the Dead, and the Thing in the Crypt happen in that order. After the Lair of the Ice Worm, Conan returns to Cimmeria for a time, but returns to Asgard soon afterwards to raid the Hyperboreans (rather than the Vanir, the target of his first excursion). Three of these four stories are mostly unmoored in time and can occur anywhere, but make sense as Conan’s early travels due to their proximity to Cimmeria. The Lair of the Ice Worm really badly wants to remind you that its authors intended it to occur much later in Conan’s career, but usually because Conan is older and more cunning than he was in earlier stories – even though they also constantly take pains to make it clear that the Frost Giant’s Daughter occurred immediately before Lair of the Ice Worm, and one of Conan’s stupidest acts occurs in the Frost Giant’s Daughter. The constant insistence that Lair of the Ice Worm occurs later in Conan’s career does not affect the story at all and can be excised without losing anything.
  4. Conan the Bold occurs last of the set, and initiates Conan’s aimless wandering, as it takes him too far from home for him to keep to his until-then usual habit of using Cimmeria as a home base from which to make excursions into nearby countries for adventure.

With Conan’s early years wrapped up, I’m going to be taking a break from the Conan series for a bit to instead engage in some blatant nepotism. Well, not really nepotism, since I only briefly met the author at the latest Salt Lake FanX. So, nationalism? City-ism? I’m going to review a book I bought at FanX for no other reason except that I bought a book at FanX, is what I’m getting at, and that book is CJ Olsen’s The Immortal Cure, a steampunk book about the plucky daughter of an immortal overlord teaming up with a sky pirate to try and find a “cure” for the overlord’s immortality and commit patricide. The author said he’d be back at the Salt Lake Comic Con in September with the sequel. We’ll see whether or not I care to drop by his booth by the end of this book.

Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm

I’m going to review one more short story, this one written by de Camp and Carter for the 1969 collection Conan of Cimmeria. It takes place in Asgard, but naturally follows the timeline of de Camp, and is thus well into Conan’s career according to its italicized prologue. Most of the time, however, the only thing placing one of these de Camp stories into any particular place in the timeline is the italicized prologue, with the story itself utterly devoid of any particular temporal markers. We’ll see if the Lair of the Ice Worm can’t be fit into a chronology that sets Conan’s northern adventures earlier in his career. The main question there is whether Conan actually leaves Asgard, which would conflict with his leaving Asgard via Hyperborea and then escaping Hyperborea during the Legion of the Dead and the Thing in the Crypt.

Chapter 1

Conan has come to an evil glacier, and scoffs at the idea that glaciers could be evil. Probably all the people who died up there just sucked at mountaineering. In fairness, a mountain is perfectly capable of murdering people without supernatural aid. On the other hand, Conan refers directly back to his recent encounters with the supernatural:

Conan was eager to descend the pass into the low hills of the Border Kingdom, for he had begun to find the simple life of his native Cimmerian village boring. His ill-fated adventure with a band of golden-haired AEsir on a raid into Vanaheim had brought him hard knocks and no profit. It had also left him with the haunting memory of the icy beauty of Atali, the frost giant’s daughter, who had nearly lured him to an icy death.

You just barely had a run-in with a frost giant. Why are you so skeptical that this glacier might be haunted? Or just, y’know, home to frost giants?

The story does firmly set itself after a time when Conan has been south of Cimmeria:

Altogether, he had had all he wanted of the bleak northlands. He burned to get back to the hot lands of the South, to taste again the joys of silken raiment, golden wine, fine victuals, and soft feminine flesh. Enough, he thought, of the dull round of village life and the Spartan austerities of camp and field!

You could make an argument that this fits as well for Conan having briefly raided Aquilonia post-Venarium as it could be referring to his thief years further south, but that’s kind of a stretch. It seems like it’s going to be an ongoing theme and not just a stray paragraph, too. I’m happy to assume Conan of Venarium’s last chapter just never happened and equally happy to ignore a stray paragraph of Lair of the Ice Worm, but in the first case only because that last chapter served no narrative purpose, it was just the final vignette in a series of disconnected vignettes, and in the latter case I’m only willing to discard that paragraph if it ends up being trivial to the story. If “I’m sick of the northlands and want to go back south, a place with which I have extensive experience” is meant to be an ongoing theme, then the whole story is set firmly later on in Conan’s career.

I’m writing a lot more about the timeline than I anticipated.

Continue reading “Conan the Viking: Lair of the Ice Worm”

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Admin note: I’m filing this under “book review” because it’s part of my review of Conan as a series, which is mostly books. We are, however, reviewing the 1982 movie and not its novelization, which I was unable to find in digital format.

The 1982 Conan the Barbarian doesn’t fit into any timeline at all unless you completely excise every other attempt to depict Conan’s early years. That said, it is quite possibly the best depiction of Conan’s early years of all. Michael A. Stackpole’s depiction of Conan up to Venarium is the only one that’s even giving Conan ’82 any competition, and even then it’s not exactly a close race.

Conan ’82 is not flawless. Several of its flaws can be filed under the header of “fuck the 80s.” The two most prominent examples:

-Early on, Conan very probably rapes someone for basically no reason. I mean, in-universe the reason is that he’s been enslaved since childhood and is now an obedient dog doing pretty much whatever he’s told, and he was told to breed with another slave. Out-of-universe, though, you can excise the entire scene and nothing is lost. If you really need some tits at that point in the runtime, you could’ve just had the woman be less clearly scared of Conan.

-One of the priests of Thulsa Doom’s evil cult is a predatory gay guy, whom Conan lures away from the rest of the cult by pretending to be shy about his body, then kills him and takes his clothes. Killing people and taking their clothes is something Arnold Schwarzenegger does surprisingly often in his movies.

The second one is actually significantly less bad in a modern context than in the era it came out in, at least. Back in the 80s, this was part of an overall trend in which all gay people were depicted as predatory and evil. These days, there’s a growing library of films, tv shows, books, video games, etc. etc. with gay people who aren’t necessarily evil, which means that this movie having a bit part where one specific gay guy is a predatory priest part of a predatory cult is less of a commentary on all gay people and more a way of depicting the predatory nature of Thulsa Doom’s cult. That isn’t really to the filmmakers credit, because it’s not when filming the scene they were thinking “okay, sure, this scene is harmful now, but with our clairvoyant superpowers we can predict that forty years from now cultural context will change and make it better,” but cultural context has changed, will probably continue to change, and eventually this scene won’t even be a problem.

A more enduring problem (and one that can’t simply be completely excised with no harm to the rest of the film) is the shoddy pacing of the first hour. The movie actually begins with really good pacing, and is easily my favorite depiction of the violent destruction of Conan’s Cimmerian roots. Rather than trying to build up our attachment to Cimmeria first, the movie just cuts to the chase and burns the village to the ground. Conan’s parents’ futile defiance of the invaders made me like them more than Harry Turtledove managed with an entire book (or John Maddox Roberts managed with one chapter, but at least it was just one chapter).

After that, however, the movie loses itself in vignettes for a full hour. This isn’t nearly as bad as it could be because all of the vignettes are individually good (except the one where he meets the witch who tries to eat him, that one was terrible, but it at least serves the purpose of establishing Conan’s vengeance quest). From the death of Conan’s parents in the first ten minutes to the one hour mark, Conan wanders from one vignette to another, finally getting a lead on Thulsa Doom and bringing the first act to a close. In between he meets two valuable allies and punches a camel, but you could’ve completely rearranged the order of the scenes in the script and changed nothing. With some clever editing, you might even be able to rearrange the order of the scenes in the existing movie without affecting the flow of the plot at all. Scenes don’t build on each other, they just happen in sequence.

Continue reading “Conan the Barbarian (1982)”

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

Chapter 5

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Conan the Barbarian (2011): The Battle at Venarium, Again”

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.

Continue reading “Conan the Barbarian (2011): Parenting the Conan Way, Again”

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.

Continue reading “Conan the Viking: The Frost Giant’s Daughter”

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”