Conan the Defiant: A Gap In The Story

Chapter Nine

The plot is converging on the city of Opkothard. Skeer is here with the Source of Light, Conan and his sidekicks have arrived seeking him, the six blind minions of Neg have arrived seeking one of them, and also one of the Suddah Oblates has shown up for reasons unknown. This guy is Malo, the young cane prodigy that Conan trounced when he visited, and he’s carrying a sword, rather than his tradition’s usual cane, planning to kill Conan. He assumes Conan must be responsible for the murder of the two acolytes of the temple, under the reasoning that he doesn’t like Conan, and Conan must therefore be responsible for every crime that happens within a thousand foot radius. But, like, things can’t come to a head here. We’re slightly less than halfway through.

Elashi’s tsundere routine with Conan is rote enough, and well established enough, that I don’t feel the need to type out quotes or even particularly summarize the details. Suffice to say that Elashi tsunderes at Conan in the inn for the night.

The chapter closes on a mysterious spider priest performing mysterious spider divinations and determining that all kinds of named characters have shown up in town tonight, and he’d better do something about it.

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Conan the Defiant: Also, Bonus Sexism

Chapter Five

Rogue zombie Tuanne has some kind of magical means of detecting the current location of the Source of Light, and she’s following that to track down Skeer, who is fleeing towards Neg with it. Also, she is nearly attacked by a mountain lion, but then the mountain lion realizes that she’s dead and rotting and thinks better of it. There’s a bunch of undead brooding about how the animals can sense her curse and woe is her, although it does at least manage to notice that repelling predators is actually a good thing, even if it’s framed as “oh, this curse has been a blessing this time, but truly she was the most unfortunate of creatures to be so repellent.” It’s not like humans are repelled by her. Is she, like, super into cats?

Skeer tries to dodge pursuit by leaving a false trail. Conan’s latest female sidekick Elashi falls for the trail, but Conan doesn’t, because of course he is better than everyone at everything (so long as it’s not too civilized), even when it is their area of expertise and he just took it up five minutes ago.

Tuanne reaches the village where Skeer is headed and sets up shop at the inn to wait for him. There is a bizarrely cosmopolitan gaggle of guests at the inn. It is, of course, an inn, so you’d expect everyone here to be from out of town, and you’d expect a bunch of them to be from out of country, so it’s not weird that only two out of the four with identified nationalities are Brythunian. But then the other two are a Stygian and a Kushite or Keshanite, both from even further south than Stygia. No sign of any Zamorans, Corinthians, Nemedians, Hyperboreans, or Turanians, all of whom have some kind of land border with Brythunia.

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Conan the Defiant: Pacifists Are Pretty Straightforward To Assassinate It Turns Out

Prologue

You know that thing where the men of a fantasy species will look like some weird lava monster or a crocodile person or whatever, and the women will look like human women but with blue skin and pointy ears? Conan the Defiant’s prologue gives us an example of that. Our villain, Neg the necromancer, is interrogating his zombie minions as to the location of some powerful talisman called the Source of Light. All the zombies are decayed and rotten, except for one called Tuane, a beautiful zombie woman whose beauty Neg has preserved. When Neg tosses some magical salt to destroy a zombie minion who has displeased him, a single grain of it lands on Tuane, scalding her, but also freeing her from his control, thus initiating the plot. Naturally, the grain of salt lands upon one of her lusciously curved breasts. Free of the necromancer’s control without his knowing, she then breasted boobily to the door, and titted up the stairs.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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”