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Conan: Blood of the Serpent

Stirling, S.M. Conan: Blood of the Serpent, Titan Books, 2022.

You wouldn’t know it thanks to Titan’s horrible marketing strategy (the sum total of which seems to be: release book), but there is a new, officially-licensed Conan novel, the first in a decade or two, written by S.M. Stirling. I don’t know anything about Stirling, but a new Conan novel had me thrilled; regardless of who was attached, I was already on board as soon as Titan announced this new publishing initiative. I came to the Conan stories first through the Arnold movie, which led me to pick up one of the Del Rey collections of the original Robert E. Howard stories. This all happened somewhere in my preteen years. Like a lot of those pulp-era writers, when you read this stuff at such an impressionable age, it imprints onto you, for good and for ill. I read the stories, wrote tons of terrible fiction, discovered the Marvel and Dark Horse comics, wrote more terrible fiction, fell more in love with reading, with weird fiction, with idiosyncratic storytelling voices, started lifting weights with Conan-fueled motivations, likely developed unhealthy and unrealistic expectations about how women react in any situation, and to this day I still write terrible fiction. I mean you know the drill.

So I’m a big fan of Conan and Howard. But I’m not, like, a disciple or anything. I’m not bothered too much by canonicity, and I don’t mind if an author with a style wholly dislike Howard’s (which is most, honestly) takes a crack at telling more Conan tales. I like sword and sorcery, and more Conan stories means more of the genre. I say all this to establish the bona fides (or lack thereof) and to hopefully ward off any reader expectations that might expect me to talk about whether this “feels” like a Howard and/or Conan story. The truth is I don’t care, and I don’t care that Titan might be trying to retroactively inject some kind of Frankenstein-continuity into the Hyborian age. Again, more Conan stories? More authors getting to play in the premier sword and sorcery sandbox? Yes please.

Does Stirling’s novel launch this new era of MCU-Conan? I don’t know, and frankly I’ll be surprised if this novel turns any kind of significant, franchise-spawning profit given how abysmal the aforementioned marketing has been. Titan Books: do better.

The big conceit of the new Conan novel, besides being a new Conan novel, is that Blood of the Serpent functions as a back-door prequel to Howard’s “Red Nails.” So we get Valerian, we get a young-ish Conan (it’s mentioned this is ten years after Conan left Cimmeria – again, I have no idea where this is supposed to sit in Conan’s lifetime – he’s a big muscle-y man with black hair and a mercenary outlook on life, and you’d probably use a cat-adjective to describe his movement), and the story inevitably leads to the dangerous jungle where the ancient, abandoned city of Xuchotl awaits. Titan even provides the original short story as a direct follow-up to Stirling’s text, which I think is a nice touch and will hopefully encourage folks to seek out more Howard.

The plot, in brief: Conan encounters Valeria in a tavern; some rando gets handsy, ends with a swift kick to the balls – Conan is impressed (actual text from the book: “I’ll bet her sweat smells good, he thought. And look at the way the skin of her back ripples when she moves. Ishtar and Derketa! It would be like grappling a living statue” [34]); working with the Free Companions and stationed in the city of Sukhmet in Stygia, Conan and Valerian are assigned as escorts for a caravan of slaves who are condemned to work some gold mines; the slaves revolt; Conan and co. are chased back to Sukhmet, fighting along the way an entire zoo of animals (literally – in 300 pages, Conan kills rhinos, lions, alligators, snakes, baboons, zebras, man-ape things that are different from the baboons, and, of course, snakes), made all the more aggressive by some spooky sorcery; back in Sukhmet, attempted sexual assault (by the formerly ball-kicked) in the alleyways leads to the assaulter’s death, which leads to Valeria fleeing the city, pursued by an evil Stygian (brother of ball-kicked man); Conan follows, because Valeria Is Hot, and then “Red Nails” happens.

I sound perfunctory, but does anyone really care about the plot in a Conan book? Speaking personally, I don’t care about the plot in most books, mostly because I’m very bad at remembering plot details, character names, etc. I like to read for the themes, the tone, the voice – the words and the ideas, basically.

So the words:

As I mentioned, this is the first Stirling book I’ve read, and overall I really enjoyed the prose. There are some groaners, of course (see above – and also, because Conan is super horny in this novel, at one point he describes a woman that “had full breasts and haunches like a draft-horse” [26] – haunches like a draft-horse?!), but by and large I found the reading experience a propulsive one. Stirling keeps the pace brisk, and I always wanted to turn the page, see what would happen next, get to the next action sequence. And there are a lot of action sequences. Luckily, Stirling is pretty great with visceral, blood-pounding lines. Right before Conan compares a woman’s legs to a horse, he “wrenched and twisted and the man’s arm separated at the shoulder, broke at the wrist, and the bone of the upper arm snapped” (20). About midway through the novel, during the slave revolt, Stirling gives us some rousing, full-scale battle scenes with frantic and electric energy:

“Voices shouted in half a dozen languages, and the slaves poured forward again, but they hit as a spray, not a solid baulk in formation. It was individuals against a machine—naked, poorly armed individuals. Spears stabbed, voices screamed and wailed, steel struck flesh and brought that special raw shriek … Another rush. Snarling brabbles of close-quarter savagery, without a thought of mercy or quarter on either side. Sometimes slaves would throw themselves on the spearpoints and hug the shaft that was killing them so those behind could grapple with the soldiers. Men cut, shoved, smashed, heaved a step forward or back, bled, and died.” (106-107).

In another blood-and-thunder sequence, Stirling has Conan routing a group of frothing baboons, all while on horseback and fighting with bow-and-arrow, before he leads them into the waiting maws of hungry lions. In other words, if it’s cool action you want out of your sword and sorcery, Stirling definitely delivers. It’s all super awesome.

But Stirling also delivers something that is perhaps not what you want in your sword and sorcery, and that is a meticulous, pain-staking approach to worldbuilding detail. Conan doesn’t just drink wine at a bar; he ruminates on the material and economic conditions of said wine, where it was pressed and how it traveled through the various nation-states, acquiring several markups along the way, before it finally finds its way into his cup. Have you ever wondered how Conan considers the food he’ll buy and how far his coin will go? Don’t worry, Stirling fills you in:

“The tavernkeeper kept a vaguely pork-based stew simmering in a great iron pot over the hob and threw vegetables and scraps and trimmings and even some spices into it as they came to hand. He could get a bowl of that for two coppers, with a lump of dense millet-bread, and an onion thrown in to munch on.

For a copper more, he could get a big slice or a long meaty rib from the pig carcass that turned on the spit there beside the stew-cauldron. That was actually fairly tasty and spiced with a good hot sauce of peppers, though the savory taste would decline to rankness before it was finished in a day or so, and another beast went on the spit. Meat didn’t keep well in this clime.” (23).

Now, I actually like the worldbuilding that Stirling brings to Howard’s Hyborian Age. Over time, the novels’ repeated thick descriptions take on a mosaic quality that, for me, brought Stygia and its peoples to life. I could actually imagine people living in this world, making their way, struggling against economic and oppressive systems. In this way you can see Stirling laying some good worldbuilding groundwork for someone else to come along and build from, the beginning framework of some larger projects.

However, I fully recognize that, for many sword and sorcery readers, too much of this will feel like epic fantasy-type stuff. It’s not quite at that level, certainly, but s&s is typically the genre of get-to-the-point and I-don’t-care-where-the-oranges-came-from, so Stirling’s decision to really lean into worldbuilding as a fundamental component of his storytelling might get in the way of your enjoyment. But for me, I liked it. Again, this is a world that I love and enjoy – I want to spend more time here, even if a lot of that time is spent thinking through every exact detail associated with its food.

Onto the themes and ideas:

While I enjoyed Stirling’s prose, I have bigger criticisms in this realm – the Thinky Bits. Depending on who you ask, sword and sorcery is: a) not the place for Thinky Bits – just give me action and monsters and weird stuff!; b) just like any genre or subgenre of literature, is full of symbolic referents, a recognizable aesthetic and style, a rich textual and biographical history, and a playground for any literary critic to dissect, explore, and disclose; c) politically and morally suspect, given its predilection for Might Makes Right, the valorization of mercenary motivations, its nostalgic yearning for some libertarian wet dream idea of rules-free, tax-free emancipation from any and all social responsibility; d) a genre for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for the working class, a genre that paints with broad strokes not as a way to generalize and demean but as a path towards universal experience and accessibility. Given my mood and the story itself, I’ve found myself inhabiting each of these positions. By means of full disclosure, I tend to read texts quite politically (the Marxist in me) and symbolically (the academic lit snob in me), which means that some of my criticisms here might not seem that important, or even worth commenting on. Or even, *gulp*, woke. But this is my review!

In terms of themes, there’s really not much going on in Blood of the Serpent once you remove the aesthetic pleasure of the prose. Both Conan and Valeria are more or less blank slates, hardly ever articulating what I would qualify as any kind of identifiable positions. Well, hang on, I take that back. There is a moment where Stirling inserts what feels like a very self-conscious nod to Conan’s famous words-to-live-by in “Queen of the Black Coast”: “I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” Now one could quibble over the viability of such a worldview, but it at least has some depth and nuance to it. There’s a world-weariness to these words, but also a determination, a willingness to persist in the face of it all. Not a fatalism, but a melancholia, a memento mori-type approach to life that appeals directly to anyone that has struggled and continues to push the Sisphyean boulder up the hill, despite everything. Here’s Stirling’s version: “‘I never want to see or smell a city again,’ he declared to no one. ‘This is how to live. Plenty of land, no politicians, lots of animals, clean air’” (204). Maybe I’d be more receptive here if this didn’t sound like a libertarian (diet-conservative) slogan or seem like the kind of thing scrawled in a prepper’s spiral notebook. For me, it’s just way too juvenile, and this is one of the only places in this entire book where Conan articulates an identifiable belief, so it really stands out as the This Is What I Believe statement. But again, this is my very personal take; you may very well read this line and find it instantly recognizable and relatable and decide my snubbing of it is just more leftist elitism. And that’s cool.

But what this too-simple approach means, in terms of story and characterization, is that you really don’t know or learn much about the two main characters, Conan and Valeria, which is a lot to sit through for 300 pages. There are, I think, two things working against Stirling here: 1) a desire to keep Conan and Valeria safe, accessible-to-all characters that refuse to commit to anything one way or another; and 2) the prequel nature of the story itself, which requires that Conan and Valeria not have too many in-depth conversations because, in Howard’s story, they seem to be meeting and actually talking for the first time. In other words, you don’t come away from this novel with a new or fresh perspective on Conan or Valeria. Why does Conan seem to pursue Valeria? What is the motivation here? Basically, he’s horny. That sounds reductive, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.

My final critique, and now I’m really putting my woke hat on, so brace yourself. Remember that slave revolt with the pulse-pounding action and blood and guts and stuff? Can you guess which side Conan is on? Surely all the bodies piling up at his feet are those of the captors, right? They are not. Instead, in the only part of the book that I found truly objectionable, Stirling has Conan fight and slaughter dozens of slaves. But what about the context, Matt?! If Conan is cutting down slaves left and right, he must have a reason! Maybe he was just defending himself, you know, standing his ground! And they’re revolting, right, so TECHNICALLY they’re not slaves at the moment of impact between Conan’s sword and their skulls. Well okay, some context. So Conan was hired to guard the slave caravan on its way to the gold mines; once there, the slaves witness a Stygian priest performing human sacrifice and they decide they’d rather not, and proceed to (quite easily) break free and revolt, killing every Stygian and mercenary they can get their hands on. Now, one might argue, Conan was merely doing his job, protecting those he was paid to protect. And look, at the end of the slaughter, Stirling gives Conan this thought: “I’d have done the same thing in their [the former slaves]  place” (111). 

See! (one might say) Stirling knows it’s wrong to kill slaves, so he has Conan identify with them. It’s called empathy, Matt! And besides, it was the chaos of the moment! Conan isn’t supposed to be a vehicle for your leftist ideologies! Keep your politics out of my escapism! I mean I’m straw-manning here, but you get the point. No, Conan isn’t the spokesman for Papa Marx, but in a book where Conan kills a ton of nonhuman threats, the most human blood he spills is that of slaves, and it’s frankly baffling to me that nobody in this entire editorial process wasn’t like: yeah, maybe this is not the right story beat here. Despite rumors to the contrary from the dude-bros, Stirling’s Conan is decidedly not woke.

But DESPITE ALL OF THAT, I still really enjoyed this book, and I would even read more Stirling Conan. There’s a great section where we get to see Conan actually do some leadership as he tries to rally the crumbling caravan following the slave revolt, foreshadowing his eventual ascension to the Aquilonian throne, and he even rescues a small child from more human sacrifice. And the story really does barrel directly into “Red Nails,” with Stirling peppering his lines with direct lifts from Howard’s opening paragraphs to really get the transition going, which, again, seems like a great move in terms of exposing more readers to Howard’s stuff. 

I read Blood of the Serpent in two days (a very fast pace for me), and I read it amidst a million other (arguably more important) things vying for my attention, yet its pull was the strongest. Because I love Conan, and I love Howard, and I love sword and sorcery. I desperately want this book to be just the tip of new stories in Howard’s wonderful worlds. But I want these stories to do things, to forward the genre. Make Conan do something I haven’t seen before, give him a stake in his world that I can recognize and relate to, and have him grow. It’s perhaps too much to ask of a character who is basically IP at this point, but the models are there on how to take a fairly static character and have them develop and encounter difference within themselves that leads to revelation, even within a serialized format (Temple of Doom, anyone?).

If you like Conan even a little, I think you’ll enjoy this book. If you love breakneck pacing, swift and powerful action, and fights with giant animals, you’ll really enjoy this book. Go buy a copy. Better yet, buy 100 copies and serve as Conan Santa this year, because I want more Conan stories, and I want Titan’s initiative here to work. 

In a rare moment of introspection, Conan thinks “The moss that hangs from the trees will start sprouting on me, soon enough” (25). I don’t want Conan to grow mossy, and neither do you. Help keep that moss at bay and pick up S.M. Stirling’s Conan: Blood of the Serpent.

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8 thoughts on “Conan: Blood of the Serpent

  1. I suppose Conan’s comments about not wanting to visit any city again comes down to wear he was born and raised – the wide open spaces/mountains of the north. You can understand from his perspective why the crowded, stinking, diseased, violent and corrupt cities of the south would be the last places he would willing enter.

    Stirling has been writing for decades, so no surprise you found his prose strong and compelling. A pity the book doesn’t seem to have had the push it deserves, but I’m hoping sales are healthy enough to justify more.

    Great review, by the way!

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  2. Good review. One Conan story that I really disliked was “The Snout in the Dark.” In either version (the REH/de Camp/Carter or the pure-text REH one) ALL the main characters are horrible. Everybody (including Conan) is comfortable with mentally and physically oppressing the majority population. Here is a quote from the story: “A brief, disorganized rising by the lower castes was put down by Conan with an iron hand …” The ending where the lower castes gets organized and rise up to (potentially) defeat the ruling class is the only thing to really cheer about in this entire story. So, sadly, Sterling is true to Howard in portraying Conan’s indifference to a slave revolt when employed by their masters. The only (pastiche or otherwise) Conan author, who usually narrated in a left of center (to my thinking anyway) mode was Leonard Carpenter. Check out Conan the Hero (a Conan in Vietnam analogy).

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    1. Thank you for reading! And yeah, the “Snout” thing feels pretty gross — but thanks a lot for the Carpenter recommendation, that actually sounds really intriguing — will definitely be checking that out

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad to see at least one person reading this.

    I must say, Howard’s Conan never struck me as a particularly weeping humanitarian, so him killing slaves fits right in imo.

    I just finished JM Robert’s stuff, am currently working through Jordan’s stuff then I’ll see what catches my eye.

    I do feel that either character or world building will destroy Conan. He’s the ‘every’ hero that gets inserted into any story seamlessly because he doesn’t have literary baggage.

    Stirling wrote some good Terminator stuff if that franchise has any interest for you.

    Cheers!

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