CROM DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THIS REVIEW. AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU, BUT AFTER ALMOST 20 YEARS, THERE’S A NEW CONAN OF CIMMERIA NOVEL OUT.
CONAN: BLOOD OF THE SERPENT
BY S.M. STIRLING
Interior art by Rob De La Torre
Conan the Barbarian, the world’s most famous fantasy hero, returns in an all-new novel tied directly to the famous works by his legendary creator, Robert E. Howard.
Set early in his life, Conan has left his northern homeland to cut a bloody swath across the legendary Hyborian Age. A mercenary, a soldier, a thief, and a pirate, he faces conquering armies, malicious sorcerers, and monstrous creatures—against which he wields only the sword held in his powerful grasp.
A superstar of novels, short fiction, comics, video games, films, and an upcoming Netflix series, his adventures have inspired many of the most popular authors of the 20th and 21st centuries. This is the first in a series of brand-new, standalone adventures.
I stopped reviewing books somewhere around 2015. I’d done it for years, on my old blog and those first ventures into the realms of social media, AOL and MySpace. It came to a culmination when I got an internship through the HWA at Rue Morgue. I learned a ton about reviewing from Monica S. Kuebler, my mentor, things I never understood about reviewing. That led to me traveling to Scares That Care to cover it for the magazine in 2016… and the eventual birth of my fiction writing career, which readers of this will recognize. But all of this started back in the 1980s.
I’ve had a tumultuous love affair with journalism and creative writing since I can remember. The two have constantly conflicted within me. My first love was always fiction, but journalism’s allure sucked me in during my time in the Army. 2023 marks 40 years since I first reached out to L. Sprague de Camp, and asked for his advice on writing. We carried a sporadic penpalship for a few years, until my life’s focus shifted to college and then to a career in sales that lasted until roughly 2010. About this time I started podcasting, covering pro-wrestling, and got my foot in the door, establishing myself. This grew into my internship at Rue Morgue. And then I stopped reviewing books.
Why did I stop after that door was opened for me? My mentorship ended, for one, but mostly because I’m a bit of a prick when it comes to the books I read. My level of excellence, my bar of quality, is set rather high. As a result, I shredded some books in reviews on Rue Morgue. But after talking to another sage in the writing community, Joe R. Lansdale, and listening to his wise words, I stepped back from reviewing written works and shifted my focus to my fiction writing. Now, I still did critical reviews on my old podcast, the Necrocasticon, for film, TV, music and some books. But talking about a subject and writing about it are often two different things. I recently returned to posting regular movie reviews on this blog. It’s been refreshing, to say the least.
At least it was, until I read S.M. Stirling’s new Conan novel, CONAN: BLOOD OF THE SERPENT, and I was reminded of how high my bar is set. Though it’s well written, and is packed with plenty of action, I ultimately didn’t care for this franchise relaunch. It’s exciting, there’s plenty of action… but this could have just as easily been a prequel to TARZAN & THE JEWELS OF OPAR. It’s a shame that the first Conan of Cimmeria novel in over twenty years is a paint-by-numbers cash grab, created to utilize the 40th anniversary of the release of CONAN THE BARBARIAN film to drum up sales. The use of Valeria as a female protagonist, and Stygian Set worshippers, naturally taps into the public’s familiarity with the movie. To stir the pot and catch the eye of old school Conan fans, he placed the novel before the events of what is arguably one of the best Conan stories ever written, RED NAILS.
RED NAILS is basically Yojimbo in a sword and sorcery setting, where Conan and Valeria fight dragon like dinosaurs and deal with the denizens of a lost city in the jungles of what is now central Africa. An attempt was made to bring this story to life through animation some years ago, but all that remains from that is some stills and test footage. All of it looks fantastic, but I regret we’ll never see it completed. And this association to RED NAILS, it’s the first thing I found to bug me with this book.
One of the things about the Conan books that Robert E. Howard established was they are told out of sequence. This is done intentionally, as if Conan was telling you about his adventures later in life. Heavy criticism came upon L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter when they edited the Conan stories and laid them out in what they believed to be the chronological order. By setting this novel in conjunction with RED NAILS (in fact it INCLUDES THE NOVELETTE!)Stirling has re-ignited that decades old argument. It makes much of the plot of this book seem shoe-horned, as a result. But that’s not all that pissed me off about this book, by Crom.
The Hyborian Age was designed to have similarities to our world, albeit some 12,000 years ago. Howard did this to help readers suspend disbelief and allowed to build a lush, and vibrant fantasy world. Anyone playing in Howard’s sandbox has the benefit of this at their disposal. But Stirling, in an attempt to stay true to Howard’s style, drops the ball with me, again. In one early scene he references our modern language, in particular a specific letter from the English alphabet. Of course, this designation is assigned to a character whose name starts with the letter. Written in fucking English. Yes, I’m repeating myself and cussing. Why? Because it took me out of “Z” book and I was hard pressed to return to it.
Now, after getting kicked in the nuts by Stirling twice as I turned the pages, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson by the time I got to the epic climax… that turned out to be nothing more than a bridge to RED NAILS. But we got there through another classic Robert E. Howard Conan tale, THE TOWER OF THE ELEPHANT.
Many people are aware that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were penpals, and good friends. Lovecraft encouraged some of his contemporaries, which included the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, to utilize his cyclopean Cthulhu mythos. Howard was one of these peers, and an early Conan story, THE TOWER OF THE ELEPHANT, links the Hyborian Age and Conan to the world Lovecraft created. THE TOWER OF THE ELEPHANT was also used as an influence for the famous kidnapping scene in the CONAN THE BARBARIAN film. And it was data mined once again in BLOOD OF THE SERPENT. Stirling, in yet another attempt, I think, to tie in as many Easter Eggs as he could into one loincloth, swerves us as Conan faces the story’s big bad. It made me wish Stirling would’ve just called the book THE BLOOD OF CTHULHU and saved me the time of reading it.
Well written, but too many uses of modern references and shoehorned plot devices ultimately ruined this book for me. I’m not finding myself excited for more books from Stirling in this world. The Jason Momoa Conan film is better at times. This book ultimately reminded me of the infamous Robert Jordan Conan novel released in the 80s, wherein the editor changed all the ANDs to ANs, and that was a big enough stain on the franchise. At least Stirling’s dialogue is better than Jordan’s. Awful, misogynistic lines like “I’ll ride you like a draft horse, long and hard,” aren’t found, and I give him props for avoiding the often racist stereotypes authors of Howard’s era included in their prose. But whereas Victor Lavalle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM does an excellent, organic job of that… CONAN: BLOOD OF THE SERPENT flounders and wiggles like a headless snake. I can only recommend this to hardcore Conan fans or people looking for their first Conan story to read. I suggest the latter, because things can only get better for them from here.