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Conan - Blood of the Serpent: The All-New Chronicles of the Worlds Greatest Barbarian Hero

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When the last chapter of Stirling’s novel converges into REH’s “Red Nails” I was reminded of the vastly inferior Conan and the Stygian Queen by Jess Thornton. And of course it’s Conan, this is a character we bring a lot to as readers, and it’s wonderful to experience new adventures with him again. Stirling has obviously done his homework and comes up with a plausible geopolitical scenario for Stygia and the surrounding kingdoms which fits into and expands upon the groundwork that Howard laid. What ensues is a series of two-fisted sword and sorcery adventures that reads to me like a good Western tale.

Particularly I loved the line (paraphrasing) that went something like "if he was particularly inclined toward cannibalism, he still wouldn't go near that body". He is known to have been a thief, a mercenary, a soldier, a pirate, whatever warms the bed and fills the belly. In this book, though, I would say it teeters heavily on the side of epic low fantasy as opposed to sword and sorcery. To say I was thrilled to discover a new Conan novel is the understatement of my year or maybe even decade.

Numerous authors have shown that Conan can be a deceptively tricky character to portray with any accuracy. I will say that there was enough fun action in Blood of the Serpent to elevate it to a passing grade for me. Well, I've read every Howard Conan story, but not many pastiches, so I can't compare to other non-Howard tales. I literally get chills when I read the line “Know ye O’ Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis….

Respectfully, Stirling doesn’t quite capture the dark undercurrent that hides in the periphery of Conan’s personality. He has the space to directly show us aspects of Conan’s character (his mastery of wilderness survival, for example) that are generally mentioned in passing in Howard’s own work. I did not struggle to get engaged with the tale, and looked forward to each reading session (it’s a brisk 300 pages with illustrations). Extended sequences of meat-butchering and food preparation and other such details feel non-Howardian, giving the novel a gritter and more grounded/modern feel at the expense of the poetry, romance, and mythic aura of Howard’s best prose.Titan republished “Red Nails” here in the book in full, appending the story to the end of Stirling’s tale. Some fans argue that the original Howard work is all we need, but others still yearn to see Conan set out on new adventures. This sustained tension between responsibility and self-actualization makes the character perennially intriguing. Oh, well, that and the sorcery that Stirling hints at, but doesn't really dive into with both feet like Howard did. Readers familiar with Howard will fully understand the use of heightened language used to evoke a bygone age, even if some of the character descriptions might fall foul of contemporary sensibilities.

I hope I’m wrong but a slam against what I (and millions, in the case of the Lancers) enjoyed before does not seem the best foot to start the new journey. Anyone familiar with the original Howard yarns will immediately notice that Conan (and Valeria for that matter) act completely out of character throughout the entire novel.

CONAN OF CIMMERIAAs sword for hire for a mercenary troop, Conan finds himself in Sukhmet, a filthy backwater town south of the River Styx considered "the arse-end of Stygia. For more contemporary fantasy fans this might be a good bridge between modern prose style and the leaner style of classic pulp fiction.

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