Conan – Blood of the Serpent marks the long-awaited return of the fantasy genre’s most famous barbarian hero to long-form prose. First introduced to the world by Robert E. Howard in a 1932 issue of Weird Tales magazine, the Conan stories have had a tumultuous publication history. After Howard’s 1936 suicide, hardback releases by Gnome Press in the 1950s and enduring support in the pages of fanzines like Amra kept the barbarian from disappearing into obscurity. Editors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter further popularized Conan in the 1960s with a series of paperback novels that blended Howard’s original material, “posthumous collaborations” based in part on unpublished fragments and outlines, and stories created whole cloth by de Camp and Carter. While the publishers and contributors involved shifted multiple times in the decades to follow, paperbacks featuring Conan the Cimmerian were a ubiquitous presence on bookstore shelves until the late 90s, when releases slowed to a trickle. Harry Turtledove’s Conan of Venarium was released as late as 2003, but the recent trend has been to reject pastiche and return to Howard’s original texts, excised of the occasionally controversial embellishments and expansions of later authors. Some fans argue that the original Howard work is all we need, but others still yearn to see Conan set out on new adventures. The past few years have shown a tentative few steps back in that direction with the 2019 publication of two novellas—one by John C. Hocking and one by Scott Oden—serialized as part of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian and The Savage Sword of Conan comic book series. Oden was also commissioned to write a short story for inclusion with the Conan Unconquered (2019) video game. Perhaps signaling the start of a greater revival, Conan – Blood of the Serpent is the first original full-length novel to feature Conan in nearly twenty years.
Positioned as a prequel to the 1936 Howard novella Red Nails, Conan – Blood of the Serpent opens with the titular barbarian languishing in Sukhmet, a backwater village in Stygia, the Hyborian Age’s antediluvian precursor to ancient Egypt. Employed as a scout in Zarallo’s Free Companions, a multi-ethnic mercenary band hired by the Stygians to guard against Darfari raiders, Conan seems to spend as much time riding herd on drunk and idle sell-swords as dealing with foreign threats. The monotony of garrison life is shaken up, however, when he encounters a new addition to the band: Valeria. Formerly of the Red Brotherhood, the blonde and blue-eyed pirate’s beauty is matched only by her lethality. Conan is instantly smitten. Fiercely independent and all too accustomed to advances from her compatriots, Valeria is unimpressed. Conan isn’t the only one pursuing Valeria; while Conan is content to bide his time and prove his merits, an arrogant Stygian commander named Khafset proves himself less willing to take no for an answer. His fixation turns to murderous hatred, forcing Valeria and Conan to embark on a desperate journey across untamed lands, contending with threats both terrestrial and supernatural. Together and apart, Conan and Valeria carve a bloody swath across deserts and jungles, their footsteps dogged by the evil magic of the serpent-worshiping Stygian priesthood.
As a new Conan adventure, Conan – Blood of the Serpent is largely successful. Numerous authors have shown that Conan can be a deceptively tricky character to portray with any accuracy. Decades of inconsistency and, for lack of a better term, “flanderization” across various forms of media have led to a multitude of Conans that sometimes wildly diverge from his depiction in the original tales. Too often the result is a brutish, monosyllabic, meat-headed jock rather than the cunning, pantherish figure created by Howard. In Conan – Blood of the Serpent S. M. Stirling demonstrates a nuanced grasp of the character. His Conan is appropriately deadly in combat and takes the direct approach when need be, but he’s also just as likely to use clever strategy or stealth to deal with obstacles. In The Phoenix on the Sword, the very first Conan short story, Howard described the character as possessing “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.” While so many depictions of Conan give us the former, grim-faced and dour, Stirling goes out on a limb a little and shows us some of that mirth, in a way we don’t often get to see. His Conan is downright jovial at times. Throughout the novel, Stirling displays a reassuring understanding of Conan’s character.
While Stirling delivers an entertaining Conan story, what he does NOT do is emulate Robert E. Howard’s style. I suspect this will be the most controversial aspect of the book for longtime Conan fans, as the most celebrated pastiche novels (i.e., the ones still talked about today, as opposed to lesser efforts) sought to pair an authentic-feeling Conan with prose that feels like something Howard would have written. And Stirling doesn’t do that, he simply declines. The book is written in a thoroughly modern style, and Stirling doesn’t go out of his way to pepper the text with Howard’s favorite expressions. Where Howard’s Conan tends to express his reflections and feelings through his actions and remarks, Stirling gives him the degree of interiority that contemporary readers are accustomed to, complete with italicized thoughts.
Not only is Conan – Blood of the Serpent a prequel to Howard’s Red Nails as advertised, I was surprised to discover that the final pages of the novel lead directly into the novella in question, with zero gap in the narrative. Titan Books wisely included Red Nails in this volume, and frankly the book would have felt incomplete otherwise. It’s a laudable move, as it allows newcomers to read a modern fantasy novel paired with one of the very best of the original Conan stories, but it also makes the contrasts between each writer’s style particularly stark. Both authors give the reader numerous scenes of intense combat against both man and beast (Stirling’s Conan slaughters a veritable zoo’s worth of African wildlife), but I was surprised to find it was Howard that went further in graphic detail when describing bloody swordplay. Also, perhaps inevitably due to the long-form novel format, Stirling struggles to maintain the propulsive, breakneck pacing seen in Howard’s short stories and novellas. Parts of Conan – Blood of the Serpent feel padded by comparison. The novel begins with not one but TWO tavern brawl scenes, whereas Howard would have cut to the literal chase and started his tale at the point in the narrative Stirling only reaches after a hundred pages. On the other hand, the extra space gives Stirling more breathing room for characterization. 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. Non-white characters are also given more dimension, while Howard tended to rely on the stock archetypes his pulp audience would have been familiar with.
Conan – Blood of the Serpent is blatantly a Conan novel written by S. M. Stirling, and not something that could be mistaken as a lost Howard tale. This is all die-hard Conan fans need to know. If Howard’s distinctive blood and thunder authorial style is a requirement for a prospective reader to enjoy a Conan story, this book may be skipped. But newcomers to Conan and existing fans who love the character and are open to other voices are encouraged to take a look. This volume delivers an engaging and approachable new adventure along with one of the very best of the classic stories. Regardless of whether or not future novel plots are directly connected to the events of the original stories, I would love to see Titan Books continue to package new stories with the classics.