S. M. Stirling’s Conan: Blood of the Serpent is the first in a new period of Conan the Cimmerian pastiche novels. What is a pastiche you ask? A pastiche is an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.
L. Sprague de Camp began writing Conan pastiche stories in the 1950s, mainly rewriting Robert E. Howard adventure stories or using incomplete stories with a synopsis and later with Lin Carter. He enlisted others including Andrew Offutt, Poul Anderson, and Karl Edward Wagner for the second wave in the 1970s. The third wave started in 1982 with “Robert Jordan” for Tor Books. There were in total 44 Conan novels by John Maddox Roberts, Leonard Carpenter, Sean Moore, Steve Perry, John C. Hocking, Roland Green, and finally Harry Turtledove in 2003. The series went out with a whimper with Turtledove’s novel Conan of Venarium which was seems to be written as a parody.
S. M. Stirling has been hit and miss for me. I have read his Draka books, the Raj Whitehall series with David Drake, and the first couple Emberverse books. I really hated the character Juniper MacKenzie from Dies the Fire. I wanted her to die a horrible death, preferably by cannibals (called “eater”).
Blood of the Serpent is the kickoff volume for Titan Books initiating a new round of Conan pastiches. This is not a mass market paperback but a big hardback with 432 pages. The e-book is 350 pages on my computer tablet. It is the events before Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails.” Conan has joined a mercenary company hired by the Stygians to guard an outpost on the southern border.
Sterling shows what garrison duty is like. Valeria is introduced in a bar scene wherein she humiliates an arrogant Stygian noble who comes on to her. Conan observes Valeria deal with a group of hired thugs on the way back to the barracks from the tavern.
Conan, Valeria, and some other mercs are given the job as scouts for an expedition to haul gold from mines. Stirling gives over a lot of space to hunting and cooking. Things go wrong with a slave revolt at the mines. Conan rallies disparate troops to escape the slaughter. There is some skulduggery with a Stygian priest directing a crocodile attack in a river crossing.
The remnants make it back to Sukhmet. Valeria flees soon after for killing the Stygian noble introduced at the beginning of the novel. Conan deserts to follow her. There are further adventures as Conan encounters the women warriors of Abomey. Stirling created Abomey as Howard never mentioned it. He did mention the Amazons though.
Conan deals with a group of Stygians on the trail of Valeria. “Red Nails” is incorporated into the novel at page 254.
Interspersed within the book are interior illustrations by Robert De La Torre which are perfectly serviceable.
I am a Hyborian Age scholar. Stirling does a fairly good job. I did note he has the River Styx more south than in the maps of the Hyborian Age. Stirling knows his ancient and medieval warfare and knows how to write a battle scene.
My ongoing criticism is sword & sorcery does not lend itself to 100,000 word novels. The form works well at the novelette and novella level.
Richard A. Lupoff had this great passage in Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure:
“I hesitate to call Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian an imitation of Tarzan; the influence of Burroughs on Howard was great but Howard’s imagination was so powerful that any Tarzan in Conan tends to be submerged in the latter’s roaring, brawling, drinking, wenching personality.”
You have a 432 page book which is way bigger than any Tarzan novel. Stirling went pre-pulp as inspiration to fill out a novel of this size. Blood of the Serpent has spots that remind me of H. Rider Haggard’s “Allan Quatermain” novels. Those have leisurely scenes of Quatermain going hunting, describing herds of antelopes, and the wide open vistas of the veldt. The book moved along and was not boring but it is a pastiche.
Is Blood of the Serpent going to re-energize Conan? I doubt it. I have the consistent position that first and foremost, the Robert E. Howard Conan stories need to be available in mass market paperback. Pastiches are gravy for the trademark owners but not bread & butter. Most buying Blood of the Serpent are Conanists. They want more whether movies, comic books, or pastiche novels. I don’t think it is worth $25.95 in hardback. Wait for Hamilton Books to sell it for $5.95.
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