Conan – Blood of the Serpent by S. M. Stirling, Titan Books, December 6th, 2022
Last month I reviewed The Siege of the Black Citadel by “The Legend” Chuck Dixon. I mentioned in the review that it was the first I had read that wasn’t written by Robert E. Howard (excepting comics). I expressed that I was reluctant to read stories by other authors because I didn’t believe they could live up to Howard’s work but that Dixon came very close which is high praise.
Late last year, the first new Conan novel since 2011 was published by Titan Books some months before Dixon’s new story was out. This is written by S.M. Stirling who has been a published author since the 1980s though I hadn’t heard of him until now. Blood of the Serpent is written as a prequel to what is probably Howard’s most recognised story, Red Nails and indeed, the events are so closely tied that it is included at the back. When I noticed my library had a copy, I thought it would be worth reading to compare with both Howard and Dixon.
It wasn’t but read on as I elaborate.
S.M. Stirling is a competent enough writer and he has made use of plot details provided in Red Nails to construct his narrative. What is wrong with this has little to do with his writing and more to do with what is revealed in the Afterword:
“Red Nails” is pure Howard… Raw and powerful, it’s also very much of its time— written almost a century ago, when our culture could be less socially aware and genre fiction in particular often exhibited rough edges some of today’s readers may find jarring.
From this alone we can establish that both the publisher and the author are embarrassed by (or dislike) the source material. It is not clear who wrote the Afterword so I will assume this is a shared opinion. It would have been more honest to put this in the Foreword so a potential reader could have saved themselves the hassle of finding out. As opposed to “some” of today’s readers, the main reason Howard is seeing a resurgence in popularity is because readers are looking for exactly what they find within Howard. Far from “jarring”, they find his stories refreshing and exciting.
The other problem is if you think Howard had “rough edges”, then why write a new story so closely related instead of one that can stand on its own? Blood of the Serpent is completely dependent on Red Nails. The ending is the beginning of the latter and so the ending to Blood of the Serpent isn’t really an ending at all without knowledge of what it is leading up to. What makes this even worse is that it is over three times the length and establishes nothing that wasn’t done more efficiently and eloquently in the opening pages of Red Nails. So on these points alone it is pointless but it gets worse still.
Red Nails is also the first (and only) appearance of Valeria in Howard’s work. She has since appeared in the comics and was also in the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film played by Sandahl Bergman. I would say it is her presence more than anything that inspired the author to write a prequel to Red Nails. This is how their relationship is first established by Howard:
“Conan, the Cimmerian!” ejaculated the woman. “What are you doing on my trail?”
He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure, lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt, and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.
“Don’t you know?” he laughed. “Haven’t I made my admiration for you plain ever since I first saw you?”
He is soon rebuffed:
“Keep back, you barbarian dog! I’ll spit you like a roast pig!”
He halted, reluctantly, and demanded: “Do you want me to take that toy away from you and spank you with it?”
“Words! Nothing but words!” she mocked, lights like the gleam of the sun on blue water dancing in her reckless eyes.
He knew it was the truth. No living man could disarm Valeria of the Brotherhood with his bare hands. He scowled, his sensations a tangle of conflicting emotions. He was angry, yet he was amused and filled with admiration for her spirit. He burned with eagerness to seize that splendid figure and crush it in his iron arms, yet he greatly desired not to hurt the girl. He was torn between a desire to shake her soundly, and a desire to caress her. He knew if he came any nearer her sword would be sheathed in his heart. He had seen Valeria kill too many men in border forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her. He knew she was as quick and ferocious as a tigress. He could draw his broadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but the thought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury, was extremely repugnant to him.
Red Nails, 1. The Skull on the Crag
Valeria is tough — for a woman — but it is also made clear that she would have no chance against Conan in a straight fight. In contrast, Stirling introduces readers to her like this:
“Keep your paws off my a*** [I don’t allow profanity on my blog], Stygian pig,” the voice said, “or I’ll feed you your fingers and ram your severed sword hand thumb up your bunghole with the toe of my boot.”
Blood of the Serpent, Chapter 1
Being a pirate, Valeria was noted to have quite a mouth on her multiple times in Red Nails but Howard never felt the need to be explicit and this immediately clashes with Red Nails which again: Blood of the Serpent is dependent upon. This altercation leads unsurprisingly to a bar fight where Conan offers some timely assistance but Valeria mostly overcomes the men on her own. Following this is their first meeting and this is a little way into their first conversation:
“For a start, I can tell a she-wolf from a lapdog.”
“Calling me a b**** , Cimmerian?” she said, but with a very slight smile.
“Only in a good way,” he replied. “By way of respect. I heard how you made your way in the Brotherhood. You’ve got fangs, and you can bite hard, no dispute.”
She rose. “And now I’ll be off.”
He raised his hands in an ostentatiously unarmed pose again, and gave her a frankly admiring look.
“Care to have me walk back to the barracks with you?” he offered. “I’m heading there soon.”
“Not tonight, Cimmerian.” Her gaze was coolly neutral. “Perhaps not ever.”
He dropped his hands back to his thighs. “Your choice, soldier.”
Valeria then picks out another soldier to go to the barracks with and leaves Conan alone. This conversations is uncharacteristic for Conan and Stirling seems to have completely missed that much of Valeria’s tough exterior is a façade. I will come back to the latter towards the end but this is a good example of what one can expect from the rest of the novel. I couldn’t fit this Conan at all with the one I know and could only make it work by imagining that whenever he spoke to Valeria, his muscles atrophied, his stomach ballooned and his hair fell out. He then put on a pair of glasses and started showing Valeria his best Monty Python impressions. In other words, he turns into a gamma because that’s only way her disgust towards him makes sense. Then whenever there was danger, he became Conan again much like Prince Adam transforms into He-Man. Just compare those sections just quoted with the ones from Red Nails again if it is not already clear enough.
Conan is also now sensitive about using “inclusive” language:
He stopped himself before he said Zaraollo’s men.
One of the main things that attracts people to Conan was his disdain for civilisation’s niceties and these remember, were 1930s American niceties which aren’t considered nice anymore. The idea that Conan would care about offending Valeria would only work in a parody. And Howard’s Valeria wouldn’t have appreciated it either as she complains in the opening pages of Red Nails, “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?” She wants to be treated like one of the boys — not singled out.
Here are a few similar examples which I’ll provide without further commentary:
No scratch force like the slaves—
Former slaves, he corrected.
—would pose any threat.
“Aaaaaah,” Valeria said softly as the chest-lid swung back with a creak. “Oh, that is so pretty. Ohhhhh, yes, yes!”
She’s never looked on me with such favor, Conan thought—but with an inward chuckle, for the sight restored his good spirits, too.
“Sukhmet has flames of its own, now,” he pointed out. “And you are the torch.”
“Men!” She snorted and shouldered her saddle. Then she walked off, bending to the right, and found a spot under the wagon.
“I thank her for her favor,” [Conan] said. In this time among the civilzed lands, he’d learned that it never hurt to be polite, and there was nothing people resented more than a slight to their gods.
There are many such cases.
I didn’t mention earlier but in that bar fight in the opening pages, Valeria kicked a man in the “balls”. Stirling seems to think this is really funny as he has it mentioned multiple times. I don’t know how many exactly but this would be the third or fourth:
“You know that Stygian officer she kicked in the balls?” the mercenary commander said. “Named Khafset?” He spat out the word.
Conan laughed, and it didn’t even hurt much.
“I was there,” he said. “What a woman!”
“What a she-devil, ” Zarallo ground out. “For reasons known only to the venom-addled brain of a Stygian noble, Khafset decided to have a second go at our Valeria.”
Conan laughed again. “Some men don’t learn what no means, even with a boot to the balls and a swordpoint to the nose,” he said. “How badly did she beat him this time?”
I’m not a big guy and I haven’t been in many fights but I do know that kicking a man in his testicles will not have him comically drop to his knees while clutching his loins and wailing. That is even if you manage to hit such a delicate and specific spot during a violent altercation. I also know that if you actually did, it would likely make the man you were fighting even angrier — assuming he even noticed. In intense situations, men can get serious injuries they don’t notice until afterwards. This also fits into another aspect that while Howard quickly establishes Valeria as a tough pirate femme fatale, Stirling feels the need to keep reminding the reader:
“Valeria, take the rest of the skirmishers—”
Instantly the warrior woman gave him her full attention. Conan wasn’t surprised. She was sharp-witted, could fight, and had commanded ships and men in her time with the Red Brotherhood. Blood ran down her sword, and there was a long scratch on her steel cap where something had hit, hard.
The mercenaries would follow her.
The story is mostly focused on Conan but I get the impression the author really wanted to write about what a wonderful slay-queen-girl-boss Valeria is. This also gives a possible explanation why Conan seems to turn into a weird creep whenever he speaks with her. That bar fight is actually what drives most of the story which again, doesn’t really go anywhere. Valeria later murders the man she fought and is then pursued by his brother Nebset which takes up the majority of the very slow narrative. That these brothers are Stygian and worship Set and a curse is placed on Conan and Valeria by a Stygian priest is where the title comes in.
This leads to a number of encounters with possessed wild animals attacking them. It is certainly exciting the first time but these encounters happen over and over and with animals like crocodiles and lions when in the opening chapter of Red Nails, Conan fights an unearthly dragon. What story there is could easily have been compressed to around the same length of Red Nails and this would have fitted much better. Conan is conveniently able to break this curse right before the end but it is an odd inclusion as I can’t find a hint of it in Red Nails and it surely would have been mentioned by the characters over the far more mundane bar fight and murder that led to Valeria’s flight.
Before returning to Valeria, early in Red Nails, Conan bluntly states his feelings about black women:
“The Zingarans sank my last ship off the Shemite shore—that’s why I joined Zarallo’s Free Companions. But I saw I’d been stung when we marched to the Darfar border. The pay was poor and the wine was sour, and I don’t like black women. And that’s the only kind that came to our camp at Sukhmet—rings in their noses and their teeth filed—bah! Why did you join Zarallo? Sukhmet’s a long way from salt water.”
Red Nails, 1. The Skull on the Crag
This would obviously have been “jarring” to Stirling so he has Conan fornicate with a black “Amazon” named “Irawagbon” who he rescues while in pursuit of Valeria:
Irawagbon grinned at him from where she’d laid her half of the groundsheet.
“Hei-eh, Conan,” she asked. “Ask?”
“I see pretty a*** again? He could just make out the double-handed clutching gesture she made, along with a broad wink. Then she added, “Feel, too?”
No, I definitely won’t tell Valeria about this part of the journey, he thought as he walked over.
Blood of the Serpent, Chapter 21
So Conan’s claim to not like black women is hypocrisy — which is yet another inconsistency with Howard’s frank, clear-thinking barbarian. Or the author could be trying to cover for Conan’s “racism” in Red Nails by showing that he really loves black women and they love him right back. Either way, introducing Irawagbon in this brief episode was pointless for plot progression unless he is planning to write about events after Red Nails and bring her back. This is also an example Stirling’s frequent inclusion of broken English to convey communication difficulties which was irritating.
Returning finally to Valeria’s tough façade, she is shown very early by Howard to be vulnerable and willing in Conan’s arms:
“Sit down,” he grunted, catching her by her wrist and pulling her down on his knee. She was too surprised to resist as he took her sword from her hand and shoved it back in its sheath. “Sit still and calm down. You’d only break your steel on his scales. He’d gobble you up at one gulp, or smash you like an egg with that spiked tail of his. We’ll get out of this jam some way, but we shan’t do it by getting chewed up and swallowed.”
She made no reply, nor did she seek to repulse his arm from about her waist. She was frightened, and the sensation was new to Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. So she sat on her companion’s—or captor’s—knee with a docility that would have amazed Zarallo, who had anathematized her as a she-devil out of hell’s seraglio.
Unlike Stirling, Howard gets behind the façade:
Valeria looked at him blankly, her resentment forgotten. She fought down a surging of panic. She had proved her reckless courage a thousand times in wild battles on sea and land, on the blood-slippery decks of burning war-ships, in the storming of walled cities, and on the trampled sandy beaches where the desperate men of the Red Brotherhood bathed their knives in one another’s blood in their fights for leadership. But the prospect now confronting her congealed her blood. A cutlass-stroke in the heat of battle was nothing; but to sit idle and helpless on a bare rock until she perished of starvation, besieged by a monstrous survival of an elder age—the thought sent panic throbbing through her brain.
Red Nails, 1. The Skull on the Crag
And the reasons behind Valeria’s continued rebuffs are shown to be typically female:
Alone in the room, the pirate shot the bolts on all the doors, kicked off her boots and stretched luxuriously out on the couch. She imagined Conan similarly situated across the corridor, but her feminine vanity prompted her to visualize him as scowling and muttering with chagrin as he cast himself on his solitary couch, and she grinned with gleeful malice as she prepared herself for slumber.
Red Nails, 4. Scent of Black Lotus
By the end, Valeria is very willingly in Conan’s arms as she was always going to be. She wanted to be conquered by Howard’s Conan; not pandered to by Stirling’s creepy gamma Conan. When I wrote about Howard’s Sword Woman, I noted that Howard is much better at writing a convincing female warrior than any writers in mainstream circles today. This is certainly true here though I can offer the faint praise that it could have been even worse.
Unlike Stirling, Dixon clearly loves Conan and respects Howard. He has written a completely original story that is true to the character and the setting and also within a similar length to much of Howard’s prose. Stirling has written a long-winded pastiche that is pointless without the story it is connected to but at the same time; does not fit with Howard’s style or characters found in that story. Reading Red Nails alone is more than enough and you can read it for free. It is certainly possible to write a good prequel to Red Nails but Stirling has not done it and I really hope he doesn’t attempt a sequel.