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Conan: Blood of the Serpent review

Novel by Stephen Michael Stirling with very considerable help by Steve Saffel

Dedicated to Stephen's late wife Janet

Illustrations by Rob De La Torre

From Titan Books and Heroic Signatures

Also available unabridged on audiobook, but WITHOUT the Red Nails novella, read by Bradford Hastings 

Trivia: Stephen also wrote the introduction to Eons of the Night (The Robert E. Howard Library Vol. 5) way back in 1996.

The All-New Chronicles of the Worlds Greatest Barbarian Hero start here!

Spoilers! Spoilers! 

A prequel to Robert E. Howard's Red Nails.

A cat infested (cats are sacred to Stygians) Sukhmet tavern south of the River Styx in Stygia. Sword for hire/mercenary Conan, now a scout in Zingaran commander Zarallo’s Free Companions (Zingarans sunk Conan's previous ship), is playing dice with friend Anjallo.

Conan notices that two Zamorans are trying to trick Brocas, a young Corinthian, into an unfair duel. Conan destroys the arm of one Zamoran while Brocas kills the other. Conan goes back to his dice game.

Swordswoman/skirmisher Valeria of the Red Brotherhood appears, like Conan she too is wearing sailor-style pants.
Khafset, a Stygian officer commander of the Setnakht Frontier Guards, is interested in the beautiful freebooter, Valeria is not. She humiliates Khafset, the highest-born noble in the district, and drinks his wine.

Our soldier of fortune from Cimmeria tries to pick up Valeria, but she chooses a younger beau. Conan follows them into the night.

6 thugs appear, Valeria kills 5 and then flees over a rooftop. 

Conan interrogates the survivor, they were paid by a Stygian noble. Conan kills him and takes his money which includes a freshly minted gold Stygian crown. Conan finds a gold coin on each of the dead thugs. Conan is positive that they were paid to kidnap Valeria. Conan pockets the 6 coins and absurdly hides all the cadavers in just one place.

Conan and Valeria report to the office of Zarallo.

As punishment Valeria will escort with Conan a convoy destined for the Wedi Shebelli gold mine-compound.

Akhenset and his Scouts go ahead of the convoy.

Conan gets the okay from Gahonre, a tattooed Pict, that his convoy can cross the river.

Valeria, the pirate woman, shows Conan she can handle ropes and knots.

A slave fails to escape and is left to the Crows.

They do some mass hunting in open country. They prepare and eat the meat.

Valeria finds a death fetish of herself made by an anorexic priest of the serpent god Set. She destroys it. The priest mysteriously disappears from their convoy.

They arrive at the mines. Their temple of Set has statues of Cthulhu, a squid-headed humanoid and the missing priest is already there waiting for them. 

The outgoing officer gives his replacement (Akhenset) a bronze-handled mace carved in serpent-scale patterns.

The anorexic priest with the help of his acolytes start sacrificing the outgoing slaves, one after the other. 

Conan hears other screams from behind him.

The fresh slaves escape, swarm the temple of Set, kill the acolytes, Akhenset and the outgoing officer.

Commander Gelete and his Nubakan archers try to stop the rebelling slaves. The slaves burn down everything. Conan leads the retreat.

After a few miles the convoy makes camp. A zariba (a fence of thorns) is erected.

Gelete, Zarkabaal (leader of the squad of Shemite horse-archers) and Conan find 2 chests full of gold from the mines.

They decide to hunt. Back in his little wagon the still perfectly healthy Stygian priest is casting evil hunt-charms.

Conan is attacked by a possessed lion, it gets killed. Conan euthanatizes his crippled horse.

Valeria is attacked by a possessed rhino, it falls with her horse into a chasm.

Conan thinks of murdering the Stygian priest, but fears retribution.

They have a crocodile infested river to cross. The crocs attack! 
Only Conan can see that the priest of Set is sacrificing Stygians children to summon the reptiles.
Conan kills a croc to reach the priest.
Conan saves the last child from dying by killing the priest.
The priest puts a curse on Conan.
He hides the priest's severed head in a bag.
The crocs stop attacking immediately. 
Brocas pays his duel debt by getting our now cursed Conan out of the water away from a croc.

Valeria saved some of the gold from the croc attack.
They decide to let Conan hide half of the gold.

Conan rides Caithaona, his horse, to a cave that's decorated with paintings of serpent-men from Kull's time.
He finds a king’s tomb. Conan hears the king in his mind asking to leave and to touch nothing.
Conan leaves his saddlebags full of gold and gives an offering of one gold ingot.

A giant baboon attacks Conan on his way home, it gets killed.
12 giant baboons try to catch Conan.
He kills 2 and directs the rest towards 10 lions.

Conan and friends bring the rest of the gold to Zarallo and Wenamun, the pudgy governor of Sukhmet. 
Wenamun finds the amount insufficient but rewards Conan and friends anyway.
Zarallo sees thru the subterfuge and Conan tells him that they kept half.
Zarallo will fix their share for them and the rest will go to the Free Companions.
Conan tells Zarallo where the gold is hidden.

Stygian officer Lord Nebset is looking for his brother Khafset's murderer: Valeria. 

Zarkabaal and Conan take forever to start the search for Valeria.
Conan with his 4 horses leaves his regiment behind to track Valeria and Nebset (who is also tracking Valeria) on his own.
Again a crocodile attacks our still cursed Conan.
1 horse runs away in terror.

Conan kills the 2 cheetahs of 2 mounted Darfari huntsmen that are pursuing a naked Irawagbon of Abomey, one of the spear-wives of Abomean King Osakwe. He kills 1 lancer, she kills the other.

The buttocks obsessed Irawagbon frees Conan's 3 horses and they both crawl into a cave.

Irawagbon describes the dinosaur from Red Nails.

Conan agrees to rescue Irawagbon's captured sisters. They climb out of the cave.

Irawagbon makes a sling from Conan's leather pants.
She kills quails, they eat, they make love.

Irawagbon disappears. Conan finds her bound next to Kerchaki apes dancing the Dum-Dum.
Conan sets fire to their nest and kills the silverback patriarch.

They arrive at the ancient shrine of Derketa.
They free Irawagbon's 80 fellow warriors including their Commander, Nawi.
All Darfari captors get slaughtered.
Shaman Gagooli cannot break the Stygian priest’s curse, instead she gives Conan a curse shielding bracelet and tells him where to find Lord Nebset.
Conan bids the women adieu.

Another possessed rhinoceros attacks, Conan loses both of his packhorses.
He saves Sākhoen chief Ich’keomon, from the rhino and it falls into a spiked pit.
Ich’keomon's band disassemble the rhino.
Conan is offered but refuses the Rhino's horn, he explains the horn's true monetary value.
They eat the Rhino.
Ich’keomon will help Conan track down Valeria, they find a twice used campfire.
Ich’keomon protects a sleeping Conan by killing a 12 feet long Venomous snake.
Conan bids the chief adieu.

Conan wakes up from a nightmare, is attacked by a smaller 6 feet long Venomous snake, he kills and eats it for breakfast.

Conan forces himself to go south, the curse is making him go north.
A leopard attacks, Conan kills it and he loses his horse.
He finally reaches Nebset’s camp.
Nebset is using a snake amulet to track Valeria.
A ring of tiny wooden totems blocks Conan from reaching Nebset.
Like Tarzan, Conan uses liana vines to go over the totems.

Conan is besieged by phantasms of giant serpents and a Cthulhu.
Conan kills a real serpent, a real paw lacerates him, a real swarm of insects goes for his face.
Protected by Gagooli's bracelet, it guides him towards the source of his torment, the amulet. 
Conan halves the amulet, this hurts Nebset. The curse at long last leaves Conan.
Conan kills Nebset, eats his food, drinks his Stygian wine and takes his horse. 

Conan finds Valeria's horse and the skeleton of a man. Robert E. Howard's Red Nails begins.

What I did like:

Remember Conan? He is Novel form! Pog form? We can only dream.

The barbarian mind laid bare. Reading Conan's inner thoughts. 

Abomeans are new creations clearly based on the Agojie of Dahomey. Abombi was mentioned in Scarlet Citadel.

British slang used. The author's mother was born in England.

Kerchaki from Tarzan mentioned.

Cosmic entity Cthulhu is a Lovecraft creation. Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were pen pals.

Rogues in the House callback.

Demon Lamashtu mentioned.

Phoenician gods Chusor and Melqart mentioned.

To be seventy years old (the age of the author).

King of Aquilonia, Conan's future is hinted at.

Mythological Powries mentioned.

Yara from the Tower of the Elephant mentioned. 

Conan mentions that he lived in Shadizar, Zamora for a full year.

Conan is wearing breeches.

Conan compared to a Lion. Amra the Lion.

Set/Shining One/Setesh mentioned.

Mitra mentioned.

God of thieves Bel mentioned.

“I’ll be back” Arnold Schwarzenegger homage. S. M. Stirling wrote three TERMINATOR 2 novels.

Venarium mentioned.

Valusia from Kull of Atlantis mentioned.

Ishtar mentioned.

Derketa of the poisonous apples mentioned.

Celtic god Lugh mentioned.

Sea gods Lir and Manannán mac Lir mentioned.

Semitic deity Chemosh mentioned.

What I did not like:

The cover is safe, politically correct... for now. Maybe swords and serpents will be offensive in a couple of years. A raw and powerful Ken Kelly/Frazetta-like cover would be much too awesome.

Being ashamed of the past. If you find Robert E. Howard’s most famous sword-and-sorcery tale, Red Nails, embarrassing, it's simple, don't offer it as a bonus.

Steve Saffel's name is not on the cover.

Needed more Valeria!

The villains are not developed. 

Too much Tarzan, not enough Conan. BTW Robert E. Howard was a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burrough's Cimmerian darkness in Tarzan the Untamed, even Howard's famous hat picture is inspired by Burroughs's famous hat picture.

The killing of so many animals. The novel's original title must have been: A Cimmerian on safari.

Getting a doctorate in convoy logistics.

Claw and Fang tavern is not named Spear and Fang tavern. Lame.

Too much time doing nothing. Stuffing the tale by describing the air, the flora, the fauna, architecture, rooms, drinks, food, horse riding, hunting. Enough already this is not National Geographic presents: Conan the Barbarian.

Too many characters struggling with languages/vocabularies.

The stupid insults.

The vulgar humour.

The climatic melee with Nebset is a mess and way too short. Confusing and unsatisfying. Bracelets become Amulets? Illusions become real? Who cares? No one will get to the end of the tale anyway?

No John Milius cameo!

I give it a 7/10. What we have here is a new Conan pastiche novel by a Cyberdyne Systems expert clearly written not to mystify the neophytes. We get a very Schwarzenegger-ish Conan, a Sandahl-ish Valeria, Set worshippers, the tomb of an Atlantean general and Rexor's “You!” (We miss you Ben Davidson!). Ron Cobb's Atlantean Sword from the 1982 movie is even on the cover. 

A laborious travail to read. You'll need toothpicks to keep your eyes open... but the very few illustrations by Roberto are fantastic, even if they are too small!  I'm man enough to admit that I wept multiple times exclaiming: When is Conan Going To Get To The Red Nails Factory! It took too long, but it is done... indeed.

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