Friday, February 8, 2019

Forgotten Books: CONAN OF VENARIUM by Harry Turtledove (2003)

Between 1982 and 1997 Tor published more than forty original Conan novels by a gang of various authors. Then, for no good reason I could see, they stopped short, dribbling out this final volume in 2003. I bought them all, and many still wait to be read. But I've always been especially curious about this one, and its time finally came.

Near as I can tell, Conan of Venarium is the earliest account of our favorite barbarian's life. He's twelve when the story starts, and fourteen (or possibly fifteen) by the time it ends. And I'm pleased to report I enjoyed the whole journey. 

One reason I liked this book so much was the almost complete lack of supernatural nonsense. There are no sorcerors, no Lovecraftian gods, no giant snakes, and no monster apes. After all these years of Conan reading, the Hyborian Age has become as real to me as any other age of history, and the fantasy elements are no longer necessary. In other words, I like the Sword stuff, but can do without the Sorcery. In this case, in a book that's 369 pages long, the magic begins on page 60 and exits and page 65. And that's a good thing.

As the title implies, this is the story leading up to - and the aftermath of - Conan's first great battle, the fabled battle of Venarium. It begins with the Aquilonian army winning its first battle on Cimmerian soil and attempting to establish a colony. The victors, whose army includes Bossonian archers and pikemen from Gunderland, build Fort Venarium, and station outposts of troops in villages like Conan's hometown of Duthil.

Two of the main point-of-view characters hail from Gunderland. One is  a brave and sturdy farmer, eager for the opportunity to own his own land, and the other an admirable soldier posted near Duthil.  Both interact to some extent with young Conan and other Cimmerians, and both are sympathetic characters.

The villain of the piece is Count Sterac, an Aquilonian nobleman who's been banished to the hinterlands because of his lascivious behavior with young girls. He's roundly hated by everyone on both sides, but too powerful to challenge.

After their first defeat, the Cimmerians are biding their time, rebuilding their strength and itching for an uprising. Conan, of course, is in a big sweat to kill all the invaders, and even at twelve he's bigger and stronger than most adults. But the Aquilonians have sworn to kill ten Cimmerians for every Aquilonian death, so Conan has to grit his teeth and wait. The wait lasts two years, while more settles pour in, and Venarium grows from a fort into a town. 

One of the books most interesting angles is the depiction of Conan's parents. In an exceptionally clever move, Turtledove gave Conan the same family dynamic as REH himself. Conan's big strong father Modrec is clearly based on Dr. Isaac Howard, and his mother Verina is a Cimmerian version of Robert's possessive and controlling mother Hester. 

Verina uses her ill health like a weapon against Modrec, who spends as much time as can away from home. Conan, meanwhile, dotes on her, and his father's absence only tightens the bond between them. When Conan is asked to spend a few days away, tending a neighbor's sheep, the boy hesitates. "Will Mother be all right with just you here to take care of her?" Those words could have come right out of REH's mouth. Later, Verina tells Conan the girl he desires is a hussy and not good enough for him. Shades of Novalyne Price.

The suicide issue is hinted at when Verina's health declines, and Modrec worries what will happen when she dies. How long could she go on? he thinks. How could he go on - and esecially, how could Conan go on - when she lost her protracted struggle with mortality? When she finally dies, Conan's response is, "After today, with my mother dead, what care I if I live or die?"

Thankfully, that's as far as it goes. To see Conan lop off his own head in his first adventure would be a bit hard to swallow.  Instead, he lives to wreak vengeance on the Aquilonians. 

I have to wonder where the names Modrec, Verina and Duthil. Were they mentioned by someone sometime earlier in the Conan saga, or did Turtledove just make them up? Anyone know?

Here's something else I'm curious about. This, I believe, was the last mass market paperback I bought new, and the cover price was $6.99. And that was sixteen years ago! Jeez, if they cost that much then, how much are they going for now??


George said...

I have a bunch of TOR Conan paperbacks written by a variety of writers. I did read this Turtledove novel, but I don't know if he borrowed characters from earlier books or just made them up himself. There are rumors another series of Conan novels are in the works.

Evan Lewis said...

Good news, George. I don't think there's been a new Conan novel since this one, and have to suspect it was due to threats from whoever holds (or held) the movie rights.

Adventuresfantastic said...

George is correct about new Conan stories, although not all of them are novels. John C. Hocking is writing a novella which is being serialized in the new Conan comic and is supposed to have a new Conan novel out later this year.

Evan Lewis said...

More good news! John's earlier novel, Conan and the Emerald Lotus, was a good 'un.

See here:

Art Scott said...

Harry Turtledove (what a name!) will be signing at the LA Paperback Show March 24th in Glendale. Evan, you should come sometime, what with no Lancecon any more. No champagne auction or purple turkeys in Glendale, though.