by Harry Turtledove



269pp/$24.95/July 2003

Conan of Venarium
Cover by Julie Bell

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

One of the forebears of all modern fantasy characters was Conan the Cimmerian, who made his first appearance in “Phoenix on the Sword,” published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales.  Over the years, not only did Conan’s father, Robert E. Howard, write stories of his barbarian, but other authors, from L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to Roland Green and Andrew Offutt, have turned their attention to Howard’s creation.  Now, Harry Turtledove has decided to examine the 71 year old’s transition form boy to man in Conan of Venarium.

Opening when Conan is a twelve year old apprentice to his father, the blacksmith of Duthil, Turtledove portrays a boy of abnormal strength whose mother is ailing and whose father sees him only as a boy.  When the “civilized” Aquilonians invade his native Cimmeria, Conan wishes to fight along side his father, but is made to stay at home.  Turtledove presents Conan’s life in an occupied corner of Cimmeria.  One of the strengths of the novel is that Turtledove focuses on Conan’s relationships with his parents.  Despite a completely different relationship with her son, Conan’s mother’s, Verina, influence on the Cimmerian’s life is reminiscent of the influence Fafhrd’s mother, Mor, had on his life in Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon stories.

By focusing on relationships, Turtledove presents a Conan truer to Howard’s hero rather than the Conan represented on film by Arnold Schwartzenegger in the 1980s.  Similarly, Turtledove’s Conan is very human, beset by the absolute assuredness of youth but still unsure of his place in the world as a whole.  This is true in both Conan’s relationship with his father, which seems to be predicated on the idea that Conan is still not too big to be beaten as his father realizes he is a man, or Conan’s budding interest in Tarla, the weaver’s daughter.

However, the novel also has its weaknesses.  Turtledove fails to capture the atmosphere of Howard’s Conan stories, instead producing a novel more reminiscent of Turtledove’s own Elabonian novels.  Similarly, not all of Turtledove’s details completely match with the details Howard (or L. Sprague de Camp) have provided about Conan’s background.  These weaknesses, however, do not detract from the novel’s enjoyability, except for the most vehement Conan purists.

Of course, certain aspects of Conan’s story are set and the reader knows that certain things will have to happen over the course of the novel, from character’s deaths to the falls of nations.  How Turtledove brings these events to pass is one of the things keeps the book interested, along with his characterizations.  Similarly, Turtledove’s descriptive passages, especially in combat, make reading the book worthwhile.  He provides detail without wallowing in the play by play depiction of combat.

Conan of Venarium is a fun, if light, novel.  Turtledove’s ability with the material is clear, although his version of Conan and the world of Cimmeria will not mesh will all reader’s impressions of Howard’s materials.  Nevertheless, he portrays an important previously undeveloped portion of Conan’s biography and gives a good depiction of the events which shapes Conan’s attitudes.

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