Harry Turtledove,
Conan of Venarium
(Tor, 2003)

By this point, everyone should know what to expect from a Conan book. There's going to be violence, bizarre and unexplained magic, and much flexing of muscle. Impossible feats will be performed. The politics of mythical countries will be discussed with dire seriousness. And a ton of fun will be had by all.

Harry Turtledove's Conan of Venarium is a Conan story in the extreme. Venarium is a tale of Conan's early days, taking place mostly in his home village, with its questionable barbarian culture. People swear by Crom while going into philosophic detail about his attitude. Lands reminiscent, but not identical to, the Western world of the Roman empire churn out endless supplies of oddly stereotyped soldiers. Women rule their men by sexuality or wiles, though the women here are mostly a simpler sort than the witch-queens that later bedevil Conan. Our hero has thews, which only seem to exist in Conan stories. And you had better believe his thews are impressive. Soothsayers wander through and intone ominous messages about Conan's destiny. Conan even gets to fight a giant snake in an ancient temple for no apparent reason. It's Conan at his barbarian best, and never mind that he's not even old enough to shave.

Fans of Turtledove's usual epic or detailed alternate histories may be surprised that he would take on such a rough and tumble character. And some of the Turtledove thoughtfulness does come through. Characterizations are the slightest bit more restrained, there are more sympathetic characters among the enemy, and Conan, by virtue of his age and perhaps by authorial restraint, is allowed to flat-out lose some battles. There's also some startling depth allowed into Conan's often monotonous character, as Conan of Venarium takes place in the village of his childhood. For the first time, there's a chance to watch the hero before he becomes all conquering, and see a few more motivations than the general desire to drive his enemies before him. There's even the slightest hint of tragedy when Conan's future is irreversibly turned to violence.

But it's a slight hint indeed. Turtledove's usual scholarly bent can't long resist the sheer power of Conan's mythos. By the time the first random wolves attack, it's obvious that this is yet another straight-out adventure. And that's a great thing. Conan isn't the type to ask deep questions about the way a world works, or ponder how fate turns on a pin. Those who follow him expect to see heroic exploits and impossible deeds, and Conan of Venarium exceeds those expectations.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 19 March 2005

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