Blood of the Serpent

By S M Stirling

Blood of the Serpent, a novel by S M Stirling
Book details Books in the series

Bringing back classic character is a wise decision as you already have a built-in fan base and the potential to make new fans. Who does not want to read more Sherlock Holmes? But it is fraught with dangers. Suddenly you have Winnie the Pooh and The Grinch starring in horror films. In some cases, the characters are not as savoury for a modern audience. Would Conan, originally created in the 1930s, work today? S M Stirling has taken on the challenge in Conan: Blood of the Serpent and manages to modernise the Barbarian, whilst also staying true to his brute roots. 

Conan wanders the land as a sword for hire and finds himself in Sukhnet working with a band of mercenaries. Working for a Stygian noble is no one's first choice, but the food is reasonable and at least they pay. When Conan is tasked with protecting a caravan of Stygian gold, he must consider how much may get ‘lost’ on the way. One ally is Valeria, a powerful pirate warrior. Conan takes a liking to her, but the feeling is not mutual. Can Conan curry favour with Valeria when she becomes a prime target for a slighted Stygian Lord and need a strong arm by her side? 

Blood is an interesting novel in many ways as Stirling not only has to make Conan palatable to a modern audience, but the author has taken on the task of writing a story that leads directly into Robert E. Howard’s Red Nails. Not a huge issue, as who will remember Nails well enough to directly compare the two? All of us, as the story is included at the end to allow for a direct comparison between the contemporary style and original. 

Does Stirling succeed? Yes, by leaning even further into Conan’s sense of honour Stirling can reign in some of Conan’s appetites. That is not to say that he is does not kill, drink and chase women, just that it is done with a little more subtlety and self-awareness from the character. Having read a lot of modern low fantasy, the gore and sex in this book is on the same level, even tamer. 

Where the story of Blood suffers slightly is the prequal feel. It feels like a journey novel getting characters from one place to another. The start is set in Stygian, but after that it is a road book. Once you get to Nails, you are in one location for an epic encounter. There is also a difference in the passion of the language between the two stories, Blood is a considered story, whilst Nails has some cracking language, but is a little chaotic. 

Stirling has written a story that is in keeping with modern parlance. It is also a good introduction to the character for new readers. It shows that there is more to Conan than just swords and sandals. This is a book about survival in a harsh world where the environment can be as dangerous as any person. Some of the most epic fights in this book are against nature when Conan must go up against crocodiles or hordes of apes. Are these creatures acting on instinct, or is there more at play? 

Blood proves that there is plenty of life left in the handsome thighs of Conan the Cimmerian. You can soften some of the more misogynist edges to the character and still have all his power and strength on show. Stirling shows more of Conan as the reluctant, but brilliant leader. We also see Conan’s sense of loyalty, he is good to those he trusts, those that double cross him will be spitted on his sword. This version of the character is not Conan the Millennial but is certainly a hero who has a place in modern fiction. 

Written on 30th November 2022 by .

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