An Aquilonian army marches across the border of Bossonia into southern Cimmeria under the command of one Count Stercus. We soon learn that, although an able commander and warrior, Stercus has fallen from favour with King Numedides for his lecherous ways involving adolescents back in Aquilonia. His banishment to the frontier is, apparently, part of his penance.
Word of the invasion passes through Cimmeria as the army continues to press north, building forts each evening where they camp. Eventually Stercus is satisfied with his advance and calls a halt.
The last fort constructed is called Venarium.
We are introduced to a 12-year-old boy named Conan, living with his family in a village called Duthil, located north of Venarium, about a day's travel by foot. Conan's family consists of his father, Mordec the blacksmith and his mother, Verina. Conan’s mother has been sick for as long as Conan can remember with tuberculosis.
Duthil is a good sized village, sporting a smith, a miller, a weaver, a tanner and other cottage industry. A number of farmers and herdsmen use Duthil as a hub for commerce and a source of additional labour at harvest. At least 2 homes in Duthil have more than one room.
Word of the invasion soon reaches Duthil. Mordec and Balarg, the two leading Elders, determine how to best continue spreading the word to other villages. We also hear, at this time, that Conan bears more than a passing affection for Balarg's daughter, Tarla, who is near his age.
Before long, the men of a handful of Clans are gathering to repel the invading Aquilonians. Mordec readies himself to join them. He and Conan come to blows over Conan's insistence that he is old enough to join in the battle.
The Clans surround the fort and mount a fierce attack but are scattered by a charge of Aquilonian cavalry as they are about to breach the gate. The Cimmerians break and run, many of them being ridden down and killed. A number of men from Duthil survive with various wounds. Mordec, one of the last Cimmerians to leave the battle, is the last villager from Duthil to return home. He and his Clansmen resignedly accept that, for the time being, they must live as conquered subjects of Aquilonia.
A squad of Aquilonian soldiers soon arrives at Duthil commanded by a Captian Treviranus. Mordec translates the Captain's decrees into Cimmerian. He will treat the Cimmerians fairly but informs them that every Aquilonian harmed by a Cimmerian will result in ten Cimmerians being harmed in return. Treviraus even goes so far as to warn them to ward their youth against the impure interests of Count Stercus, his commander in Venarium. The squad constructs a small walled compound a stone’s throw from the village as a garrison.
Settlers begin arriving shortly thereafter and establish homesteads in the country around Venarium and south to the Bossonian border.
We see Conan grow up under the shackles of his youth, his domestic situation, and the enmity he bears the occupying soldiers and settlers.
The occupation lasts approximately two years.
That summer, two score Cimmerian Clans rise against the invaders and the horde sweeps south, utterly destroying Venarium, driving the last surviving settlers and the remnants of the defeated Aquilonian army ahead of them into Bossonia. A number of Cimmerians cross into Bossonia to teach the Aquilonians a hard lesson about ever considering another invasion. More than one band pushes south through Bossonia, raiding into Gunderland. Conan’s raiding party even pushes far enough south to enter Aquilonia itself, but is wiped out, soon thereafter, to a single man; Conan is the sole survivor.
Continuing south through Aquilonia, intent on travelling to the capital, Tarantia, Conan takes a contract as a teamster, despite never having driven a horse and wagon. He delivers the wagon load of onions, as promised, and then steals the wagon to head south and east toward other Hyborian lands.
Conan is 14 years old at the end of the story.
- Conan (POV)
- Granth (POV), Son of Biemer - Gunderman pikeman, Aquilonian army
- Melcer (POV) - farmer from Gunderland who established a steading in occupied Cimmeria
- Mordec (POV), the smith - aka Mordec the mighty - father of Conan. Blacksmith and Elder of Duthil village
- Vulth - Gunderman cousin of Granth
- Nopel - Aquilonian sergeant of Granth and Vulth
- Count Stercus (POV) - Commander of the wing of Aquilonian army invading southern Cimmeria
- Verina - mother of Conan
- Fidach, of Aedan's Clan - herder from a Clan just over the border between Aquilonia and Cimmeria
- Eogannan - warrior of Conan's Clan and village
- Glemmis - warrior of Conan's Clan and village
- Balarg, the Weaver - Elder of Duthil. He and Mordec are the two leading men in Duthil village
- Tarla - daughter of Balarg near Conan's age
- Dolfnal, the tanner - warrior of Conan's Clan and village
- Reuda - wife of Dolfnal
- Treviranus - Captian of the Aquilonian garisson at Duthil
- Benno - Bossonian archer garissoned at Duthil
- Daverio - Bossonian archer garissoned at Duthil
- Derelei - the miller's wife in Duthil
- Nario - Captain in the Aquilonian army at Venarium
- Torm - aquilonian guard at the barracks hall in Venarium
- Ugaine - female youth from Rosinish Clan and vilage in southeast Cimmeria
- Nucator - a farmer near Duthil village
- Evlea - wife of Melcer
- Tarnus - Melcer and Evlea's 6 year old son
- Loarn - Cimmerian wandering peddlar and tinker
- Nectan - shepherd living outside Duthil
- Herth - cheif of a northern Clan from Garvard, on the border with Asgard, who travelled to the south to see the truth of the Aquilonian invasion for himself
- Hondren - Gunderman pikeman garissoned at Duthil
- Rahiderch - wandering Cimmerian seer
- Wirp - boy in Duthil village
- Dever - pikeman garissoned at Duthil
- Sciliax - Aquilonian farmer who established a steading in occupied Cimmeria
- Talorc - young Cimmerian warrior, part of Conan's raiding party that penetrated south into Aquilonia
- Crecelius - Aquilonian speaking to his friend in a tavern
- Renorio - Aquilonian farmer of onions
- Selinda - wife of Renorio
- Polsipher - brother in law to Renario and merchant in Tarantia for Renario's onions
- Duthil - village in southern Cimmeria. Home of Conan and his father.
- Uist - village two days travel from Duthil
- Nairn - village two days travel from Duthil
- Lochnagar - village to the north-west of Duthil, more than 2 days travel
- Ancient temple of a serpent-cult - Conan happens across this temple one day while hunting...Mordec knows of no such temple near Duthil Village so Conan must have passed through some kind of invisible mystical portal while travelling there and back
- Venarium - fort and town in occupied southern Cimmeria
- Bossonian countryside
- Gunderland countryside
- Aquilonian countryside
- space-time portal - invisible portal leading to an ancient temple of a serpent-cult. The portal opened and closed in a very short time, within 1/2 a day's travel by foot from Duthil village. The forest was not rumoured to have any such strange phenonmenon.
As a generic historical-fantasy, the novel is generally accepted as well written. The William Galen Grey Chronology accepts this story as the first in the Conan saga.
Continuity Errata: This novel, while not as continuity-challenged as the novelization of 1982's Conan the Barbarian movie, still changes a number of key elements regarding Conan's life as established by Conan's creator Robert E. Howard. As such, the novel does not follow "canon" of Conan and is considered by some to be apocrypha (inaccurate legend) instead of an actual Conan story.
Robert E. Howard clearly established that Conan's tribe was from north-western Cimmeria in a letter to P. Schuyler Miller of 10th March, 1936, published in the anthology Conan (1968). Despite that, Conan of Venarium places Conan's village in southern Cimmeria in the land occupied by Aquilonia after their invasion.
Also in the 1936 letter, Robert E. Howard states that Conan's first adventure outside of Cimmeria was north, not south. Despite this fact, the last chapter of this novel has Conan leaving Cimmeria going south into the Bossonian Marches and then Gunderland to pursue the retreating Aquilonian army. Conan continues south into Aquilonia proper, raiding and stealing, eventually making his way to Tarantia. Once there however, within a few hours, he chooses, without explanation, to leave, travelling south and east.
Robert E. Howard states that Conan returned to Cimmeria a number of times during his life. Yet this novel kills-off everyone in Conan's immediate family (mother, father, love interest) and basically everyone else in his village. No brothers or sisters are mentioned as extant in the novel; Conan's grandfather is never mentioned. Just before Conan marches south into Bossonia, thereby violating REH's stated history of the character, Conan says, "I have no stomach for Cimmeria, not any more." and calls Cimmeria "this accursed land." Finally, in the last chapter, everyone (else) in Conan's raiding party is killed in Aquilonia. So, if everyone with even a passing acquaintance to Conan both before AND after Venarium is dead by the end of the novel, the question must be asked: what then would compel Conan to return home so often during his lifetime?
In "The Phoenix on the Sword", Robert E. Howard wrote of a "door which bore the royal dragon symbol of Aquilonia." This door was placed there before Conan's time as king, so the symbol would have, logically belonged to previous kings, and we know that Numedides was the last in a long line of rulers from his family. Then, in Hour of the Dragon, we see that Aquilonia's standard has changed to a golden lion on a black field, King Conan's symbol. In that same novel we see that Almuric the Aquilonian rebel, one of Numedides' relatives, uses a golden serpent on a black field. However, in Conan of Venarium, despite the fact that Numedides is named as the current king of Aquilonia, we see the Aquilonian army carrying a golden lion on a black field.
Robert E. Howard established that Cimmerians used specific weapons such as spears, swords, axes, and knives. In "Queen of the Black Coast", Howard wrote, "`Give me a bow,' requested Conan. `It's not my idea of a manly weapon, but I learned archery among the Hyrkanians." Conan of Venarium has the young Conan using the bow as one of his main weapons. Conan does not use a spear in this novel, even though Howard frequently wrote of him using one. For example, in Hour of the Dragon he relates a flash-back of his life, saying: "'I saw again the battlefield whereon I was born...I saw myself in a pantherskin loin-clout, throwing my spear at the mountain beasts." In addition, Conan's father is a blacksmith, yet Conan expresses no interest in crafting or using a sword. The first time Conan holds a sword is when he takes Count Stercus' sword after he kills the man.
In addition, the method Conan uses to kill Count Stercus is very un-Conan-like: he scratches the back of Stercus' hand with a poisoned arrow. Howard only had Conan use poison twice in all his stories. The first time was against the dragon in Red Nails when it was obvious that he could not slay the beast on his own. The second was, even later in his career, when he attempted to trick and trap Captain Zarono and Captain Strom into a cave with poisonous mists in "The Black Stranger"; both men (and their henchmen) were planning to kill Conan in the immediate future. Only against the dragon did Conan use poisoned weapons.
A number of people have commented (Dale Rippkeand others) that the level of civilization/technology in Conan's village was too advanced compared to Howard's descriptions of Cimmeria.
Howard's Nemedian Chronicles state that Conan was known as a fighter around the council fires before he had seen 15 winters. Conan would have been 14 years old during his 15th winter, turning 15 the summer after, when Venarium occurred. There is little evidence that Conan was known as a fighter in this book. The only "on camera" battle Conan would be known for in his village by his 14th birthday is an attack by a number of wolves during his 13th winter when he was about 12.5 years old. Conan kills an Aquilonian soldier when he is 13, but it is kept secret by his family; no-one around any council fire (none of which occur "on-screen" in this story) would have "known" of it. People find out that he killed Count Stercus shortly before the sack of Venarium. That fight takes place between his 14th and 15th winter, but Venarium is supposed to take place when Conan is 15, over a year after he was "known" as a fighter.
Which brings me to the final Howard continuity flub. Conan was 15 years old at Venarium, Howard is very very clear on that point. Conan was not born in the winter, so he would have seen his first winter before his first birthday. When the novel begins winter has passed and Conan is 12 years old. Only 2 winters pass in the novel. Prior to the second winter, the author confirms that it will be his 14th winter, verifying that Conan was only 13 and will be 14 the following summer. BUT, the sack of Venarium happens that summer...so Conan would be 14 at Venarium, not 15.
Continuity errors also occur between this novel and non-Howard Conan stories by L. Sprague de Camp: Conan's father is named Nial in Conan and the Spider God. Conan's elderly mother is said to still be alive at the time of The Star of Khorala.
Odd Plot Devices: There are a number situations in the novel that, while not directly contradictory of established facts of Conan's youth, still leave the reader wondering, "What's going on here?"
As Rippke and others note, Turtledove paints Conan's family situation as a mirror to that of Robert Howard's suggested home life presented in the biography Dark Valley Destiny, considered by many to be factually inaccurate. Conan's father's name, Mordec, is virtually the same as Mordecai, Howard's father's middle name. Robert had a mother that died of a wasting illness and Conan's mother was sick for as long as he can remember with Tuberculosis. Dark Valley Destiny portrays Howard as an overly devoted mama's boy...Conan is portrayed similarly in this book. Similarly, Mordecai's relationship with Robert's mother is characterized as emotionally distant, as is Mordec's relationship to Conan's mother.
Conan's mother is oddly un-Cimmerian. When Mordec first goes to oppose the Aquilonians, along with his countrymen, she suggests that it is a bad idea. She also admonishes Mordec on more than one occasion to stop bossing Conan around when he is trying to teach his son wisdom about strategy and tactics or when setting blacksmithing chores for his son. Yet she readily directs Conan to assist her with cooking chores like chopping vegetables for a stew. She takes the side of the Aquilonian Commander, Count Stercus, over that of a Cimmerian girl from another Clan who the count used as a body-servant for the first winter of the occupation, saying that the girl brought it on herself with "...forward ways" and then makes similar statements about a girl from her own village. After Conan kills an Aquilonian soldier in self defense, Verina wishes Conan "...wouldn't get into so much trouble." and then goes on to tell her son, "Stay safe...Past that nothing matters. Too many I hold dear have died on one field or another. I don't want you to fall that way." When Conan responds that he won't fall that way because he will make his enemy do so, she begins to cry.
Conan the sheep herder? On more than one occasion Conan watches the sheep of Nectan the herder. After the final stint at that task, Conan decides, "This was the life a man was meant to lead. If he could have spent the rest of his days herding sheep on the hillsides and meadows of his native land, he was sure he would have been happy."
Dale Rippke suggests that, while a Cimmerian woman taken as Stercus' body servant should prompt outrage among Cimmerians, the outrage over the fact that Tarla is 14 when she becomes the target of Stercus' affectations is disproportionate to the realities of pre-historic times. Rippke asserts that if a pre-historic, barbarian society was to exist, life-spans would be short, birth-rates would be high and marriages would occur quite young, with women bearing children soon after becoming able to do so. His thesis is that many Cimmerian girls would already be expected to be married and having a family by 14, so outrage over a woman of that age being a body-servant is an anachronism. If Stercus was to be reviled for enjoying the attentions of girls who were "too young" during the epoch in which the novel takes place, Tarla would have had to be younger that she is in this novel. But then, the sub-plot of Stercus poaching Conan's sweetheart would have been ruined.
Rippke also suggests that the length of the occupation, prior to driving out the invaders, is too long. The Cimmerians would never have suffered the invaders to abide on Cimmerian soil for two years.
Howard's Conan stories are considered some of the finest "swords and sorcery" fiction ever written. However, the two supernatural detours in this story seem tacked on and feel out of place with the rest of the story. The creepy serpent-cult temple, where Conan gets the poison for his arrows, and then the battle against the demon-bat (which Conan shoots with the poisoned arrows) are the only sorcery in this tale of swords and sorcery.
Turtledove's tropes: The disconnect between this novel and Howard's version is odd, as Turtledove is a lifelong Howard fan. "The Boring Beast" is a story of his which spoofs Conan and apes Howard's plot structures very rigorously. By contrast, the plot of Conan of Venarium is closer to the history of conflict between the Roman Empire and various barbarian border tribes, which Turtledove depicted in Give Me Back My Legions! and the play-within-a-novel scenes in Ruled Britannia, among other novels of his.
- Conan of Venarium (novel) • Harry Turtledove • TOR (hardcover) July 2003 • (paperback) July 2004
- Miskatonic University Library Periodical Reading Room - Weird Tales • anon.
- The Locus Index to Science Fiction (1984-1998) • Charles N. Brown & William G. Contento
- The Encyclopedia of Fantasy • edited by John Clute and John Grant • Orbit 1997 ISBN 1857233689
- Robert E. Howard :Short Story Bibliography • Robert E. Howard : UK Publications • Ian Davy
- Howard Works: Robert E. Howard Bibliography • Paul Herman and Todd A. Woods • winner of The 2004 Stygian Award for best REH-related website
- A Complete Conan Bibliography • Bruce L. Precourt
- A Complete Conan Bibliography • Expanded, edited, and reformatted by William Galen Gray et al.
- The Hyborian Age of Conan the Barbarian • Dale Rippke
- Robert E. Howard – Bibliography (Alphabetical) • Al von Ruff (isfdb)
- The Barbarian Keep • Edward A. Waterman
- International Superheroes: Conan • "Loki"