The front cover for Conan: Blood of the Serpent by S.M. Stirling. A large sword with an ornate grip, guard and pommel runs down the middle of the page. A brown snake is twisted around it.

Conan: Blood of the Serpent by S. M. Stirling

Conan: Blood of the Serpent by S. M. Stirling from @TitanBooks #BookReview #Fantasy

Conan Blood of the Serpent by S. M. Stirling

Titan Books, HB, £15.53

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming

Serving in a company of mercenaries known as Zarallo’s Free Company, Conan is a sword for hire, loyal only to coin. When Valeria of the Red Brotherhood joins the Company, she is everything her reputation claims. Competent, deadly, and beautiful, Valeria can handle anything except the fallout of rejecting the unwanted advances of a Stygian noble. When things take a deadly turn between Valeria and the noble, and Valeria goes into hiding, the noble’s family turns to a priest of the serpent god, Set, for revenge. Finding his loyalty to his comrade is stronger than to his person; Conan must find and support Valeria before it’s too late.

I’ll admit at this point that I know precious little about Conan beyond the Arnie movies of the 80s, but I don’t feel that worked against me. Conan: Blood of the Serpent is the first new Conan novel in over a decade and inspired by the original short story Red Nail by Robert E. Howard, Conan’s creator. Set immediately before Red Nail, we see the events that lead up to Conan and Valeria meeting in a forest. Conan feels familiar, a world-weary mercenary who hasn’t survived as long as he has by being stupid. Fair and honourable, Conan pays his way, keeps his head down and gets on with the task at hand, whether guarding a caravan, hunting game, or fighting monsters. He is likeable with a hard edge that springs into action when the situation arises.

The story is exceptionally fast-paced, with lots packed in. Valeria is introduced early on and immediately attracts attention, including from Conan, but she rejects most suitors, which puts a few noses out of joint. When one particular suitor, a Stygian noble, attempts to rape her, Valeria kills him, and from then on, bad lucks follows the mercenaries. There is a slave revolt, lion attacks, magically frenzied crocodiles, lost treasure, slave traders, and of course, the serpent god, Set.

I found the world-building exceptional considering the page count and the number of encounters jammed into those pages. Stirling invests at the start of the book in building a picture of Conan’s world, with neverending heat that he can’t escape, even if he showers. Everywhere is covered with dust and sweat, and Stirling details the smell, covering details such as meat turning bad because there’s nowhere to hide it from the heat. 

As Blood of the Serpent is inspired by Red Nail, this original story was included, and I felt one led to the other well. Howard doesn’t give us a reason for Conan chasing after Valeria, at least not in this story, but Stirling presents us with a story of respect and attraction, which is believable as well as a fun read. If Titan is giving us a new era of Conan books, high-octane with life-or-death stakes, then I’m in.

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