Sunday, August 01, 2010


by Robert E. Howard

This is book two of the three-part collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories by Wandering Star (released as a trade paperback by Del Rey). In these tales REH had hit his stride, and the Cimmerian was loose in all his grit and glory. For those readers more familiar with the old de Camp edited editions of Conan, this collection features the Conan stories in the order they were written with no “posthumous collaboration”: pastiches, re-writes of stories to convert them into Conan tales, or fleshing out of uncompleted synopses.

What you’ll find is two novellas and a novel. The opener is People of the Black Circle. Conan is in the lands of the East leading a gang of Afguli bandits. It’s the sort of thing that would get you a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay these days. He ends up kidnapping a princess entirely by mistake while trying to rescue some of his men from jail. A lot of writers would stop there, but Howard involves a sect of ghastly evil wizards, a spy from a rival empire, and a renegade adept and his girlfriend who are sort of a sorcerous Bonnie & Clyde. REH takes all this complex set of rivalries, adds a few here and there and juggles ‘em all until the end when he begins pitching them through plate glass windows.

The bulk of the book is The Hour of the Dragon, a full scale Conan novel. Conan is king of Aquilonia here, but a conspiracy of rebel nobles, rival kings, and an undead wizard deposes him. Conan sets off of a trek that crosses much of the Hyborian world in his quest to regain his throne. In addition to sword-play, treacherous twists and turns, and perils from grisly demonic forces, Conan has to confront what it means to be king. He has to choose to regain his throne rather than return to the life of a footloose adventurer. The action is cranked to maximum from beginning to end.    

The collection winds up with A Witch Shall be Born. Conan is serving as a mercenary captain for a remote kingdom when a conspiracy overthrows the ruling princess. In the process Conan faces his ultimate challenge: he is crucified (the scene is reproduced in the movie Conan). It is the ultimate in tough guy tale-telling, pushing the Cimmerian into the realms of Odin and Christ.

There are lots of tidbits in the appendices. There are drafts, synopses, and an unpublished fragment. There is also a critical essay by Patrice Louinet and copious notes on the typescripts. While this is of interest mostly to REH scholars, everyone will enjoy the many black and white drawings and plates by Gary Gianni (who also illustrated Bran Mak Morn and Savage Tales of Solomon Kane).

This is the ultimate in sword and sorcery. Buy it now!

-Dave Hardy

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