Robert E. Howard is considered in some quarters as the ultimate writer of tales for guys about hyper-masculine men. Some might say he was the most testosterone-soaked bard of machismo to ever grunt and spit.
Maybe so, but there is another side to that. REH was fascinated with women who broke out of the restrictions society imposed on them. His tales have quite a collection of strong-willed swordswomen who contrast sharply with the rather passive and well-behaved misses his heroes rescue. The most striking of these is Dark Agnes de Chastillon, a 16th century Frenchwoman who ends her arranged marriage rather abruptly with a dagger.
So she heads to New York to sleep around and talk about shoes, OOPS! Sorry, she girds on a blade and proceeds to teach assorted French chauvinist cochons a thing or two about swashbuckling. This ain't Sex and the City, no siree.
This is a decent little set: “Sword Woman”, “Blades for France” are complete stories featuring Dark Agnes and her male sidekick Etienne de Villiers. Along with the skullduggery and sword play REH includes some intelligent observations about women’s roles in a man’s world and well-researched history.
Alas, the rest of the book doesn’t met the high quality of the first two tales (which do form over half the volume). “Mistress of Death” is based on an uncompleted Dark Agnes tale (finished by Gerald W. Page). But as Jessica Amanda Salmonson noted, the “posthumous collaboration” doesn’t live up to the quality of REH’s own work. There are two unfinished tales: “The King’s Service”, an adventure tale of a Gaelic sea-rover in Medieval India and “The Shadow of the Hun” a Turlough Dubh tale set in Russia.
One of the coolest parts is the introduction by Leigh Brackett, the multi-talented author of detective, science fiction, adventure, western stories, novels, and screenplays.
This is certainly one to add to your collection, if only because Dark Agnes is one of REH’s least known yet most interesting characters.
PS: Since writing this review, Del Rey has issued a new anthology of REH's historical adventure tales, titled, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures. Even more thrilling adventure! -DH