For the second volume of Conan stories, the editors took a different tactic and instead of printing everything in strict chronological order, they put together three of the longer stories into one volume Which means that the hit miss ratio has to be better than the first go round In the first volume there were like twelve stories and if a couple of them were duffers it didn t matter too much If only one of these were just Howard going through the motions then it would be almost a third of the book.Fortunately, after taking some time off writing about the finest barbarian ever to swing a sword at hideous menaces from beyond time and space, he had come back somewhat inspired Given the chance to write longer tales, he makes good use of the extra space and fills the stories with all sorts of memorable sequences, some of them not even including What makes it interesting to read these is that it seems that Howard was beginning to see his most popular character as kind of a deus ex machina he didn t become a bystander or supporting character in his own story but there are quite a few sequences scattered around the stories where Conan is absent for great lengths of time sometimes right from the get go and seems to affect events purely by his sheer presence his well muscled body and extremely sharp sword don t hurt either , as if his sinews could warp reality Heck, in The Hour of the Dragon he s almost absent for the entire climax, wandering back in for a timely By Crom Which is to say, it seems that Howard has grown confident and at the same time visceral The stories seem to be violent, which doesn t mean these are graphic gory beasts let s keep in mind it s still the 1930s but there are some sequences that may give you pause and go Ew The most famous sequence in A Witch Shall Be Born and pretty much the reason everyone remembers the story is where Conan is crucified and there s a definite loving attention to his efforts to escape from the nails, and even detail paid when it comes time to take Conan down from that cross Pulp scholars the world over have written about the symbolism inherent in such a sequence, that it depicts Conan crossing from human to superhuman and immortal To me it seems like Howard was just trying to prove how tough Conan is for comparison another character gets crucified at the end and Conan goes out of his way to point out what a sissy he is and that he ll be dead soon The callousness of his villains hit new highs as well, aside from the aforementioned crucifixion sequence, there s another bit where a woman is taken away and the person doing the taking away is all like, Might I rape her and the villain gives the go ahead with a casual Rape away, Rapemeister , which probably also made the audiences back then go Whoa, wait But it never seems exploitative, which is remarkable in itself Civilization stinks, Howard seems to be saying, and it s all the worse because we claim we re so civilized Conan isn t noble, but his consistency of moral code and tendency to do what he says makes him stand out from pretty much everyone else.But all of these are pretty decent and Howard seems to be going out of his way not to repeat himself The People of the Black Circle has Conan nearly becoming a diplomat, negotiating various factions and pitting against each other in his inimitable way, as he kidnaps a princess who s got her own issues in order to rescue some hillmen that he s chief of, while she wants to use him to avenge her brother s death Meanwhile magic comes in play and is downright creepy for once a bit where the evil mystic does some mental hocus pocus on a guardsman and has him impale himself gladly on his own spear is gruesome in how tossed off it seems as the Black Seers really seem like the kind of people you don t want to mess with But Howard handles all the various tribes and armies deftly, with everyone having their own motivations they have to either compromise on or keep close to their chests if they want to get their way, which makes for a Conan story that depends on everyone navigating a narrow political line through their own desire than heads getting lopped off, although that happens too The Hour of the Dragon is the big gun, the only true Conan novel that Howard ever wrote and judging by the notes at the end of the volume, he went through quite a few drafts to get it right We re back to Conan being king and although the initial situation is similar to The Scarlet Citadel King Conan gets deposed in battle, has to get his kingdom back , there s much thought put into this than that earlier story that makes it than a do over and instead of an expanded rethink As I mentioned, Howard uses all the extra space wisely, showing us the effects of Conan being deposed and how the kingdom is systematically being ruined, while also dancing between the conflicting desires of all the conspirators Finding the jewel that would restore his kingdom almost seems besides the point with all the intercutting as things gradually devolve into chaos before Conan has to save the day with so many threats to his throne, you wonder why he even bothered, unless it was out of pure stubbornness Again, memorable setpieces abound, with my favorite when the weird mystic touches someone with his staff from across the room and the fellow appears to fall to the floor with his bones all melted inside of him There s so much going on that you barely notice, which is one of the nice things about this novel, for a character that mostly existed in short stories, there s very little vamping I won t say that every scene is essential but there s not a lot of repetition going on either Howard is so good at this point that one of his most memorable female character is only around for a few chapters, and she s still memorable A Witch Shall Be Born is remarkable for a few reasons, one of which is the already discussed crucifixion sequence and the other how Conan only appears in like two chapters and yet you rarely notice with all the other plotting and scheming going on around him Conan makes the most of his limited screentime and it s fun to see Howard going for broke with debauchery as the evil princess turns the city into the lovechild of Sodom and Gomorrah simply because she can, leaving it up to Conan to straighten out the mess Even the addition of a Lovecraftian monster, which was once the centerpiece of most stories, is introduced and handled almost in the same page The prose never seems lazy and you get the sense that Howard is actively attempting to better it, to make it rise above the typical pulp histrionics As good as Howard was in general, there s a definite singularity of purpose to his best Conan stories that a lot of his other tales don t match and what I find most interesting isn t the battle sequences and fights although there are plenty of those and they are fairly decent but the plotting, the attempts to write sword and sorcery tales that transcend the genre He half succeeded, as Conan is still remembered today, but mostly as the musclebound sword slayer who says Crom a lot but if the stories weren t so strong to begin with, the cliches would have never survived for this long. This is the second of three books in Del Rey s collection of Howard s original Conan stories The first book in this set, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, would be a better place to start for anyone new to reading Conan, I think the shorter stories are accessible in terms of getting into the character.In The People of the Black Circle, Conan attempts to use a princess as a bargaining chip for the return of his captured lieutenants, but then he s drawn into her quest for revenge I really enjoyed the confrontation at the end, though some scenes in the middle seem to lag.The Hour of the Dragon is Howard s only novel length Conan piece, it s about Conan s attempt to reclaim the throne of Aquilona from the minions of an ancient wizard I especially loved Conan s escape from captivity and a bold rescue that happened a bit later It s gritty and entertaining, but Conan has a lot of near misses with his goal that make it read like the serial it was first published as, so the story benefits from giving it a little space every few chapters.A Witch Shall Be Born is about a doppelganger queen who causes havoc in a small country The only flaw in her plan to rule is that her ally left Conan in the desert to die rather than killing him outright Seriously, it s like some villains are just asking to die horribly Conan s role as a bandit chief was fantastic, though I wish that the fight at the end of this one had been drawn out.The essay about the creation of these stories was really interesting, but I barely skimmed the rest of the book s content Reading an author s unfinished drafts always weirds me out, it seems too much like snooping through his diary or something. Three Of Longest Tales Plus Outlines, Notes, Drafts The People Of The Black Circle Amid Towering Crags Of Vendhya, In The Shadowy Citadel Of The Black Circle, Yasmina Of The Golden Throne Seeks Vengeance Against The Black Seers Her Only Ally Is Also Her Most Formidable Enemy Conan, Outlaw Chief The Hour Of The Dragon Toppled From The Throne Of Aquilonia By The Evil Machinations Of An Undead Wizard, Conan Must Find Fabled Jewel The Heart Of Ahriman To Reclaim His Crown And Save His Life A Witch Shall Be Born A Malevolent Witch Of Evil Beauty An Enslaved Queen A Kingdom In The Iron Grip Of Ruthless Mercenaries And Conan, Who Plots Deadly Vengeance Against The Human Wolf Who Left Him In The Desert To Die This second volume of Robert E Howard s Conan stories contains three of the longest REH Conan stories published as well as some unpublished drafts and notes There are also some illustrations by Gary Gianni.The People Of The Black Circle 3 5 much heralded, but merely averageThe Hour of the Dragon A Witch Shall Be Born The Bloody Crown of Conan is the second of Del Rey s three volume collection of Robert E Howard s Conan yarns Including Howard s only Conan novel, it has the fewest stories of any volume in the collection The Bloody Crown of Conan is also heavily illustrated, this time by Gary Gianni, who did excellent work for George R.R Martin s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collection I don t like his Conan artwork quite as much the art in my paperback copy is black and white There is a foreword by Gianni, an introduction by Howard scholar and series editor Rusty Burke, several synopses, drafts, and notes, and the second part of editor Patrice Louinet s long essay on the Genesis of the Hyborian Age.The stories in this volume are longer than those in the first volume Conan is well served by stories running in the novelette range The novel, The Hour of the Dragon, can t help but feel a bit conventional, though, even with its breakneck pace This volume might be a better introduction to Conan than The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.Robert E Howard s writing is raw and full of truth It s rough around the edges and occasionally a little stilted But don t let anyone tell you he wasn t a great stylist He wrote bloody, visceral action scenes I ll take the below passage from the first volume over R.A Salvatore s action scenes any day Details stood out briefly, like black etchings on a background of blood She saw a Zingaran sailor, blinded by a great flap of skin torn loose and hanging over his eyes, brace his straddling legs and drive his sword to the hilt in a black belly She distinctly heard the buccaneer grunt as he struck, and saw the victim s tawny eyes roll up in sudden agony blood and entrails gushed out over the driven blade The dying black caught the blade with his naked hands, and the sailor tugged blindly and stupidly then a black arm hooked about the Zingaran s head, a black knee was planted with cruel force in the middle of his back His head was jerked back at a terrible angle, and something cracked above the noise of the fray, like the breaking of a thick branch The conqueror dashed his victim s body to the earth and as he did, something like a beam of light flashed across his shoulders from behind, from right to left He staggered, his head toppled forward on his breast, and thence, hideously, to the earth Howard really wanted to be a poet, and it shows in his prose He also had a strong command of rhetorical devices He tended to tell, then show, but that s a small bug for a deep reader and a feature for a shallow reader Similarly, he uses a lot of repetition, especially when describing Conan Definitely a feature when you re reading stories in a magazine months apart, mildly annoying when reading the stories in rapid succession. The second of the Conan anthologies presents Howard at the peak of his craft, featuring some of his long form work in a novella, a single short story, and Howard s only completed novel While Howard didn t write the Conan stories in anything like chronological order, the barbarian of these adventures is clearly older, cannier, and wise to the world than the young, thieving slayer of his earlier tales The opening and closing stories of this edition feature Conan as a war chief of various mid far east nations blatant analogues of Persia, Afghanistan, and India where the hero is honing is skills not just as a mercenary but as a leader of men.The showpiece, though, is The Hour of the Dragon, the perfect King Conan movie that we re never going to see in which Conan is deposed from the throne of Aquilonia by a resurrected wizard from Acheron and must travel far and wide to gather the allies and magical defenses he will need to reclaim his kingdom Not only is it evident that Howard was comfortable with his writing and his character, but also with the breadth of mythology he d created Few, if any, of the Conan short stories make reference to any of the others, yet in Hour of the Dragon you can feel Howard dipping into the rich history he d already established for the character as Conan, now in middle age, returns to many of the places he d adventured as a young man to call in old debts make use of his decades of experience He s even tempted to turn his back on politics and monarchy and return to the simple life of a roaming warrior, but Conan the King is not the same man as Conan the Barbarian, and his growth over the series as a whole, if anything, makes Conan unique in the realm of pulp sword and sorcery. Contains The People of the Black Circle The Hour of the Dragon A Witch Shall Be Born This is the second volume of the original, unedited Howard versions of the Conan writings Like many Conan is one of my first introductions into fantasy and Conan personifies the Sword and Sorcery sub genre of fantasy He was great to read when Howard came up with him and he s still a great read today. Another great collection Conan is a great character and I envy Howard s ability to write great Heroic fantasy Highly recommended. I first read the great majority of the Conan stories a number of years ago I enjoyed them so much and quickly sought out other Robert E Howard writings The man has his weird quirks and sure, his stuff can be a little repetitive at times, but I would argue that in terms of pulp writers he was probably one of the diverse, being able to work in a variety of different genres, in contemporary, historical or constructed settings of course, one of the tricks to his apparent diversity was that he told adventure yarns, and was able to transpose stuff easily from one setting to another For example, he could write a western, but if the market wasn t biting to his satisfaction.change the characters, names and places, throw in a bit of magic, and boom, you have a hyborean Age story fit for the pages of Weird Tales So, yes, some of the Conan stories feel like westerns Some have pirates and brigands others kings and decadent civilisations A few have hints of science fiction lurking beneath the surface They re all bold, bloody, thunderous and a huge rush to read.This recent collection is the second of three within their pages are compiled all the tales Howard wrote about Conan of Cimmeria I ll admit that Conan is not really Howard s most nuanced creation Most of the time he did create a kind of hero archetype for each historical period location he wrote in usually a big, strong man, handy with all forms of weaponry and his fists too, and also, in the cases of Conan, Kull or Solomon Kane, prone to fits of brooding melancholy or budding existential angst The Conan tales proved to be extremely popular though, and seem to have been a great boon for Howard in the 1930s, when he was really struggling financially, so he wrote about twenty of them In The Bloody Crown of Conan, we have two of the longer novelas, plus the novel length Hour of the Dragon I m writing this now after having discovered that, somehow, while reading all the other Conan tales way back, I skipped Hour of the dragon , either because I was just waiting to save the longest for the right time, or because I believed it was a kind of fixup of a bunch of other Conan stories sloppily thrown together for novel publication and thus probably not as good as the other stories.It turns out, to my delight, that Hour of the Dragon is one of the best Conan tales, precisely because it s able to take advantage of a longer format I ll be the first to admit that yes, as great as these tales are, there is a certain formulaic quality to them I d recommend them to a good number of people, but always with some caveats Don t read too many of them in a row Savour them, take breaks, don t let the tropes get too stale Steel yourself for the kind of stuff modern writers just shouldn t be able to get away with, like pathetic powerless women and blacks who are often described as ape like and speak in gutteral animalistic tones There s also sometimes a sense that Conan is just this unbeattable, unstoppable force of nature and that nothing can significantly stand against him usually this isn t a problem because, if you re a certain kind of reader, you just learn to roll with it and have fun as Conan takes out six guys at a time or wrestles with some eldritch monstrosity from beyond time and space He s just that good and you want to see him victorious, want to see him crush his enemies, sweep up the lamenting women and tell the treacherous, civilised dogs just what he thinks of them before cleaving their heads from their bodies it s cathartic, basically But it doesn t always create good tension when Conan is the only point of view character and you know he s always going to come out on top there are a few exceptions though, and these tend to stand out in the range Those tales that have a Point of view other than Conan s, where Conan almost seems to arrive like a cold northern breeze, an outsider in someone else s world You know shit is going to get real when this happens and don t always know who will survive I can think of no better example than the excellent Beyond the Black River in the next volume , or the extremely contentious it s the race thing The Vale of Lost Women , which if nothing else provides some really powerful atmosphere and a female perspective for a change In Hour of the Dragon we get something a little different The story is still very episodic, but the scope feels bigger than normal, as Conan does a lot of travelling, is captured, rescued, nearly recaptured, rescued again, struggles to regain his usurped kingdom Usually when Conan rouses people to his side, they re pretty quick to follow, but here he gets stymied by even some of his friends and allies who keep telling him everything is hopeless The frustration is palpable and a bit atypical for a Conan tale Another slight subversion Conan twice gets rescued by women I won t say Howard is really stepping out of bounds here as the first girl throws herself at his feet for the silliest of reasons, and the noble Aquilonian Countess he later saves from the headsman s axe is basically a nonentity, but it s still kind of neat to see the tables turned in this way There s a lot of violence, fiery masculine passion, and an underpinning of dark eldrtich horror as a milennia old evil sorcerer is resurrected to aide Conan s enemies Said sorcerer is not around for the huge chunk in the middle of the story, as he spends so much time in his chamber dreaming the dreams of the black lotus , or manipulating the other antagonists who all really hate each other from the shadows Still though, there s a great sense of menace at almost every turn and one can feel Conan s mounting unease as he no longer can tell who is friend or foe The world feels properly large this time, and not just because Howard drops loads of talk about geography and races the way he normally does, but because Conan has to do a whole lot of travelling Travelling often sows seeds of introspection, especially when one walks the road alone as Conan does, and we even get a whole lot of that here, which should put to rest the notion that Conan and his stories are all bulging muscles and clashing swords Of course, there s loads of that, too there s probably a huge fight every few pages The story is just packed with incident, and we even get a proper trip into the bowels of Stygia, where Howard cranks up the horror and evil iatmosphere to near suffocating levels I found the level of danger and suspense to be higher than normal, and I think this shows that Howard could have been a great adventure novelist had he continued writing into the following decades Yeah, there are some inconsistencies in the text, both in the way Conan is portrayed usually very keen and sharp witted, except when once or twice he inexplicably isn t , and in the passage of time sometimes it seems like just a couple of days have passed since Aquilonia has fallen to the Nemedians, sometimes months , but it s all just such headlong, fast paced, moody, bloodthirsty fun to read that I can t really fault Howard for any of that People of the Black Circle is one of my favourite Conan tales, and it s a great way to open the anthology and possibly as good an introduction to Conan as you can find although I would maybe suggest something shorter first, like the immensely enjoyable Rogues in the House Lots of wizardry in this one, and Howard does a splendid job of capturing the reader s attention from the very first sentence Sure, he tends to fall back on similar sorts of descriptive phrases sometimes, and occasionally repeats himself, but the man had an excellent feel for grabbing you right away with his writing and just increasing the tension until you re just racing along with him and left breathless by all the action and spirited prose He s not immune to poetry and sometimes will surprise you with some truly gorgeous passages You won t find anything as majestically existential as The Mirror of Tuzun Thune among the Conan tales a friend once likened the opening passages of this one to Gormengast , but the grand vastness of the world depicted makes looking outward into great landscapes peopled by brigands, witches, sorcerers and kings, as well as the odd demon, monstrous serpent or ape, a supremely pleasurable experience A Witch shall be Born is certainly the weakest tale here, but it contains a few incredible scenes that are memorable indeed One of them was lifted for the 1982 Conan film, which is really just a likable hodgepodge of elements taken from Howard s universe and watches like a tribute to the writer than to Conan himself A Witch shall be Born is really over the top in a selacious pulp sort of way It s very fun to read but sometimes you just have to go along with this crazy shit and let Howard do his thing The female villain in this one is a monstrous bisexual hellion and damn, you can just tell how much REH relished writing these scenes of a terrible beautiful witch from the pits menacing a simpering princess, turning the city into a riotous den of sin and iniquity, and making sacrifices to her toad like Lovecraftian entity in the basement I just can t come down hard on this guy though I guess I can understand a certain lack of tolerance for this sort of thing nowadays and it s certainly true that even sword and sorcery itself has come a long way since Howard s day, but I always prefer to take artists on an individual basis and somewhat detach them from a big picture to come, and so I have no trouble grinning along and taking all of this happily in stride, excesses and all.I don t think everyone will love this, and perhaps the joy of reading Howard is a little hard to articulate, but if I ve been able to communicate even a part of that through these reviews, I count myself as successful The man s work stands like a towering monument whose influence spreads far and wide, yet today it seems so few read his work I don t really know why that is but I suggest it s probably due in part to some of the caveats I mentioned earlier I think it s important to keep in mind that Howard was a young man living in rural Texas in the 20s and 30s who never got to travel, but whose heart was set aflame by tales of history and imagination, and who feverishly worked for a period of a mere ten years or so, churning out dozens and dozens of stories, most of which contain impeccable action writing and occasionally reach depths of melancholic, mysterious intensity He died too young I and I m sure many other readers often wonder what would have happened had he not blew his brains out at age thirty had he had the chance to travel the world and see so many of the cultures he wrote about We ll never know what that would have been like, but in the meantime, we have the stories, and they are marvelous Read, by Crom The Hyborian age, where men were men, women were women, and giant snakes were giant snakes This collection contains a short story, a longer story, and the novel length The Hour of the Dragon I grew up on Conan pastiches, particularly the Tor editions It wasn t until I was a bit older that I read the original Howard stories and, let me tell you, nothing compares to these original tales They helped shape sword and sorcery fiction in the same way that The Lord of the Rings influenced epic fantasy In another 20 years or so these stories will be 100 years old It is a testament to how good these stories are that they are still read and praised to this day.