A few months ago, a local Books-A-Million was closing down and I took the opportunity to grab a few of their books at a discounted price before it closed the doors forever. One of the books that I grabbed a hold of was a collection of Conan the Barbarian stories, entitled The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. Over the past few months, the series had become something of an obsession of mine, partly due to film adaptation that had been released that year and I wanted to know a little bit more about the source material. And because I haven’t had a look at any books in a while, I decided to give my thoughts on a few of the stories contained in this book. I’ll be giving my thoughts on The Phoenix on the Sword, The Frost Giant’s Daughter, The God in the Bowl, The Tower of the Elephant, The Scarlet Citadel, The Queen of the Black Coast, and Black Colossus.
The first story on our list is The Phoenix on the Sword, the first Conan story ever written. Strangely enough, it actually takes place very late in Conan's life at a point where he is already a king and has been long enough to be sick of it. It has a bit of detail as to how he got the crown but doesn’t go into to many details despite the fact that half the story is just the characters remembering incidents that already happened. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really amount to much. It’s just a coup attempt and some demonic creature finds his way into the chaos at the last minute. And that's about it.
Anyway, this story isn't one I'd recommend because it's not that good. It's just people talking, lamenting over their pasts, planning to kill Conan and a crappy final fight. I could actually do a full review on all that is wrong with this story but I honestly don’t care that much.
Next we have The Frost Giant's Daughter. This one seemed to have taken place several years, if not decades, before the events of The Phoenix on the Sword when Conan traveled in the northern lands of the Hyborian Age. And this one is about is Conan trying to rape a witch. I am not joking. The entire story is just about this witch taunting him with her naked body as he gives chance after he fights a battle. But with that disturbing premise behind, this story ultimately felt like it should have been a chapter in a much larger story; like you only got a small piece of a much larger the tale. Like Phoenix this is one I would only recommend to hard core Conan fans. After reading it I actually found out that it wasn't published until 1976, way after Howard's death and I'm honestly not surprised. It doesn't represent the best of the Howard's works and is passable.
Next we have The God in the Bowl and this is where the stories really started to get good. Once again, it goes further back in Conan's life to the time when he was young and a professional thief. In it, Conan goes into a temple only to find its head priest murdered and is immediately suspected for it. The rest of the story is about the guardsmen trying to piece together what exactly happened to the priest. This in itself may not sound like much but the way the suspense is drawn out makes it worth it. On one hand you had the guards eager to kill or capture Conan who was just as willing to cut them all down and on the other you were wondering just what it was that killed the priest.
This one also happened to start a plot gimmick that would become very common in Conan stories for all time to come. I won't spoil it but let’s just say you'll know what I mean when you read it. Surprisingly, like The Frost Giant's Daughter, it wasn't published until the 70s, possibly because it was rejected by Weird Tales. None the less, I recommend that you give it a read because it's a good one.
The Tower of the Elephant is often considered to be one of the most classic of the Conan stories and I can honestly see why. While in the city of Zamoria, Conan decides, practically on impulse to break into a tower known as The Tower of Elephant to steal a jewel known as The Heart of the Elephant from the evil wizard Yara. And this is an enjoyable story. Most of it is just Conan sneaking around the city and people explaining things but the fights are cool and the final twist concerning the tower was really mind blowing.
The only real problems I have with it is that he tries to pull this job on impulse, (which is kind of stupid of him), and how he meets another character who helps him out in the robbery. Suffice to say, it was way too coincidental.
Those flaws aside, I recommend this one. Odds are if you're a Conan fan you've probably already read this one. If you're looking for a good place to start then start here. It's a good one.
Next we have The Scarlet Citadel and, my God, was this one is awesome! It takes place sometime after the events of The Phoenix on the Sword where Conan is captured by the armies of neighboring kingdoms Ophir and Koth after he is tricked into helping Ophir. The rest of the story is Conan trying to escape a labyrinth full of hellish creatures and return to save his kingdom before the armies of Koth can conquer it.
Now, there are a lot of good things to talk about in this story so I'll limit myself. The character of Conan is at his best, the villains were people you wanted to see torn limb by limb and those introduced in this story were awesome for what they were, (it is a pulp fiction story so don’t expect them to be on par with those of A Song of Ice and Fire). The only negative thing I have to say about it is that at times it seemed a little rushed, as if Howard had been pressed for time while writing the last act of the story. But still, it's a great one and definitely worth the time to read it.
Next we have the Queen of the Black Coast, another great classic Conan story. While I’m not sure of its exact place in the Conan time-line, but it mainly deals with Conan's days as a pirate under the Queen of the Black Coast, Belit. The majority of the story tells of how Conan became a pirate and how his days as one came to an end.
Throughout the story, Conan was at his best, being both cynical and badass at once and this was the story that really established what he believed in religiously and exactly how much he cared about it and I think that was a great addition to the story. In the story's final act, Conan and company go to a lost city to loot its wealth and the story behind said city was very interesting and mind blowing as were the horrors they encountered within.
The only major criticism I have with this story was the character of Belit. In a nutshell, 90% of her dialog consisted of just telling Conan how much she loved him and how nothing can separate her from him. It just stuck me as being at bit....forced, like Howard was trying to build up to something rather than make a three dimensional character, (although the final payoff is pretty cool).
All around this is another story I would highly recommend. Unlike several of the other Conan stories, this one actually felt like a complete chapter in Conan's life rather than just being a part of it. It had a memorable plot, good action and great concepts. Highly recommended to anyone who likes Sword and Sorcery.
Finally, we have what I like to call “The Conan the Barbarian Hyabora Retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae”. But the story itself is called Black Colossus, (why exactly I have no idea). In it, a princess of the nation Khoraja names Conan, now a mercenary, commander of her armies on the advice of a God, (just go with it), to defend her nation against the wizard, Natohk and his huge army of nomads.
This is a story that I have to admit was fairly forgettable. The characters were fairly boring and forgetful, Natohk wasn't a very good villain and Conan was just dull in this story. The only things that make it worth reading are the final fight with Natohk's army, and the ending which was I thought was just hilarious. It's not one of the first stories I recommend but it's by no means the worst either.
And those are my thoughts on some of the Conan stories. Are they good? Well, technically no. In all honest, the stories and characters have zero depth and complexity and a lot of the stories haven’t particularly aged well and they have garnered a lot of criticism for sexist and racial portals. But then again, it is called pulp fiction for a reason. The only reason you read these books is for the same reason you might see a Sylvester Stallone movie or one of the Transformers movies. You’re just in it to be entertained and that is more than enough to reason to read a book. Maybe I’ll do more reviews of these stories at a later date, but for now this is The Illusive One Signing off.