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Bryan

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The Conquering Sword of Conan - Robert E. Howard, Todd McLaren

After reading this book, I have now read all 21 of the original Robert E. Howard-penned Conan stories. Some were good, some were bad, and some were excellent. I'll review the stories from this volume individually.

 

The Servants Of Bit-Yakin: A mediocre-at-best Conan story, and one which I've read a number of times over the years, usually under the title "Jewels Of Gwahlur". It contains the usual Howard racism and simperingly idiotic female companion without much of Howard's typically highly charged action. Some of the early scenes in the temple were the best of the story, as Howard by this point in his career had really developed a fairly lush prose style (well, as lush as the pulp medium would allow, anyway). At the end of the story, Conan is forced to choose between saving his new-found lady friend and saving the priceless Teeth Of Gwahlur and, rather surprisingly, he chooses to save the woman, somewhat redeeming an otherwise lacklustre story.

 

Beyond The Black River: This is a really great Conan tale. It was my second time reading it, and I think I enjoyed it more this time around. The scenery is well-described and yet not overdone, and the combat is some of Howard's best. One of the main characters in this story is an Aquilonian named Balthus who tags along with Conan, and I find that the Conan stories of this type tend to be my favourites - the ones where Conan and his deeds are seen through the eyes of others who stand in awe of his prowess. I also liked the undercurrent of Lovecraftian influence as seen in Jhebbal Sag, the forgotten god.

 

The Black Stranger: This one was a lot better than I thought it would be, as I had heard that it was originally written as a Conan story and later rewritten as a story about another character in order to find publication. I was therefore expecting a rather sub-par and forgettable Conan outing, but The Black Stranger was fairly strong, with a siege, some piratical backstabbing, demons, and even a female character who isn't a sex symbol (a rarity for Howard). It starts with Conan fleeing the Picts, having crossed a vast expanse of Pictish wilderness (a tie-in to Beyond The Black River) and ends with Conan most likely becoming a pirate again, this time with a little girl in tow. Too bad Howard never got to expand on that plotline.

 

The Man-Eaters Of Zamboula: This is one I had previously read under the title "Shadows In Zamboula," and it hasn't really gotten any better in the time between readings. This story simply doesn't do anything really unique or memorable, which unfortunately allows Howard's racism to come through loud and clear. Conan fights a professional strangler at the end, which lacks the gravitas of fighting giant snakes, iron golems, or swamp demons.

 

Red Nails: This is another classic Conan yarn, and possibly one of the darkest and most violent. It features not just the decay of a civilization, but the actual annihilation of the last members of an isolated society. Howard really goes full-out in this one, making it his definitive statement on societal decay, and whether you agree with Howard's conclusions or not, it makes for a very compelling story. It also has the benefit of being told for the most part from the point of view of a female warrior character named Valeria, which as I said before, I believe adds to the mystique and majesty of Conan.

 

There was also a lot of bonus material at the end of this volume, but I'll admit that I skipped the majority of it after reading through some of the miscellanea and finding that it wasn't really holding my interest. All told, some great stories in this one, making it definitely worth the time of any true Conan fan.