The Complete Chronicles of Conan

September 22, 2019

 

Rating: A+
Length: 892 pages, standard hardcover page size

 

Despite being a fan of multiple early-1900s writers (like Edgar Allen Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft) and having a fondness for the low fantasy swords-and-sorcery subgenre, I'd never read any of Robert E. Howard's writing before picking up this collection.  It turns out I was long overdue to check out his work, because he belongs up there with the other modern classic masters.

 

As the page count implies, there were a ton of stories in here.  I can't confirm for sure if it is indeed a complete collection, but given that it also has a few drafts at the end on top of all of the stories that I've heard about, it must be close to complete at worst.

 

It starts out with the original Conan story (The Phoenix on the Sword), which punched me right in the mouth with how good it was.  Howard has an amazingly engaging voice that practically pours off of the page when he's at his best, and his occasional moments of humor or poignant reflection stand out all the more brilliantly for their contrast to his generally excited but otherwise neutral tone.  I laughed so much at the moment of Thoth-Amon killing one of the conspirators while being incredulous about the latter's stupidity that I texted excerpts from it to my friends immediately.  It very well could've been the funniest thing that I'd read since my last Christopher Moore novel.

 

That was far from the only notable story, too.  The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, The Slithering Shadow (originally named Xuthal of the Dusk), Jewels of Gwahlur (originally named The Servants of Bit Yakin), Red Nails, and Beyond the Black River also jumped off of the page, to say nothing of the novel-length Hour of the Dragon.  Sadly, there were also a number of stories which Howard wrote just for quick bits of money, and while even his weaker stories are still a pleasure to read, there's a clear drop in quality when it comes to the likes of A Witch Shall Be Born or Shadows in Zamboula (originally named Man-Eaters of Zamboula).  Again, they aren't bad in and of themselves, but they do feel a little flat when they're right next to those other marvelous works.

 

The titular Cimmerian himself is an interesting character.  Taken as a whole, Conan has enough flaws and set-backs to avoid coming off as a Boring Invincible Hero, though that is not always the case within individual stories (like Red Nails or The Devil in Iron).  Howard has a fondness for describing Conan's thews, cold blue eyes, and primitive alertness, but given that the stories were written in the context of standing as individual works and being read by people who may not have encountered the previous ones, that's forgivable.  While I don't think that Conan shows much development within any single story (aside from sometimes learning from an earlier mistake to pull the rug out from under his antagonist later on), there are subtle changes with him from story to story.

 

That may seem like something that should just be expected, but The Phoenix on the Sword was the first Conan story that Howard wrote, yet it's one of the last ones chronologically (I think only The Scarlet Citadel and Hour of the Dragon might take place later).  While the chronology isn't entirely explicit since the main way of organizing them is from the piecemeal accounts of what Conan is known for when another character either asks him or provides the exposition themselves, that's enough to draw a rough chronology (e.g. The Frost Giant's Daughter, The Devil in Iron, and Queen of the Black Coast are all pretty early, Red Nails is shortly before Conan became the king of Aquilonia, etc.).  In doing so, it's possible to see that Conan develops a gradual increase in savvy when dealing with civilized peoples, along with some evolution in how much he's willing to trust others.  There are some slight hiccups in Conan's development along the way (which may be attributable to the chronological vagueness causing me to misinterpret the canonical order, to be fair), but for Howard to have done as good of a job with the consistency of Conan's character as he did despite jumping all around the timeline in a willy-nilly fashion was remarkable.

 

Unlike Lovecraft's works, the majority of the stories aged fairly well with respect to Values Dissonance.  There are examples of racism and helpless damsels, but there are also (admittedly fewer) examples of non-whites showing virtuous characteristics and active females as Deuteragonists, most notably Belit in Queen of the Black Coast who enthralls even Conan himself.  I won't pretend that Howard gives a completely even presentation by any stretch (good luck finding much in the way of Zingarans, Shemites, or Stygians who aren't presented as treacherous scum who can barely be trusted under any circumstances), but for people who are sensitive to those issues in century-old fictional writing, there should still be a number of palatable stories.

 

All in all, this collection is basically a must-have for any low fantasy fans.  Conan stands tall as one of the iconic names in that field, and the barbarian king more than lives up to his billing as a veritable force of nature whose gusty pursuit of treasures and triumphs leaves his mewling civilized contemporaries in the dust.

 

Rating: A+
Length: 892 pages, standard hardcover page size

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