Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. Howard
Published by Gollancz, December 2011
ISBN: 97 978-0575115040
Review by Mark Yon
And so we get to the last of the original tales of Conan, in the third volume of this re-released series, publishing the original Conan tales in chronological order. The first of the three volumes, Conan the Destroyer, was reviewed HERE, and the second, Conan the Berserker, HERE. Here in Volume Three Conan is at his grimmest, the sombre King of Aquilonia, fighting for survival and brooding over his past and his losses.
Of the twenty five original tales we have here the remaining five, as shown in the list below in black. (Titles in red are those in Volume One, those in green here in Volume Two):
1. The Phoenix on the Sword (Dec 1932)
2. The Scarlet Citadel (Jan 1933)
3. The Tower of the Elephant (Mar 1933)
4. Black Colossus (Jun 1933)
5. The Slithering Shadow (Sep 1933)
6. The Pool of the Black One (Oct 1933)
7. Rogues in the House (Jan 1934)
8. Shadows in the Moonlight (Apr 1934)
9. Queen of the Black Coast (May 1934)
10. The Devil in Iron (Aug 1934)
11. The People of the Black Circle (Sep/Oct/Nov 1934)
12. A Witch Shall be Born (Dec 1934)
13. Jewels of Gwahlur (Mar 1935)
14. Beyond the Black River (May/Jun 1935)
15. Shadows in Zamboula (Nov 1935)
16. The Hour of the Dragon (Dec 35/Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr 1936)
17. Red Nails (Jul/Aug/Sep 1936)
although Howard completed four Conan stories, not published in his lifetime:
18. The Frost Giant’s Daughter, originally a Conan story, but after being rejected, Howard revised it, retitled as “The Gods of the North”, the main character’s name changed to “Amra of Akbitana”.
19. The God in the Bowl
20. The Vale of Lost Women
21. The Black Stranger, rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp as “The Treasure of Tranicos”; Howard’s version published in 1987 in Echoes of Valor.
and there are also four other Conan stories were begun by Howard but unfinished that are included in this series:
22. The Snout in the Dark, fragment
23. Drums of Tombalku, fragment
24. The Hall of the Dead, synopsis only
25. The Hand of Nergal, fragment
We begin this volume with The Black Stranger. This is Howard’s original version, rather than the rewritten de Camp version. Strangely, the tale was unpublished in Howard’s lifetime and was not published until the 1950’s. It is a rip-roaring pirate tale, with Conan allied with a new character named Count Valenso Korzetta, battling against pirates (Black Zarona), the Picts and involved in retrieving the accidentally discovered Treasure of Tranicos.
The second tale, Wolves Beyond the Border is a non-Conan story fragment set in Conan’s world. Conan is mentioned but is not a significant part of the tale. Whilst Conan conquers Aquilonia, this tale tells of Gault fighting Picts alongside the Aquilonian noble Lord Valerian. Together they fight Picts and a wizard becoming heroes in the process.
The Phoenix on the Sword was Howard’s first published Conan tale, so it is a little odd reading it in the last volume, as too The Scarlet Citadel, Howard’s second published story. However it makes chronological sense in that Conan is now King of Aquilonia and having to fight political battles more than physical ones.
In The Phoenix on the Sword, nobles, known as The Rebel Four, wish to dethrone Conan and so set upon him an assassin, Ascalante. The assassin uses a slave magician, Thoth-Amon, in his work, though initially he is without his powers. However once regaining his powers, Thoth sets out to kill his master and unleashes an ape-like demon to do so. When Conan in the meantime is set upon by Ascalante, the demon unwittingly saves Conan whilst trying to kill Ascalante.
In The Scarlet Citadel, King Conan of Aquilonia goes to the aid of neighbouring King Amalrus of Ophir, who is being attacked by Stradabonus, the king of Koth. However things are not as they seem and Conan finds himself betrayed and fighting against formidable, overwhelming odds. Conan is imprisoned and put in a Korshemish dungeon. He escapes but finds himself having to do battle with evil wizard Tsotha-lanti in order to do so.
The Hour of the Dragon is Howard’s last Conan story. It is novel length and very similar in plot to The Scarlet Citadel in that again there is an attempt to depose King Conan by a group of conspirators in Nemedia. The schemers this time resurrect Xaltotun, an ancient sorcerer, to do so by using the Heart of Ahriman. With Xaltotun’s aid, Conan’s Aquilonian army is defeated by that of the rival kingdom of Nemedia and Aquilonia is occupied. Conan, again captured, is due to be executed until the sympathetic slave girl Zenobia risks her life to free him. Conan discovers that Xaltotun can only be defeated by the Heart of Ahriman, and so he sets off on a quest throughout Hyboria in order to gain the object, defeat the wizard and regain his throne. After his eventual triumph, Conan finishes the tale by vowing to make Zenobia his queen.
Though many of the plot lines have been echoed in other Conan tales, it is a suitable finish to the stories of Conan. There are battles, evil sorcery, mummies, plague and even loyalty and romance.
The book also includes the verse Cimmeria (never a fan of Howard’s poetry, myself!) and lastly a short essay on the races of Conan’s world, entitled Notes on the Peoples of the Hyborian Age.
If you’ve made it this far by reading the previous two volumes, you’ll want to read what happens here. Be warned, there’s no neat tying up of tales at the end, though The Hour of the Dragon does encapsulate the Conan tales nicely. It is a sad thing to realise at the end that if Howard had lived longer and written more, the potential of other Conan tales would have ensured Howard’s reputation. Even sadder, it is clear, when these stories are read in written order, that Howard as a writer was still improving when he died.
Like the two previous books, it holds up to the rest of the collection admirably and could quite happily be read without reading the previous collections (Conan the Destroyer and the Berserker). However, I suspect that if you like the mood of this one, you’ll want to read the others.
Mark Yon, December 2011