The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've now discovered that the best way to read Robert E. Howard's Conan stories is in big, undiluted doses. Do yourself a favor and avoid any of the stories completed or edited by L. Sprague de Camp. Trust me, you'll be glad you did. And don't dip your toes into Conan's world, plunge into it headfirst and stay a while. Taken as individual snacks, each Conan story has its sweet spots and its bitter bits. But taken as a meal, several Conan stories can provide a rich feast.
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian provides enough Conan to satisfy, but not so much to over-stuff yourself on the macho barbarian. The stories in this volume are presented in the order written, not in the false chronological order that de Camp was so fond of using in his collections of Howard's work (interpolated with his own writing, one must note). In this order, one can see Howard's writing evolve as the book marches on. Howard repeats himself, both in characterization and plot, a few times. But this is actually a virtue in this case, as it "thickens" the character of Conan. If the reader is limited to only a few Conan stories, he or she misses the deepening of Conan - not growth, necessarily, as he is, at his base, the same throughout. But Conan is a deeper character than you might imagine if you have limited your view of him to only a few stories.
There are a number of excellent stories in this volume, though none are without fault. "The Tower of the Elephant," for example, is a great mystical story, unfortunately marred by the unlikely (and highly unbelievable) encounter with the master thief, Taurus of Nemedia.
"Queen of the Black Coast" is as close as you'll get to romance in a Conan tale, a romance that is helped along by Belit (the Queen spoken of in the title) and her incredible hormonal drive. This story really shows Howard at his worst, as evidenced by a huge info-dump mid-story from the lips of Conan himself. I like Conan better when he's talking less, to be honest.
But "Queen" also shows Howard at the height of his prose-prowess:
Rising above the black denseness of the trees and above the waving fronds, the moon silvered the river, and their wake became a rippling scintillation of phosphorescent bubbles that widened like a shining road of bursting jewels.
It's a little purple, admittedly. But any author should be happy with such a vividly descriptive sentence. In the end, "Queen of the Black Coast" is representative of all that makes a Conan story a Conan story: mystery, sorcery, lust, and vengeance. If you can look past the racism and sexism on display, or at least suppress the urge to stop reading out of sheer disgust at the dated attitudes, there is some good, even elegant, story telling in there.
"Black Colossus" might contain the best description of why the barbarian's attitude is so . . . well, barbaric:
Conan listened unperturbed. War was his trade. Life was a continual battle, or series of battles; since his birth Death had been a constant companion. It stalked horrifically at his side; stood at his shoulder beside the gaming-tables; its bony fingers rattled the wine-cups. It loomed above him, a hooded and monstrous shadow, when he lay down to sleep. He minded its presence no more than a king minds the presence of his cup-bearer. Some day its bony grasp would close; that was all. It was enough that he lived through the present.
"Rogues in the House" was one of my favorite stories in this volume, but not because of Conan, who really only played a peripheral role in the story until its climax. This story was full of mystery and treachery, with a demonic man-beast as (the most obvious) villain and a bevy of technological tricks disguised as sorcery that lent a refreshing quirkiness to the plot. What more could you ask for in a Sword and Sorcery tale?
"The Devil in Iron" seemed to collate many of the tropes found in earlier stories and is the appropriate culmination of the volume. It's as close to a "dungeon crawl" as Conan ever gets, so if you must get your roleplaying geek "on", this is the story for you.
A rather lengthy "Miscellanea" section wraps up the book, but is kind of an anticlimax, if read straight through. I would, from time to time, toggle back to this section when I felt reader's fatigue setting in. I found that the pieces there on the Hyborian age and on the genesis of Howard's career were welcome temporary diversions that left me recharged to tackle more of the stories. The two rough maps also helped to contextualize the stories within geographical bounds.
I've missed mentioning many of the stories in this volume. This is intentional. You may or may not like the same stories I did, but I believe there's enough in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian to warrant a good, long stretch of your reading time. It might be a while before I dive into Conan like this again (there are other volumes in the same series), not because I didn't enjoy the journey. On the contrary, I liked it so much that I need to be sure to have a good block of time to chew up at my leisure, to really savor the hearty meal that Howard has cooked up!
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