"The Bloody Crown of Conan" is the second collection of Robert E. Howard's classic character published by DelRey. It contains three stories, including the only Conan novel "The Hour of the Dragon", as well as the novella "The People of the Black Circle", and the shorter "A Witch Shall be Born." While I'm not sure if any of these rank highly as personal favorites, they are all entertaining, rousing, and even chilling.
Because there are only three stories, it's relatively easy to critique each story, as opposed to the first collection.
Naturally, "Hour of the Dragon" is the centerpiece of this collection: nearly 200 glorious pages of intrigue, fantasy, horror, and war. Conan, king of Aquilonia, finds himself unseated from his thrown when a group of plotters, led by Valerius, a Aquilonian duke, resurrect Xalotun, a long-dead wizard, who uses his powers to defeat Conan. Taken prisoner, Conan escapes, and sets upon a quest for a magic amulet with the power to destroy Xalotun. Through the course of this episodic novel, Conan encounters evil in various forms, especially in the dark land of Stygia, where he meets giant snakes, vampire women, and evil priests. Through this, he comes to understand the importance of his tenure as king to the people of Aquilonia, as they are subject to tyranny by the gang of usurpers. Indeed, "The Hour of the Dragon" represents an interesting level of growth in the character. Even though Howard did not write these stories with any sort of chronology, he have taken into consideration how the character would have changed throughout his life. Stories that take place early in Conan's life reveal a basic callowness. He's a thief and adventurer, essentially thumbing his nose at so-called civilization. However, by the time of "The Hour of the Dragon", a more mature Conan has emerged, one who acts in the interests of justice and altruism as much as in his own self-aggrandizement.
Don't worry, the young Conan is present in the other two pieces, particularly in the creepy "The People of the Black Circle." Here, Howard tells the story of Conan in his free-booting days. After the death of the king of Vendhya by black magic, his sister Yasmina ascends the throne. However, she soon finds herself under the power of Conan, whose bandits have been plaguing the kingdom. Initially seeking to ransom the queen, Conan instead finds himself in an uneasy alliance with Yasmina when the evil sorcerers who murdered her brother seek to kill her as well.
A slightly more mature Conan is present in "A Witch Shall Be Born". The story itself is pretty basic, as another queen, Taramis of Khauran, is replaced by her evil twin sister, Salome, a witch. The real centerpiece of this story is the crucifixion of Conan (here, the captain of Tarmis' guards) by Salome's ally Constantius. Naturally, Conan survives the grisly death (although he at one point rips out a vulture's throat with his teeth), and he raises an army of bandits, while inside, people subject to Salome's degrading rule quickly realize that their queen has been replaced. While most critics tend not to give this story too much credit, I found it fascinating that this story, much like "The Hour of the Dragon" concerns itself with the theme of good leadership and the dangers of arbitrary rulers. "A Witch Shall be Born" also sees Howard experimenting with narration, including a lengthy letter by a diplomat to Khauran describing the horrors under the rule of Salome. So I would argue the story has more value than perhaps the critics give it.
The various illustrations and plates by artist Gary Gianni are excellent and add to the pleasure of the collection. Also, the various editorial material, including essays examining Howard's creative process and business concerns as he wrote the stories, as well as various rough drafts and summaries, are interesting insights into the stories, and thus, greater enjoyment.
I eagerly await the next (last?) volume in the series. Howard was first-rate, and it's terrific that DelRey is making these stories available.