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“Stories such as “The People of the Black Circle” glow with the fierce and eldritch light of his frenzied intensity.”
“I adore these books. Howard had a gritty, vibrant style–broadsword writing that cut its way to the heart, with heroes who are truly larger than life. I heartily recommend them to anyone who loves fantasy.”
–DAVID GEMMELL, author of Legend and White Wolf
From the Inside Flap
In his hugely influential and tempestuous career, Robert E. Howard created the genre that came to be known as sword and sorcery-and brought to life one of fantasy's boldest and most enduring figures: Conan the Cimmerian-reaver, slayer, barbarian, king.
This lavishly illustrated volume gathers together three of Howard's longest and most famous Conan stories-two of them printed for the first time directly from Howard's typescript-along with a collection of the author's previously unpublished and rarely seen outlines, notes, and drafts. Longtime fans and new readers alike will agree that "The Bloody Crown of Conan merits a place of honor on every fantasy lover's bookshelf.
THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE
Amid the towering crags of Vendhya, in the shadowy citadel of the Black Circle, Yasmina of the golden throne seeks vengeance against the Black Seers. Her only ally is also her most formidable enemy-Conan, the outlaw chief.
THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON
Toppled from the throne of Aquilonia by the evil machinations of an undead wizard, Conan must find the fabled jewel known as the Heart of Ahriman to reclaim his crown . . . and save his life.
A WITCH SHALL BE BORN
A malevolent witch of evil beauty. An enslaved queen. A kingdom in the iron grip of ruthless mercenaries. And Conan, who plots deadly vengeance against the human wolf who left him in the desert to die.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"A Witch Shall Be Born" written in 1934 contains among the most powerful images in all of Conan Lore as Conan is crucified in the desert and left to the pickings of the vultures. It is among the most vivid testaments to his strength and fortitude to have survived where any other man would perish.
"The Hour of the Dragon" was Howard's longest Conan tale and the only true Conan novel that REH ever wrote. Having just become King of Aquilonia, intrigue from neighboring Nemedia where the exiled Valerius had fled, results in the ressurection of one of Acheron's most powerful wizards Xaltotun, dead for some 3,000 years.
Conan is deposed from the throne and tossed into the dungeons to rot but is saved by a salve named Zenobia, who Conan would later re-pay by making her his wife and Queen. Conan then goes on a quest to find the Heart of Ahriman, the one item that can destroy the wizard. A truly epic Conan story and one where he must admit that his sword cannot win the day without help. Some make undue comparisons to Tolkien but Hour of the Dragon was written LONG before Lord of the Rings and there's no evidence that Howard was even aware of Tolkien.
The last story is another Classic, The People of the Black Circle. the plot involves a group of wizards on Mount Yimsha who kidnap the Devi Yasmina to their mountain stronghold. Conan must join up with another ruffian and rescue her. While all the characters are remarkably multifaceted, I particularly liked Khemsa, a novice wizard who is talked into rising above his station (and defying his masters) by his beautiful, scheming girlfriend.
Best of all these tales are not the edited versions you may have read in the old Ace and Berkely paperbacks, but pure, unedited Howard. Great stuff!
The People of the Black Circle: Its obvious early on that Howard was really starting to hit his stride with the character by the time he wrote this . It was, at the time, the longest Conan story he ever wrote, and contains multiple plotlines which converge. It also contains some great black humor which would be right at home in today's cinema. My favorite line is, "I think I'll have your heart, Kerim Shah!", at which point the evil wizard telekenetically rips the heart out from the victim's chest. This is basically an oriental adventure story. The geographical names are changed just enough so that the reader will immediately identify with its historical counterpart. India is Vendya, etc. Many people consider this the finest Conan story that REH ever wrote. While its not my personal favorite, its definately in the top five.
The Hour of the Dragon: The only full length Conan novel that Howard ever wrote. Yes, while its true that certain plot elements are derivative of earlier Conan stories (particarly "The Scarlet Citadel" and "Black Colossus"), this is nevertheless a remarkable achievement, and one of the best fantasy adventure novels of all time. Chronologically, its the last Conan story in the saga. Here we have a Conan that is less reckless, and more mature and responsible than his younger counterpart. After he loses his kingdom, he's driven to regain it, not for personal wealth and glory, but to bring justice back to the land on behalf of his subjects. King Conan is depicted as a wise and just ruler craves peace and prosperity, rather than war and conquest, for his kingdom. As its noted in the essay inside the book, whoever renamed this "Conan the Conqueror" missed the point entirely. Don't be fooled though. There's plenty of slaying for even the most die-hard REH fanatic. Let's just say that Conan doesn't kill anyone who doesn't have it coming to them.
A Witch Shall Be Born: Basically, the story itself is pretty forgettable. What makes this story stand out is the one scene that everyone remembers, which is Conan being crucified (this scene was depicted on film very faithfully in the first Conan movie). Was Howard, perhaps on a subconsious level, expressing his views on Christianity? Its an interesting thought. Conan, even after being crucified, is not one to "turn the other cheek". As you'll see, he remains defiant even in the face of certain defeat.
I can't wait for the third and final volume to come out, "The Conquering Sword of Conan".
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.