{Mini Reviews} Conan The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard – 5 Reviews in 1!

Late in December of last year, after I hit my goal of 90 books read, I ended up really in a mood to give short stories a chance. After a year of full-length novels ranging from 300 to 700+ pages, I was craving bite sized stories that I could finish in one sitting.

Another thing I recognized about my reading habits last year was that I was reading an awful lot of fiction published pretty recently. Most of what I read in 2017 had all been published within the last 20 years, with most of that being published within the last 10. I’ve been meaning to read more “classic” literature for a long time now just to sort of diversify my tastes a bit.

That led me to pick up this little beauty:

The Classic Fantasy Collection from Arcturus (Published July 31, 2017) is a compendium of classic pulp fantasy stories. This book is actually pretty massive – clocking in at over 900 pages! It was exactly what I was looking for at the time though, and I’ve quite enjoyed reading a short story in between larger reads.

I started with Robert E. Howard’s classic Conan the Barbarian stories – 5 of which are included in this compendium. I’ve since reviewed them all, and thought I would share my thoughts with you all here, in one place. So, without further ado, here we go!


The Phoenix on the Sword.jpg

The Phoenix on the Sword

Robert E. Howard
Original Publication Date: December 1932
Page count: 22
Goodreads: See here

Plot at a Glance:

There is a conspiracy afoot to overthrow Conan, the new king of the prosperous nation of Aquilonia. The Rebel Four, disparate leaders who each want Conan dead for their own reasons, have been brought together by Ascalante, who seeks to use them as part of his own bid for the crown of Aquilonia. Ascalante’s chiefest slave is Thoth-Amon, once a powerful sorcerer of Stygia who seeks his lost ring of power.

Reviewed: 

My first foray into Conan’s world was certainly an unexpected and pleasant surprise in a number of ways. The shortest of the Conan stories included in this collection, its lack of pages did not limit Howard from fleshing out the world and the characters present in this story. I was immediately hooked on the world and wanted to know more about it. 

This story is also unique in that despite it being Howard’s first Conan story, it actually takes place quite late in Conan’s timeline. He’s no longer a Barbarian, in fact he has become King of Aquilonia. (Howard later went back and fleshed out Conan’s past with many other stories set in this world.) Middle age doesn’t slow the former barbarian down, in fact he quickly finds himself in the midst of grave danger and machinations beyond comprehension.

The worldbuilding is definitely heavier than I think any short story probably has the right to be, but what was there was pretty awesome. I already love the world, and the way that Howard makes the reader work to piece together the lay of the land and the characters, kingdoms and ancient evils within it.

The fantastic elements of the story were top notch. A combo one/two punch of sword and shield warfare mixed with cosmic horror, there’s plenty to love and find interest in here. I was invested enough by the end that I wanted to know what happens next, as well as what happened before. Considering the vast wealth of Conan material out there, clearly there’s a lot to catch up on!

🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 4/5 stars! 


The Scarlet Citadel

The Scarlet Citadel

Robert E. Howard
Original Publication Date: January 1933
Page count: 36
Goodreads: See here

Plot at a Glance:

King Conan of Aquilonia’s army has been routed, he is taken prisoner. Even though he’s been beaten nearly to death, chained to a wall, and locked away deep within Tsotha’s fortress, Conan is by no means out of commission.

While the foes and betrayers who stripped him of his crown celebrate their acquisition of Aquilonia, Conan plans his escape. However, an additional, seemingly insignificant foe from Conan’s past stalks Tsotha’s horrific dungeons waiting for a chance to kill the legendary barbarian turned King.

Reviewed: 

This was another exciting jaunt into King Conan’s world. Conquering the kingdom of Aquilonia brings no rest to Conan as betrayal, treachery and warfare abounds in this second short story originally penned by Howard in 1933.

One thing I’m thoroughly enjoying about these classic pulp fantasy fiction stories is the way they defy expectations. Classic literature often invokes a sort of stodgy, repressed, and antiquated feeling. The prose is undeniably different, and plot movement often didn’t look the way it does now, with its constant movement and focus on action that we see in so many works of fiction today. In the two Conan stories I’ve read thus far, Howard has defied that expectation entirely.

The plotting is tight, and this story is chock full of action, magic and intrigue. Howard does not shy away from death and the gruesome, dangerous nature of the world he’s created here. It’s actually great fun getting lost in Conan’s adventures – there’s never a dull moment!

One unexpected surprise is the amount of cosmic horror elements that Howard works into Conan’s world. This author is like HP Lovecraft’s long lost, fantasy-writing twin. The magic in Conan’s world is seriously dark. The bad guys are nefarious and dangerous at all times. The world building remains top notch, although it’s definitely a world I would never want to step foot in given the sheer brutality of it.

There were a few pages of painfully dated and culturally insensitive material that did turn me off a tiny bit – but once the story advanced past that bit it picked up speed again in quick measure.

🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 4/5 stars! 


Rogues in the House

Rogues in the House

Robert E. Howard
Original Publication Date: January 1934
Page count: 24
Goodreads: See here

Plot at a Glance:

Conan is sitting in prison after killing a priest (he had it coming) when he is approached by a nobleman named Murillo, who has a proposition for him: kill the Red Priest Nabonidus for him, and he will provide Conan a horse, a sack of gold, and a one way ticket out of town and away from the gallows.

Reviewed: 

The plotting in this story was certainly a bit less complex than the first two stories I read. Whereas the first two stories involved political machinations, this one was a fairly straightforward escape-from-danger story. Howard asks his reader to venture back into Conan’s timeline, as he’s still only a Barbarian and not actually a King quite yet.

This story is somewhat unique from the rest in that it was told through the perspective of a nobleman that comes into contact with Conan while both are fighting to escape with their lives from the Red Priest’s dungeon stronghold.

Howard sets aside the deeper lore that fills much of other stories he’s penned in this universe to tell an action-packed story of survival and human evils in place of the greater cosmic horrors that are rife in other adventures. I’ve got to appreciate the bad guys and monsters that Howard writes in these stories. They’ve all been equally brutal, dangerous and threatening.

Again, I really appreciate the beauty of much of the prose here. It’s an unexpected bonus of the writing itself that I find myself unable to stop turning the pages. It’s never stuffy or boring, but rather seeks to entertain from page one until the action-packed conclusion.

🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 4/5 stars! 


The Tower of the Elephant

The Tower of the Elephant

Robert E. Howard
Original Publication Date: March 1933
Page count: 24
Goodreads: See here

Plot at a Glance:

A very young Conan hears of a mysterious tower and goes to steal from it. He meets up with Taurus of Nemedia, one of the undisputed masters of thievery, and together they tackle the tower and brave its various hazards.

Now that I’ve got a few Conan stories under my belt, I’m definitely pinning down a formula a definite formula to Howard’s writing. Still, this story was thus far unmatched in terms of sheer entertainment value and the history it added to the world.

If I had known years ago that Howard’s Conan works were so steeped in this level of  lore and grand world-building mixed with dark horror elements, I probably would have started reading these stories long ago.

Set in the early days of Conan’s overall story, our favorite barbarian hears about a mysterious gemstone called the Heart of the Elephant, locked away in a tower by a dangerous sorcerer and makes it his mission to retrieve it. The inclusion of eldritch horrors and cosmic horror as a theme continues to be the unexpected surprise of Howard’s work so far. I’d not expected these stories to be as dark and chilling as they often end up being. 

While the formula of his short stories is becoming familiar, I still think Howard’s prose and descriptive skills are unparalleled, and this story was pure entertainment from start to finish.

🌟🌟🌟🌟 🌟 = 5/5 stars! 


Queen of the Black Coast

Queen of the Black Coast

Robert E. Howard
Original Publication Date: 1933
Page count: 24
Goodreads: See here

Plot at a Glance:

Conan turns his back on the civilized world and takes to the Western Ocean. Finding first danger and then passion in the arms of the pirate queen Bêlit, the Cimmerian begins a new life of pleasure and pillage along the Black Coast, in this epic of romance and terror.

Not my favorite of the Conan the Barbarian short stories I’ve now read, but excursions into the world that Robert E. Howard has created are always at the very least entertaining. Again, the world building and character creation is unparalleled, and wholly unexpected from a classic author of what is now considered pulp fantasy fiction.

In this story, Howard starts his readers off on a sea-faring expedition with Conan that spans both sea and land. Again, Howard’s trademark ability to weave cosmic horror remains for me the most unexpected and pleasant surprise – aside from his deliciously descriptive prose. With a stunning command of the written word, Howard is unrivaled at creating scenes that are at once brutal, stunning and unexpectedly frightening. 

I take two issues with this story. One being that the enemy creature showcased in this story, while enigmatic and appropriately scary, is never really given a true place in the world. We know it’s borne and bred from a dead civilization, but where that civilization sat in the world remains a mystery until the bitter end. I suppose it must be the point of the story, but I felt that the loop remained unclosed in a way that was dissatisfying.

Secondly, I know that this was written in a different time (1934 to be exact) but the racism and sexism present in this story rubbed me the wrong way. I especially take issue with the one other white character (and only woman in the story) throwing herself at Conan as she was infinitely better positioned than he for the upper hand in that moment, and I think a more interesting dynamic could have emerged between the two of them than simple love interests.

While our social standards (and the standards for what we expect in published works today) have certainly evolved to better places, I still think Howard’s stories remain entertaining enough in their own way. He was a master of the written word for his time, and I definitely wouldn’t pass up another opportunity to traverse the dangerous shores and jungles of Conan’s world.

🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 4/5 stars! 

There we have it! 5 reviews for the price of 1. I can’t say enough good things about these stories. They were a wonderful and pleasant surprise that really pulled me out of a reading slump I was dealing with at the end of last year. I’m going to continue slowly reading other stories out of this collection over the course of this year, and will continue to share reviews here as I complete them.


Have you ever read any of the Conan stories? Any other classic or pulp fiction that was an unexpected and pleasant surprise for you?

xoxo

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2 thoughts on “{Mini Reviews} Conan The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard – 5 Reviews in 1!

Add yours

  1. Question. With these older fantasy books, do you find yourself bumping into moments where you become uncomfortable due to different societal conceptions at the time? Does it end up making the reading experience bumpier or do you just ignore it because different era different perceptions?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question! I definitely cringe when I read things in classic literature that no longer jive with our society today. That being said, I tend to just reduce a star and move on, focus on the story. I think one must be mindful of the way that society has changed for the better. Revisiting stories written with outdated modalities of belief is sometimes a good way of reminding us that things are getting better.

      Liked by 1 person

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