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Conan the Conqueror
Reviewed by Michael Moorcock, James Cawthorn, ©

Format: Book
By:   Robert E. Howard
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   1950
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Robert Ervin Howard committed suicide in 1936, ending a prolific career as an author spanning almost half of his thirty years. A small-town boy, a native of Cross Plains, Texas, his vivid imagination seized upon the history and mythology of the wider world and transmuted them into fantasy. He wrote for the pulp magazines, a voracious market. Hundreds of titles sported their lurid covers on the news-stands of the period, while their contents strove to match them in extravagance. Howard, from the first, revealed a natural talent for the sort of writing which hooked the reader from the opening paragraph and never let go.

Dozens of muscular characters shot, hacked and slugged their way through the fearsome perils spawned by his typewriter. For the most part, they were burly, reckless and possessed of a quixotic streak where pretty girls in distress were concerned. In foreign ports, in lost cities and Himalayan strongholds, in labyrinthine vice-dens, they outfaced fiendish crimelords and their swarming henchmen. Good rousing stuff, if occasionally reminiscent of Rohmer, say, or Mundy. But in the genre now labeled Heroic Fantasy, Howard truly came into his own, welding together various elements into a form which would not achieve its maximum popularity until thirty years after his death. And towering over all of the heroes created for this genre is Conan the Cimmerian, greatest warrior of the Hyborian Age.

Unlike many pulp heroes, Conan cannot readily be detached from his background. The Hyborian Age, falling between the destruction of Atlantis and the beginnings of recorded history, is as vigorous, colourful and improbable as the Cimmerian himself. Howard, dipping into the treasure-chest of Earth's past civilizations, selected the shiniest gems and combined them in a pattern which could exist only in his imagination. The counterparts of medieval Europe, Ancient Egypt, Assyria and many more share common frontiers; assegai clashes with broadsword, tulwar with battleaxe; wizards of deepest dye summon grisly creatures of the Underworld to further the ambitions of kings; a penniless adventurer can become an emperor or a princess a sorcerer's slave. Purists have balked at Howard's use of historical names for his mythical lands and characters, but they lose none of their exoticism by the practice, any more than do Leigh Brackett's Celtic-sounding Martians and Venusians. Conan, taken from this brawling, perilous setting, would be like an engine deprived of a governor; only the Hyborian Age can contain his furious energies.

Conqueror (in its original magazine format The Hour of the Dragon) is the more successful of Howard's two published novels. The other, Almuric, is a rather loosely constructed tale of adventure on a distant planet. He was essentially a short-story writer. Conan's progress from northern barbarian to thief, mercenary, adventurer, regicide and finally king is told in this form. When Conqueror opens, he has already crushed two rebellions and is about to face a third. Three nobles and a defrocked priest of Mitra plot to reanimate Xaltotun, a long-dead sorcerer from the vanished empire of Acheron. His ancient knowledge is needed to control a fabled magical stone, the Heart of Ahriman, which is to be used in usurping not merely one throne but two: those of Conan's Aquilonia and its deadliest rival, Nemedia. They succeed in reviving Xaltotun, but fail to foresee that he may have plans of his own.

The wizard soon sets to work. A plague strikes Nemedia, wiping out King Nimed and his sons. His younger brother, Tarascus, one of the plotters, ascends the throne and declares war on Aquilonia. Led into a trap by treacherous allies, the Aquilonian army is defeated and the sorcery of Xaltotun overpowers Conan. Instead of killing him, Xaltotun imprisons him, having other things in mind for the Cimmerian. With the help of Zenobia, a girl from Tarascus's seraglio, he escapes, after slaying a giant ape and severely wounding Tarascus. He is unaware that the Nemedean king has stolen the Heart of Ahriman, hoping to curb the growing power of Xaltotun, and has dispatched a rider with orders to cast it into the sea.

Reaching the Aquilonian capital, Tarantia, Conan rescues the Countess Albiona from the headsman's axe, carving his way through nobility and soldiery alike. Given sanctuary by the priests of Asura, a sect he had protected from persecution, he learns of the power of the Heart of Ahriman and sets out to overtake Tarascus's messenger. Not without a certain relish, he reverts to the role of footloose adventurer, splattering his trail with the blood of ghouls, robber barons, giant serpents, and other Hyborian fauna. In the depths of a Stygian pyramid-necropolis, he has an amorous encounter with Princess Akivasha, a deathless vampire. He inquires of directions in the maze of corridors from an undead mummy. All of these incidents pale into triviality when Xaltotun unveils his masterplan, which is nothing less than to resurrect ancient Acheron and impose its evil magnificence upon the Cimmerian's world.

Since the upsurge of interest in Heroic Fantasy, many writers have been commissioned to add to the Conan canon. A few have caught something of the authentic feel of the Hyborian Age. But Conan and his times sprang full-grown from Robert E. Howard's embattled psyche. There can be no real substitute.

Reprinted from the (shamefully) out of print Fantasy The Best 100 Books by the kind permission of the authors. Illustrator and author James Cawthorn has been working in SF and fantasy since the early 50's. He was the original artist for New Worlds magazine, and the first artist to draw Michael Moorcock's Elric of MelnibonĂˆ. He and Michael Moorcock have collaborated on many projects, from fanzines to screenplays.

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