Tuesday, 16 August 2011

‘Conan the Barbarian’ (Robert E. Howard) – Extra Short Stories from the Gollancz Edition...

I reviewed the Del Rey edition of the latest ‘Conan’ collection (nicely timed to coincide with the release of the film) back at the beginning of this month; noting that not only were Gollancz releasing their own edition but that this edition came with bits and pieces that you wouldn’t find in the Del Rey version. In the interests of rounding things out, I was going to dig out my old ‘Fantasy Masterworks’ editions and fill in the gaps. Well, I was until Saturday saw a fresh new copy of the Gollancz ‘Conan the Barbarian’ land on the doormat. What a weekend that was, not only did I read Howard’s ‘Pigeons from Hell’ (more on that later this week) but got to read a bit more ‘Conan’ as well...

If you pick up the Gollancz edition, you’ll basically be getting everything that you would have got in the Del Rey edition (review over Here) but you’ll also be getting the stories ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’, ‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ and ‘Beyond The Black River’ as well as the essay ‘The Hyborian Age’ and the poem ‘Cimmeria’. No offence to the Del Rey Edition but I think I know which one I’d pick up. Makes me wonder why those stories were missing actually. It looks like the same set of people chose the content for each book...


‘The Hyborian Age’ and ‘Cimmeria’ are placed at the back of the book which is possibly the best place for the essay detailing the background of Conan’s world thousands of years before he was born. I’m not denying that there is a lot to be said for Howard’s world building here (he really goes for it and there is a lot of information to be found) but he adopts what I found to be a very dry and scholarly tone which flows along at a snails pace that I found chafing. This essay is placed at the front of the Fantasy Masterworks edition (where I read it last) and feels like a real obstacle that you have to cross before you can get to the good stuff. Placed at the back of the book, the essay better fulfils its role as a ‘bonus extra’; something that you can read if you want and in your own time. I still had issues with the pacing but I wasn’t champing at the bit wanting to get onto Conan proper.

If you ever wanted any more insight into just why Conan is the man he is then the poem ‘Cimmeria’ will give you just that. Read it and see how a grey and merciless land has given Conan his ‘kill or be killed’ mindset and the ability to stand strong against all odds. Very atmospheric stuff,

‘The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The gray clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound;
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.’

Onto the stories themselves and the three extra tales that you get are again from various points in Conan’s career. Of the three, I think ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ is my favourite as it’s a tale that gets straight to the point in a flurry of blood and steel. Conan can pretty much withstand most things but is as susceptible as the rest of us when otherworldly stuff is concerned and there is a lot of that here. No matter how magical it is though, if it bleeds then Conan will kill it. Is the outcome in doubt? Of course it isn’t but the energy and urgency in Howard’s fight sequences drive you past that particular misgiving before you even realise it. ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ is a heady rush that leaves you feeling the fear and apprehension of Niord’s warband as they realise that there is more the world than they knew...

‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ and ‘Beyond the Black River’ are much longer affairs where Howard gets a chance to show us what he can do as far as plot is concerned. ‘A Witch Shall be Born’ wins out here with Conan facing tough questions and showing us that he can think fast on his feet with some crafty solutions. What’s interesting to note here is that it’s not all just about Conan, the plot focuses on others who are trying to force things forwards for good or evil ends. This wider approach really opens things up with characters who come across as just as detailed as Conan himself.

‘Beyond the Black River’ takes a similar approach with the character of Balthus showing that there is room for more than one hero in Conan’s world. The story itself though is a lot more linear in terms of plot with a race against time meaning that Conan cannot divert from the path that he is on. I liked Howard’s translation of American frontier life into a Hyborian setting though, it made things feel a little more real somehow. You could argue that things are a little too polarised with the 'noble' frontiersmen facing off against the 'wicked' Pictish tribes. Maybe there's something to that but what I'd say is that I think this is what makes Conan stories work so well; the constant 'Conan versus Evil' theme never allows the plot to stand still and the reader can't stay sat still either. Things move very fast, the stakes are always high and action has to be taken right away. I tihnk this is just what Howard was after in his stories (considering the market he was writing for) and I'd say he hits the target more often than not.

It goes without saying that all three of the stories offer Conan the chance to showcase just what he's capable of, when his blood is up, and the end result is never anything short of spectacular. I've said all this in the previous review but the fact remains that Howard knew how to write fight and action scenes that got the blood pumping and kept your interest with ease.

Either of these two editions will do a fine job of entertaining you but if you want a little more for your money (and some background reading at the same time) then the Gollancz edition is obviously where it's at. It's one hell of a blast and highly recommended by me.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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