Science Fiction Book Review


The Complete Chronicles of Conan

(2006 (Centenary Edition)) Robert E Howard, Gollancz, 18.99, hrdbk, 925pp, ISBN 0-575-07766-2
(trdpbk format 0-575-07780-8)

 

I first encountered Conan in late-1970/early-1971 in the form of the Marvel comic Conan the Barbarian, largely because of the beautiful Barry Windsor Smith art (in 20 of the first 22 issues, and the lovely 'treasury edition' of the adaptation of "Red Nails") though, over time, I also learned to appreciate Roy Thomas' scripts - at least for the first 70 or so issues, but that's another story: see various reviews of the current Dark Horse trade paperbacks on this site, but I digress... I only started reading the Howard Conan stories from about 1974 onwards in the Sphere editions, edited and, in some cases, completed by L Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg. I had read other work of Howard's before then, largely in anthologies celebrating Weird Tales, but at that time I was more into HP Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith and the art of Virgil Finlay, to name but a few. Be that as it may, from the mid-seventies onwards I was hooked on Howard and on Conan, King Kull, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, you name it. My collection started to swell with more Sphere paperbacks, but also Ace, Zebra, Panther, Berkley Medallion, Bantam, Baen and Orbit editions, some very nicely illustrated. And the covers were always brilliant too, including the work of the wonderful Frank Frazetta, Chris Achilleos, Boris Vallejo, Jeff Jones, Mike Kaluta and others. And I started to read the likes of de Camp and Carter, John Jakes, Karl Edward Wagner, Fritz Leiber's 'Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser' books (and thence to all the rest of his work), and then Moorcock, and on and on... I go on at such length just so that you can understand that, for me, Conan was a great big rock chucked into a great big pool, and the ripples echo right up to the current day.

Now I understood, even back in the seventies, that those Sphere books I was reading contained stories which were fragments completed by the editors, but that was alright with me - being a Lovecraft fan I was familiar with the practise from an early age, with the great August Derleth (among others) completing HPL's stories - but, for some strange reason, I never had the Howard 'unfinished' works until Gollancz released, in 2000 and 2001 respectively, volumes 8 and 16 of their Fantasy Masterworks series, volumes one and two of The Conan Chronicles ('The People of the Black Circle' and 'The Hour of the Dragon'). And now good ol' Gollancz have gone one better, bringing out this massive 'Centenary' edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan, a massive work to be sure, but still somewhat smaller than the average Stephen King novel... (the centenary in question, just in case you were curious, is that of Howard's birth in 1906, and not of Conan who wasn't 'born' until 1932 - Howard died from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound in 1936). The Conan legacy ran throughout the last decades of the twentieth century, with a plethora of authors penning new tales, including Robert Jordan, Andrew Offutt and Poul Anderson, to name but a few, and Marvel's comic spawned a companion magazine The Savage Sword of Conan, and there were two disappointing movies, of course, starring Arnold (Govenor!) Schwarzenegger. Now in the 21st century there's a new comics title (featuring the work of Kurt Busiek, among others) and the Gollancz Chronicles. In other words, you just cannot over-estimate the importance of Robert E Howard and his creation Conan to the field of heroic fantasy.

Still, for those who don't know, either because they're too young or have been living under a rock all their lives, Conan is a barbarian in a mythic 'Hyborian' age that lies between the sinking of Atlantis (King Kull's time) and the modern era. His tales span his lifetime from his mid-teens in his native Cimmeria, through all his travels in the Hyborian world, to the acquisition of the throne of Aquilonia (the major power of that world) and beyond... The stories are very much of the Sword and Sorcery school (the term is usually credited to Fritz Leiber whose Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories didn't start appearing until 1939) and features all the trappings that modern fantasy readers have become accustomed to. Which is rather the point: were it not for Howard and Conan (and then Leiber and Moorcock and on and on), modern heroic fantasy as such probably wouldn't exist. So, if you like your fantasy swashbuckling and your sorcerors Evil, or you've just always known that there was more to Conan than Arnie's rippling biceps, then you couldn't do better than to acquire this lovely volume of complete, unadulterated Howard Conan adventures. The book also contains 3 pages of notes on the peoples of the Hyborian Age, and a detailed 27 page essay by Stephen Jones on Conan and Howard (originally spread over the two earlier Fantasy Masterworks volumes).

Tony Chester


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