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The Complete Chronicles of Conan: Centenary Edition

by Robert E Howard

(Gollancz, £18.99, 925 pages, hardback, published 19 January 2006; ISBN: 0575077662.)

Review by Jason Prince

cover scanTo coincide with the 100th anniversary of Robert E Howard's birth, in 2006 all the Conan stories were brought out in one hardback volume for the first time.

If you think you know all about Conan you are wrong. The popular image of him paints him as nothing more than a brawny barbarian sporting a leather loin-cloth with a big sword that does the thinking for him.

The Conan that Robert E Howard actually wrote is a far more complex creature. He begins as a mercenary, travelling across the Hyborian kingdoms until at last he seizes the crown of Aquiliana for himself. In that time, he matures from a man who is out only for himself, to a warrior who uses his strength to protect the weak, to a king who puts the interests of his people above himself. He asked no favours of the gods, preferring to rely on his own instincts and vitality to bring him success. Time and again Howard contrasts his love of life with the scheming and betrayals of his civilised opponents. Not a simple character at all.

So how well do the stories bear up for the modern audience? Very well. There is no doubt they are a product of their times, which is unfortunately clear in their reactionary views on race, however they manage to transcend this and remain accessible for readers today. At heart they are adventure stories, with a mixture of magic, history and even Nietzschean philosophy thrown into the mix.

The stories are set out in order of publication, so our introduction to Conan is towards the end of his career as a king, and we then discover more of his background as mercenary, pirate and warrior. The volume also contains an essay by Howard on the Hyborian Age and its history and a retrospective on Howard at the end by Stephen Jones.

There are some real classics here -- my particular favourites were Hour of the Dragon, Red Nails, Beyond the Black River, and The Black Stranger. The Hyborian world that Conan inhabits has a real sense of place and history to it, and provides a convincing background to the tales that depict a world similar to, but not quite the same as, our own. Fans of HP Lovecraft may also detect some allusions to the Cthulhu Mythos, not an accident as Howard was part of the Lovecraft Circle himself, and the same sense of antiquity and man's smallness in the universe pervades the Conan Chronicles.

Conan has become something of a cottage industry, with comic books, cartoons, and of course the two films with Arnold Schwarzenegger all trying to bring Howard's character to live. None I think did it quite as well as the books themselves. For fantasy readers who want something a bit different from the usual, and for anyone wanting to know more about one of the most iconic characters in popular culture, this book is a must.

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