- Stone, Irving — The Agony and the Ecstasy (439 of 763 pages)
- Morpurgo, Michael — The Mozart Question (68 pages)
- Unsworth, Barry — Stone Virgin (312 pages)
- Phillips, Caryl — The Nature of Blood (212 pages)
- Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (549 pages)
- Lockwood, Richard & Steve Potz-Rayner — A Little Book of Lies (170 pages)
- Vickers, Hugh — Great Operatic Disasters (65 pages)
- Howard, Robert E. — The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (574 pages)
- Page count
I'm going to miss the Cimmerian, with his burning blue eyes, square-cut black mane, and iron thews. Reading the original Conan stories has been great fun and a revelation. Howard's Conan was the original sword-wielding fantasy hero, before Leiber, Moorcock, Wolfe, and others threw their heroes into the ring, and I suspect as I read the adventures of Fafhrd, Severian, Elric, and others like them the spectre of Conan won't be too far afield. (Is it too much to say Conan is almost Homerian?)
The inspiration for the stories collected in this second volume seems to come less from Scandinavian and other mythologies that drive so much of the sword-and-sorcery genre and more from stories of the American Wild West. Indeed, one story, "Beyond the Black River," seemed little more than a log-cabin-frontiersman-versus-Indians story, chock-full of anachronisms in which Conan didn't quite seem to fit. The story was redeemed only by the vitality of our Cimmerian hero and by its last paragraph, one of the most striking paragraphs in Howard's stories:
'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'
(Speaking of anachronisms, in the very next story, The Black Stranger, Conan is chased out of frontiersland by our Native American stand-ins only to find himself smack-dab in the middle of a pirate story, complete with treasure chests, brass buckles, and pirate curses. If the stories weren't so well conceived — that is, an inferior storyteller might not have pulled this sort of thing off.)
One of the most enjoyable experiences reading Howard's Conan stories in chronological (as opposed to published) order was observing the development of Conan from a youthful thief and mercenary to an older King of Aquilonia. With each story, Conan's maturity and complexity deepen as his world experience grows, and this is brilliantly chronicled. This remarkable transformation is complete in the final story, the only full-length Conan novel, "The Hour of the Dragon," as we witness actions, impulses, words, and thoughts from the Aquilonian king that belie the active mind of a distinguished political thinker and military strategist, far removed from that of the Cimmerian youth, yet without diminishing the elemental vitality of the barbarian.
A quick note on the Schwarzenegger movies, with which I reacquainted myself after finishing Howard's stories: oh my, they were awful! Except for being muscle-bound, Schwarzenegger was nothing like Conan, with his panther-like movements or the iconic blue eyes and black mane. Physically, Schwarzenegger's Conan was lumbering and clumsy, and in terms of character he was way off the mark. The screenplays themselves were an exercise in pastiche, cobbling together elements from various Conan stories and other S&S adventures. (Howard's Conan rarely had a sidekick, but the movies gave him one that sure did make me think of the Grey Mouser!) I point this out to indicate that if you're inclined to dismiss Howard's Conan based on preconceived notions influenced by these movies, you would be doing a disservice. Howard's Conan is one of the most intriguing characters in fantasy literature, which I can't say about Schwarzenegger's Conan.