Growing up, I was always aware of Conan the Barbarian. I knew of the comics but it was not a title I read regularly; I saw the Robert Howard books in the bookstore, but I passed over them for the stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs; I watched the Schwarznegger movie but did not watch it twice.
Recently, I decided to read the Conan source material. Del Ray has gathered together all of Howard's Conan stories into a 3-volume set: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian; The Bloody Crown of Conan; and The Conquering Sword of Conan.
Robert Howard wrote dozens of stories of the iconic barbarian. These were originally published in pulp magazines of the 1940s, such as "Weird Tales".
The stories are presented in the order they were written, which matches neither their publication order nor the chronological order of Conan's "life". There is very little continuity to the stories. Conan wanders the world, moving from adventure to adventure. If we order them chronologically, we see Conan as first a lone thief, then a mercenary and a pirate, a warlord, and finally king of the empire he conquers.
Unlike many fantasy characters, Conan exists on our world, but lived during the fictional Hyborian Age, which took place after the destruction of Atlantis, but before most of recorded history. Many of the places to which Conan travels are places that still exist today with different names (Iranistan for Iran, Afghulistan for Afghanistan, Kambulja for Cambodia, and Vendhya for India,Pakistan & Bangladesh). Magicians, gods, demons, and giant deadly creatures were common in these lands during the Hyborian Age.
It is a world marked by wars and brutality, in which wars are common. There are civilizations, but a common theme of these stories contrasts the low morals of "civilized" aristocrats with Conan's own moral code.
Conan is a brutal killer; but he has a strong moral code. In one story, he agrees to kill the master of a beautiful enslaved woman in return for her promise of sex. After fulfilling his end of the bargain, the woman flees to avoid Conan. He finds her (and rescues her from a new threat) but does not hold her to the bargain.
Although Conan uses his violence to further agenda, he has his own code of honor and looks down on those who condone slavery or torture for pleasure.
When reading these stories, one has to deal with stereotypes and imagery that strike many of us as insensitive today. Women serve mostly as props in Howard's stories - scantily-clad spoils of battle who exist to be rescued by Conan - or as hyper sexualized amazons. The black men in these stories are often savage and superstitious; and we hear descriptions of cunning hooked-nose men in turbans. If you can accept these stories are a product of an earlier century, you can enjoy them more.
This volume concludes with some incomplete stories. It's fine to skip these but I read them for completeness.
I enjoyed my journey into the stories of Conan. The action is abundant (if often violent); and Howard provides drama within the confines of stories that typically have a short and simple plot.